New Insights Into Housing (In)security for DC’s Lowest-Income Residents

July 24, 2014

Nobody who lives in the District of Columbia — or follows housing issues — needs to be told that rents are too damn high here. Nor that they consume an inordinate portion of low-income residents’ budgets.

A just-released study by the Urban Institute is nonetheless newsworthy because it provides many and diverse figures on our affordable housing situation, along with details on our homeless population and its needs — met and unmet.

The full study covers not only the District, but other jurisdictions in the Washington metro area. So we get comprehensive figures and interesting opportunities for comparisons.

As is always the case, however, the figures for the District understate affordability problems because they’re based on the median income for the entire area.

For the 2009-11 period covered by the housing portion of the study, that was $106,100 for a family of four. By way of rough comparison, the median income for four-person D.C. families was $84,400 last year.

But we’ve got to go with what we’ve got. So here are a few of the many things one can extract about what the study labels housing security in the District. As you’ll see, it might more appropriately be labeled housing insecurity for the lowest-income residents.

Housing Burdens

The Urban Institute, like most analysts, uses the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s affordability measures.

HUD sets 30% of household income as the affordability cut-off. A household that pays more is said to have a housing-cost burden. A household that pays more than half its income has a severe housing-cost burden.

Slightly more than half of all District households were, to some degree, cost-burdened — and 28% severely so. But housing-cost burdens were vastly more common for the District’s 63,700 or so extremely low-income households, i.e., those with incomes at or below 30% of the area median.

All but 16% of them paid more than 30% of their income for housing — generally rent, plus basic utilities, though 18% were classified as homeowners.

And nearly two-thirds (66%) had a severe housing-cost burden. This is nearly three times greater than the percent for very low-income households, i.e., those in the next income tier.

Rental Housing Availability

The rental housing market was — and still is — extremely tight. Of the total rent units the Urban Institute identified, only 8% were vacant during the 2009-11 period.

So the old law of supply and demand helps explain the housing-cost burdens for lower-income residents, as well as the cost burdens for some much better-off households.

Only 26% of the units rented for less than $800 a month — roughly what an extremely low-income family of four could afford.

But the story is more complicated. About a third of these units were occupied by higher-income households. And only 0.9% of them were vacant.

So the rental housing market was shy 22,100 units that extremely low-income families could have lived in without a cost burden.

More units affordable for very low-income households were occupied by those with higher incomes. But because the District has more such units — and because more were vacant — the Urban Institute finds no shortage.

Subsidized Housing

In 2012, HUD subsidized roughly 33,900 housing units in the District. Housing Choice (formerly Section 8) vouchers accounted for 41% — some of them vouchers awarded to developers so they could charge affordable rents and some given directly to eligible households, which could then rent on the open market.

Public housing accounted for an additional 25% of the affordable units. Subsidies for the remaining 11,600 units came from a mix of programs. It’s not clear that all these units were affordable for the District’s lowest-income households.

What is clear is that there were far more extremely-low income households than HUD-subsidized units — and that the District’s own voucher program fell far short of closing the gap.

Looking only at renter households, the Urban Institute reports 43 subsidized units for every 100 extremely low-income households during the 2009-11 period. This, recall, is before HUD’s budget got hit by sequestration.

What’s Missing

As informative — and depressing — as all these numbers are, they tell only part of the story. We need also to consider where the affordable units were.

As the Urban Institute says, “they may not be in neighborhoods of opportunity that were transit accessible, close to jobs, or had amenities like grocery stores.” For the District, this is probably more apt now as gentrification has spread.

We need also to consider whether the affordable units were livable. The recent Washington Post exposé of conditions at Park Southern tells us that some surely weren’t. Leaks, mold, rotting dead birds on the stairwell, etc.

Not a unique case, by any means, as a recent NPR story indicates.

What Now?

It would be nice to end this long post with a policy solution. The best I can do isn’t good enough.

Clearly, as the DC Fiscal Policy Institute says, we need to invest more in affordable housing. Like the Urban Institute, it also says we should increase the total number of housing units, since this could relieve the demand pressures that are driving up costs.

