How Will DC Mayor Gray Answer the Call for More Affordable Housing?

January 31, 2013

Back when I first started working on the kinds of issues I blog about, I asked a local advocate what she meant by affordable housing. After all, I said, even the costliest housing is affordable for someone.

I recalled the exchange as I listened to speakers at the Housing for All rally organized by the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development — the lead advocacy organization for affordable housing in the District of Columbia.

For CNHED, affordable housing means that all residents have “decent, quality housing at a price they can afford,” i.e., rent or mortgage payments that consume no more than 30% of their income.

I don’t suppose I need to say that we’ve got a long way to go.

About one in five of all District households — and nearly two-thirds of low-income renters — spent more than half their income on housing in 2010.

And last January’s one-night survey identified nearly 7,000 homeless people here — a significant undercount, as I’ve often said.

Everyone who spoke at the rally acknowledged the problems — some more forthrightly than others. And everyone seemed to agree that the District had to put some money into solving them.

I detected differences, however, between the advocates and the Mayor and other District officials who spoke — except perhaps Councilmember Muriel Bowser, who used to occasion to take a couple of pokes at the Mayor.

For CNHED — and the vast majority of us in the audience — the District has to ramp up investments in its main affordable housing programs.

For the Mayor, well, we’re really not sure. He alluded several times to the District’s improved fiscal situation — as well he might, given the very large amount it’s got in reserves.

“Now that we’re back at the point of fiscal stability,” he said, we’ll be able to act on the recommendations of his Comprehensive Housing Strategy Task Force.

No hint of what those will be. We should all turn out for his State of the District address on February 5, he said.

We can get a glimmer of his leanings, however, in some of the remarks delivered by Human Services Director David Berns.

“We need more people who can afford housing,” he said. This suggests to me that the big push won’t be on the housing side — more vouchers, more construction and preservation of rental units that truly low-income people*can afford, etc.

It will instead be on training, other services and perhaps education so that low-income — and no-income — people can earn enough to pay market-rate rents.

Hence my flashback to the question about what affordable housing means.

How the Task Force report itself will balance affordable housing investments and the investments that Berns implied will limit the need for them remains to be seen.

Likewise, what the Mayor will do with the recommendations — most immediately, in the proposed budget he’ll send to the DC Council in March.

And maybe other proposals if revenue projections for the current fiscal year indicate another hefty surplus.

I hope he’ll recognize that no amount of training — even if effectively shaped by a workforce intermediary — will enable the 67,000 or so households on the housing assistance waiting list to just go out into our local housing market and rent a place they can afford.

At this point, a worker would have to earn more than three times the local minimum wage to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment. Even a worker earning the District’s living wage makes only about half the amount needed to afford it.

And, as the Mayor himself acknowledged, we’ve got residents who can’t be expected to work — seniors, whom he referred to, and people with severe disabilities.

On the other hand, I’m quite certain that adults who can work would prefer to be fully self-sufficient — free of the rules and monitoring that are the price of receiving public assistance.

And thousands will soon be freer of these things, whether they can afford housing or not, because they’ll be dropped from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program if they’ve participated for a lifetime total of 60 months.

So training and other services to maximize their job prospects are obviously needed. Likewise investments that will enable poor residents who are working to qualify for jobs that pay a real living wage, as distinct from what the District defines as such.

But we’ll still be a city with affordable housing for only some if the Mayor and the Council decide to rely mainly on reducing demand when what’s also needed is a robust recommitment to increasing supply.

* In the affordable housing world, there are several tiers of “low-income” households — all based on percents of the median income for the geographic area, as the federal government defines it.

In the District, housing units designated as affordable include those that are affordable only for households with incomes at 80% of the AMI. That’s $78,221 — four times the federal poverty level — for a family of three.


Next Round in DC’s Affordable Housing Battle

October 29, 2012

An enlightening — and at times, disturbing — hearing last Friday on the long-term survival of the Local Rent Supplement Program, the District of Columbia’s locally-funded housing voucher program.