The”we” here ought to be the federal government, as well as our local government and private sources. But it almost surely won’t be any time soon — even if the House doesn’t altogether get its way on what the HUD budget should be.

We need also to help extremely and very low-income households join the higher income tiers. An obviously large and varied agenda here.

 


DC Bans the Box, Gives Returning Citizens a Better Shot at Jobs

July 21, 2014

An estimated 60,000 District of Columbia residents have criminal records. Roughly 8,000 return to the community each year after serving time behind bars.

And about half of them will be back behind bars within three years. One, though not the only reason is that they can’t get legal, paying work. And one reason they can’t is that their job applications get tossed before they’re read.

That’s going to change. And it ought to change their extraordinarily high unemployment rate — 46%, according to a 2011 survey. Here’s why.

Last week, the DC Council passed what’s commonly known as a “ban the box” bill. Like others of its kind, the new law prohibits generally employers from including queries about criminal records in their job applications.*

They thus can’t automatically screen out anyone and everyone who’s ever been arrested, charged and/or convicted of a crime. Nor, in the District’s bill, can they ask about any of these during interviews.

They may, however, ask about convictions — or conduct a background check — after they’ve made a conditional offer of employment, i.e., one contingent on what they learn about the candidate’s criminal offenses or other matters they’ve said they’d look into.

They may then withdraw the offer, but only for a “legitimate business reason.” For this, the law establishes criteria, e.g., the responsibilities the candidate would have, how long ago s/he committed the crime(s).

But they don’t have to explain an about-face, as they would have in the original version. Nor does the rejected candidate have a right to sue, though s/he can file a claim with the Office of Human Rights — a lot of hassle for minimal compensation, the DC Jobs Council said.

For these reasons, as well as others, the law isn’t as strong as it might be.

Employers with fewer than 11 workers get a free pass, for example. This, as the Employment Justice Center’s Deputy Director testified is a large loophole because even big projects in some industries, e.g., construction, often include small contractors.

But the bill is ever so much better than nothing. And it might have been nothing without the exemptions and other concessions to employer concerns.

In fact, it’s somewhat better than the revised version lead sponsor Councilmember Wells produced in an effort to accommodate the altogether predictable complaints from some business interests, e.g., the local restaurant association.

So count the about-to-be law as a piece of good news in the midst of so much truly terrible stuff.

The District will join the dozen states that have banned the box. And with a stronger law than most. Only four of the states cover private employers. And only one — Hawaii — unequivocally prohibits conviction history inquiries before an offer is made.

The law will surely open doors for some returning citizens — and citizens who returned some considerable time ago. It will also keep doors open for those who are working because the law extends similar protections to employees. Some, we know, have been fired when their criminal records came to light.

The law won’t be a cure-all, however. And no one, to my knowledge, thinks it will be.

The Center for Court Excellence survey cited above indicates some employment barriers beyond the scope of any “ban the box” law, e.g., lack of a pre-incarceration work history and/or in-demand skills and credentials.

There are others — extraordinary difficulties in getting housing, for example. Some Ban the Box Coalition members advocated an expansion of the law to remedy this. So there’s more work to do on the policy front.

But experience tells us that anti-discrimination laws can go only so far — even when they’re strongly enforced, which they generally aren’t. I rather doubt the District’s “ban the box” law will prove an exception, since it’s complaint-based.

Management consultant Wendy Powell argues that such laws “can provide false hope to candidates with a felony conviction” because their job histories will inevitably have a gap. And that, she says, is always a legitimate basis for inquiry.

Whether the criminal record emerges during an interview or, as she recommends, is preempted by voluntary disclosure, employers will have to give returning citizens a chance.

The same, I think, is true when they decide whether to exercise their “legitimate business interest” because they’ve got wiggle room if they’re predisposed to use it — not in all cases perhaps, but I can imagine many.

Ultimately, the success of the new law will depend on whether employers fully embrace the intent. The more that do, the more that will, I think.

* The bill exempts employers that provide programs, services and/or direct care to minors and “vulnerable adults.” This, I’m told, basically reaffirms a provision stating that the pre-offer provisions don’t apply when a federal or local laws and rules require consideration of an applicant’s criminal history.