LRSP has been a key part of the District’s housing strategy since 2007. Over time, it’s enabled about 1,900 D.C. households to have a roof over their heads and enough money left over after rent to pay for other basic needs.

So why, at this point, a hearing on whether and how it should survive?

Because Mayor Gray apparently thinks the District shouldn’t have its own voucher program, notwithstanding the chronic underfunding of the federal equivalent — now known as the Housing Choice Vouchers program.

At the very least, he objects to the tenant-based vouchers, i.e., those that help households pay market-rate rents.

For two years now, his budgets have proposed letting these vouchers expire when the current beneficiaries no longer need (or qualify) for them, rather than passing them on to households on the inordinately long housing assistance waiting list.

The DC Council has twice rejected this plan, though it’s agreed (reluctantly) to fund currently-issued vouchers with funds taken out of the Housing Production Trust Fund.

A sort of robbing Peter to pay Paul, since the Trust Fund is the main source of local funding to shore up the District’s shrinking stock of affordable housing — especially housing that low-income residents can afford.

Hence concerns about the sustainability of LRSP.

But the immediate occasion for the hearing was an emergency bill sponsored by Councilmember Michael Brown, who chairs the committee that oversees the program.

The “emergency” is that the DC Housing Authority, under instructions from the Mayor’s budget office, is holding onto 17 fully-funded vouchers that have returned to the agency since January 2012.

That may not seem like a large number, though every one of those vouchers would give a homeless D.C. family a safe, stable place to live.

The real issue is that the policy the Mayor has imposed, Council votes notwithstanding, seems to reflect his determination to let the tenant-based part of LRSP die — except perhaps if vouchers went only to very low-income seniors and people with severe disabilities.

This was patently evident in the testimony delivered by Arianna Quinones from the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Health and Human Services and, even more, in the explanatory remarks of the administration’s lead witness, Chief of Staff and Budget Director Eric Goulet.

LRSP is “well-intended, but outdated,” Quinones said. The Mayor looks to his Comprehensive Housing Strategy Task Force to come up with a “more contemporary version,” said Goulet.

The Mayor’s priorities, per Goulet, are more affordable housing production and “self-sufficiency,” i.e., initiatives that connect people to available jobs in the District and to training and education programs that will qualify them for these jobs.

No one testifying had any problems with these goals. But no one testifying, except the administration’s witnesses, thought they’d substitute for the tenant-based vouchers.

Three big reasons.

First, the District has an affordable housing shortage far greater than new development can meet within the lifetime of the some 67,000 households on the waiting list — let alone those who never bothered to apply.

Second, the notion that most very low-income residents just need some training to get jobs that pay enough to make market-rate rents affordable is pie in the sky — uncomfortably like what we’re hearing from the Romney-Ryan team.

Consider that the standard for affordability is 30% of income. That would make a modest two-bedroom apartment in the District affordable for a household with earnings totaling at least $60,240 a year.

This is only a few thousand less than last year’s median income for all District households and about a third more than the median for those the Census Bureau counted as black.

It’s the main reason that nearly two-thirds of the District’s low-income households pay more than half their income for housing — that and the fact they can’t get housing vouchers.

The majority of these households have at least one working member now. What program, pray tell, will boost their income so much as to make vouchers unnecessary?

Lastly, a point made by several hearing witnesses — and most tellingly by LaJuann Brooks, a formerly homeless mother and now a gainfully-employed LRSP voucher holder.

“It’s nearly impossible to succeed … without safe, stable, affordable housing,” she said, crediting the voucher for her “segue out of poverty” and back into steady, full-time employment.

As her story shows, even a job paying well over the minimum wage doesn’t necessarily mean a parent can provide a reasonably decent standard of living for her family without any housing assistance — not, at least,  in a high-cost city like D.C.

I find it hard to believe Mayor Gray doesn’t understand any of this. More likely, as I’ve remarked before, it’s just not something he cares about enough to rethink priorities.