 


Should DC Support More Affordable Housing … or Less?

July 7, 2014

The DC Council has two bills pending that force decisions on how — and to what extent — local taxpayer dollars should be used to create and preserve affordable housing in our increasingly unaffordable market.

One bill quite clearly would increase the stock of housing affordable to low and moderate-income residents. The other would, over time, have the opposite effect, though it’s doubtful that’s what the sponsors intend.

Leveraging Public Land

A bill introduced by Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie would require private-sector developers that buy or lease District-owned land for multi-family housing to make a specific portion of units affordable for specific categories of low-income residents.

The requirements would apply to both rental housing and condos, but in both cases, only those with 10 or more units.

For housing near a Metro station, major bus route or streetcar line, at least 30% of the units would have to be affordable. A 20% minimum would apply to housing less convenient to public transit.

Those who know how dicey affordable housing requirements can be will be pleased to know that the bill sets quotas. These are all based on the customary 30% of household income and, as is also customary, the Washington-area median income, adjusted for family size.

The affordable unit requirements differ according to the type of housing, as well as where it’s located.

For rental housing, 25% of the set-aside units would have to be affordable for what the bill defines as very low-income households — those whose incomes are no greater than 30% of the AMI. (Those familiar with U.S. Department of Housing standards know them as extremely low-income households.)

The rest of the units would have to be affordable for households in the next tier — 31-50% of the AMI. For a four-person household, this would currently mean a maximum monthly cost of about $1,338 a month.

Half the set-aside for ownership units would have to be affordable for households in this tier. The remainder would have to be affordable for households with incomes between 51% and 80% of the AMI.

These restrictions would remain in place “for the life of the building,” which I assume means for as long as it’s used for housing. (Keep reading to see why this is so important.)

The District would subsidize the affordable units by selling or leasing the land at less than its appraised value. Developers could request waivers from the affordable unit requirements if that, plus other subsidies wasn’t enough.

Cutting Back of Affordability Requirements

A bill introduced by Councilmember Anita Bonds would change rules designed to ensure that condos and single-family dwellings developed with Housing Production Trust Fund subsidies remain affordable for a goodly number of years.

As things stand now, owners of subsidized units generally must sell them at a price that’s affordable to other people in the same income bracket until 15 years have passed — or longer if their purchase agreement says so.

Once the time limit expires, they can sell to anyone at any price. But they must reimburse the Trust Fund for the subsidy that made the home affordable for them. The time limit drops to 10 years if the home is in a high-poverty neighborhood. The repayment requirement remains the same.

The Bonds bill would cap the affordability limit at 15 years, making some types of homeowner affordability programs ineligible.

More importantly, it would reduce the affordability requirement to five years for homes in “distressed neighborhoods.” Owners could then sell at whatever price they could get.

They’d still have to repay the Trust Fund. So it might seem that the subsidy were merely being recycled — repaid by one owner, available for the next.

But in a housing market like the District’s, the second subsidy would often have to be larger. And the cost of subsidizing the creation of a new affordable unit would generally have to be larger yet.

So the repayment wouldn’t fund a replacement in either case — or at least not in the same neighborhood as the unit that got sold at market rate. At best, the Trust Fund would be re-creating affordable homeownership units, rather than expanding the shrunken stock.

Which brings us to the second big problem with the Bonds bill — the definition of “distressed neighborhoods.” It would reduce the definition used for the current 10-year time limit from a 30% to a 20 % poverty rate.

For technical reasons, the rate wouldn’t reflect the current poverty rate, as the DC Fiscal Policy Institute’s Jenny Reed has explained. So we’d have many “distressed neighborhoods” that haven’t been distressed for some time, e.g., Columbia Heights, Logan Circle, parts of Penn Quarter.

The five-year limit would also apply to neighborhoods that will soon be wholly redeveloped — and pricey. I see condos sprouting up near the Navy Yard every time I walk down that way.

The end result would be affordable housing losses in nearly 40% of the District’s Census tracts — the technical definition of “neighborhoods.”

And as housing advocate Angie Rodgers points out, it’s not only prospective homeowners who’d be affected. Any new Trust Fund money invested on their behalf would mean less to subsidize affordable rental housing, which we’re already so short on.

Preserving the current affordability requirements wouldn’t deny homeowners the opportunity to build wealth, as homeownership is said to do. It would merely ensure that future homeowners can benefit from subsidies we’ve paid for to preserve some modicum of diversity and opportunity in our community.

The current law probably isn’t the best way to do this, as Urban Institute housing and community policy expert Brett Theodos (and others) have explained.

But it’s a whole lot better than shrinking the time limits — and over-defining neighborhoods that prospective homeowners might shy away from if they couldn’t turn a maximum profit for 15 years.


Amendments to DC Homeless Rights Law That Shouldn’t Be Needed, But Are

June 26, 2014

The DC Council Committee on Human Services will soon hold a hearing on a couple of bills affecting homeless families in the District. At least one — the Dignity for Homeless Families Amendment Act — shouldn’t be necessary. But it is.

The bill doesn’t do something else that shouldn’t be necessary, but also is. Advocates will argue strongly for an amendment. And the committee should adopt it.

The bill clarifies what the Homeless Services Reform Act means when it says families should be sheltered in a private room, if no apartment-style units are available.

A “private room,” the bill says, has to have “four non-portable walls, a ceiling and a floor that meet at the edges,” a door, with an inside lock, as its main point of access, lights that occupants can turn on and off from within the room, and so forth.

Well, whoever thought a private room was something different? Apparently the Department of Human Services.

In late January, it resorted to warehousing homeless families in recreation centers, separated from one another by flimsy partitions on the sides, but open at the top — and to anyone who felt like walking in.

Families got a reprieve when an administrative law judge ruled that the spaces weren’t rooms. Shortly thereafter, a Superior Court judge told the agency it couldn’t place any families in rec centers — at least until he issued a final decision in the case.

But the Gray administration has said it will contest the rulings, indicating that it wants to preserve the option. No surprise here, since families placed in the rec centers generally stayed only a couple of nights, if that. And others, hearing of the placements, decided not to ask for shelter.

Some I’ve heard went back to dangerous situations, including living with abusers. One mother and her children started spending nights in a stairwell again. And so the Mayor’s people concluded that the homeless family crisis was over — or had never existed.

The bill’s sponsors clearly want to put a permanent end to this form of diversion. But, as I mentioned, they’ve got more work to do.

Because long about the time DHS came up with the rec center “solution,” it also began requiring all newly-homeless families to reapply for shelter every day — and re-sheltering them for another night only if it had no legal alternative, i.e., because the outdoor temperature put them at risk of freezing to death.

The HSRA doesn’t unequivocally grant homeless families a right to remain in a shelter — or a motel room — once they’ve been placed there. This, however, had been government policy since at least 1996, shortly after the law was passed.

One can understand why. Homeless families face many risks besides freezing when they have no safe place to stay —  abuse by people in homes they’ve perforce returned to or by strangers who come upon them in stairwells, for example.

Parents can’t look for work — or keep the jobs they have — if they have to spend part of each day sitting around in the intake center.

Those who participate in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, as many do, can’t comply with their work preparation requirements — something you’d think would concern DHS, which has made such a much of its efforts to help “more families in making the climb to self-sufficiency.”

Bad as these things are, the harms to children are probably worse. We know that homelessness itself puts them at high risk of emotional and behavioral problems. For this reason, as well as others, many fall behind in school — and eventually drop out.

A root cause is the stress and insecurity children experience when they don’t have a stable home base. How much greater when they have to pack up every morning and don’t know where they’ll spend the night.

The big picture, of course, is that the District must do more to prevent family homelessness — and more to ensure that when it’s unpreventable, it’s brief and non-recurrent. Both will require larger investments than the Mayor and the Council seem prepared to make.

But at the very least, the Council can accord families the “dignity” of a genuine private room they can stay in until they’re able to move into an affordable place of their own.

Better for them, especially the children — and ever so much better for our community than the efforts, abortive and otherwise, to keep them out of the shelters that are supposed to protect them from harm.

 


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