DC Winter Plan Meeting Exposes Affordable Housing Problems

August 21, 2012

I thought a second public meeting to discuss the District’s Winter Plan would be a calm, even dull affair.

Not so. David Berns, Director of the Department of Human Services, got an earful of anger and anguish. More of the same at the meeting of the Interagency Council on Homelessness that followed.

Nothing much he could do — even if DHS had a reasonably ample budget for homeless services.

Because the frustration, outrage, tears even had nothing to do with shelter or related services the agency funds.

Nor with the short-shot homelessness prevention and temporary housing solutions the department still claims will significantly reduce pressures on DC General — the main shelter for homeless families.

They were mostly about the egregious shortage of affordable housing and/or long-term housing assistance here — and a perceived lack of concern on the part of the Gray administration and administrations that preceded it.

Delores, for example, told us that she’s 63 years old, disabled and receiving about $11,000 a year in Social Security benefits.

She’s visited one apartment complex after another and been told she’d need to prove an income of at least $19,000. “All these lists,” she said, waving them, “and nothin’.”

Several other participants remarked on all the multi-family housing construction they were seeing. Why didn’t the District require developers to make some portion of the units affordable for low-income people?

And why didn’t the District rehabilitate some vacant buildings as housing for homeless people instead of putting them into shelters?

“We’re just kicking the bucket down the road,” one homeless advocate said. And that’s surely true.

As I earlier remarked, the prevention and temporary housing solutions DHS plans to rely on won’t help families who can’t pay market-rate rents at the end of a year.

The casework improvements DHS promises are, as Berns admits, a longer-term solution. And I seriously doubt they’ll lead to jobs that pay enough to make housing affordable for more than a fraction of homeless adults.

A modest one-bedroom apartment, for example, would be affordable only for those earning more than three times the local minimum wage.

And what about people like Delores who can’t work and have only Social Security benefits, based on years of low-wage work, to cover all their daily living expenses?

Or the many hundreds of homeless individual men and women who’ll be out on the streets in April unless a future revenue forecast comes in at least $7 million more than the last — or Mayor Gray decides to make up for the shortfall?

Say the money materializes. That will only mean shelter on a night-to-night, first-come-first-served basis for men and women who want — and need — a secure, stable, reasonably decent place to live.

DHS does have some permanent supportive housing units now — enough for nearly 1,130 people, including children. I infer it’s planning to open more, though not until some time after October 2014.

But there will never be enough of these units to move everyone out of the shelters. And there won’t be vacancies unless people who’ve resolved the problems the supportive services are supposed to address can find another affordable place to live.

DHS may advocate behind closed doors, but there’s really nothing else it can do about this.

Our local government has allowed the stock of housing that’s affordable for low-income people to dwindle — arguably even facilitated its replacement with those high-end developments that meeting participants understandably resent.

It’s kept funding for the Local Rent Supplement Program — the District’s solution to the long-standing shortage of federal housing vouchers — below the level that would be needed to provide more residents with this sort of housing assistance.

True, the DC Council put funding for 250 or so new LRSP vouchers into the Fiscal Year 2013 budget. But they’ll all go to homeless families DHS is already housing, plus some who are — or will soon be — at DC General.

Good for them, but no help for the families that will fill in behind them. Or those who won’t because the doors will be closed to newly-homeless families when the winter season ends.

Delores went to the ICH meeting hoping someone would help her. She ultimately stormed out, shouting, “This is asinine.”

And, in a way, it was.

Because the District has failed to come to grips with the reasons there are so many homeless people here — and an ever-increasing number of homeless parents with children.

But both she and many other community members there wanted the ICH to deliver what only the Mayor and Council can.

As we were repeatedly reminded, the Winter Plan is supposed to help ensure that the District meets an important, but narrow legal obligation, i.e., to protect people from literally freezing to death.

Presumably the District will. What it won’t do, barring some radical priority changes, is meet the basic human need for a home.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 141 other followers