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.

 


Benefits Boost for DC TANF Families Would Halt Value Loss, But Not Give Them Enough for Basic Needs

September 3, 2013

Here’s a modest, overdue reform that may finally get some legislative action — an increase in the extraordinarily low cash benefits for families in the District of Columbia’s TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) program.

A bill introduced by DC Councilmembers Jim Graham and Marion Barry would give the benefits an initial boost and then keep them from losing value due to inflation, as they do now.

The initial boost would be small — 15%, plus whatever the CPI-U (the consumer price index most commonly used for inflation adjustments) indicates the cost-of-living increase for the first year should be. The same COLA would then apply in following years.

Benefits haven’t been increased for five years now. And earlier increases weren’t enough to keep them at the same already-low level below the federal poverty line.

So even families whose benefits haven’t been deliberately cut have less, in real dollars, than they would have had in 1990, the year before COLAs were eliminated.

If the COLA had been consistently in force, a family of three would be eligible for a maximum of about $731 a month, instead of $428, assuming no other increases during the last 13 years.

This would put the family at about 45% of the federal poverty line. It’s instead at 26.3%, as the DC Fiscal Policy Institute’s graph of the downward slide shows.

The Graham-Barry bill wouldn’t make up for the full purchasing power lost. DCFPI estimates the maximum for the family of three at $492 a month — presumably if the bill were swiftly passed and signed. Which it probably won’t be.

What will happen almost immediately is a benefits cut for families who’ve participated in TANF for more than five years. Those who were over this lifetime limit the Council agreed to in late 2010 will get a second cut in October.

A family of three will then receive, at most, $257 a month — unless it belongs to one of the groups for whom the time limit will be suspended.

TANF benefits are already absurdly low, even for families still under the time limit. Consider, for example, that the rent on a modest two-bedroom apartment would cost our three-person family more than three times its entire maximum benefit.

Well, that apartment’s obviously not in the family’s budget. And I doubt it will be.

The DC Department of Human Services seems to believe otherwise, since it’s still banking heavily on rapid re-housing to solve the family homelessness crisis — and more specifically, to get families out of (or keep them out of) the DC General shelter.

Most of them are in the TANF program — or assumed eligible. They’re likely to have, at most, a year of subsidized housing before they have to pick up the full costs of rent.

Possible for those who’ve suffered a temporary setback. Unlikely, I think. for the many headed by parents who have significant barriers to employment — let alone employment at a wage that would make an apartment affordable.

For that, the parent of our three-person TANF family would have to land a job paying $56,760 next year — more than three times the local minimum wage.

Meanwhile, all TANF families — and many D.C. residents who aren’t in the program — will lose a portion of their SNAP (food stamp) benefits in November because of decisions Congress has already made.

Roughly 144,000 residents — 22% of the District’s population — will have to stretch their very low benefits even further, according to estimates by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The loss for our family of three will be $29 a month — or about 45% of the increase it would get under the Graham-Barry bill.

In short, the proposal is certainly better than letting the District’s TANF benefits slide further and further below what families need for basic living costs.

But it won’t give them even the support they had when the program was created. They’ll still, in many cases, be in what DCFPI policy analyst Kate Coventry terms “a state of constant crisis.”

“Very difficult for parents to fully focus on job preparation activities” in such circumstances, she adds.

Even a considerably larger TANF boost would still leave them at high risk of homelessness — if they’re not homeless already — because a big part of that “constant crisis” is the woeful shortage of housing that’s affordable for the lowest-income families here.

Also the woeful shortage of long-term housing vouchers that would make more housing affordable.

The Graham-Barry bill would still, as I said, be a step in the right direction. I’d like to see a bigger step when/if the Council decides to act on it.

But obviously the problems facing poor families in the District (and elsewhere) are bigger than any one policy change can resolve.


Homelessness in America: Progress, Stasis, Backsliding and Forewarnings

May 6, 2013

The National Alliance to End Homelessness recently issued its third report on homelessness, both nationwide and in each state and the District of Columbia.

As I’ve said before, NAEH relies mainly, as it must, on federal government sources. For homelessness itself, this means the limited and not altogether reliable point-in-time counts that recipients of homeless assistance grants report to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

That said, it seems reasonable to assume that the methods recipients use generally don’t change much from one year to the next. So the percent changes NAEH reports are probably fairly accurate.

What we see overall are continuing trends — not only for homelessness itself, but for factors that indicate high risks of homelessness.

Homelessness Nationwide

The total number of literally homeless people dropped by 0.4% last year — such a small decrease as to represent more or less a steady state. All told, 633,782 people were counted as homeless.

Decreases for veterans and individuals classified as chronically homeless were much larger — 7.2% and 6.8% respectively.

The number of homeless families remained virtually the same — 77,157, as compared to 77,186 in 2011. However, the rate of family homelessness rose in 27 states and the District.

And the number of homeless people in families rose by 1.4% to 239,403. NAEH translates this into an estimated 3,251 more homeless children who were with an adult.

Over the longer term, homelessness for all the individual populations counted has trended down. We see a few blips up from one year to the next, but lower figures for all since 2005, when HUD standardized point-in-time data collections.

On a less cheery note, 38.4% of the homeless people counted last year — 243,627 — had no form of shelter or housing at all, except perhaps a car, an abandoned building or some other indoor place “not meant for human habitation.”

This is virtually the same number as were counted in 2011.

The decreases in both chronic and veteran homelessness clearly reflect the priority that communities have placed on them in response to direction from HUD and, more recently, targeted funding from the Veterans Administration.

Most permanent supportive housing is for chronically homeless individuals, including veterans. Last year, there were more PSH beds than beds in emergency shelters or transitional housing — a time-limited type of housing that also includes services.

Homelessness Risk Factors

The risk factors NAEH reports fall into two related categories — income and housing costs.

On the income side, the official unemployment rate was lower in 2011 than in 2010 — down to a still high 8.9%.

This is a limited indicator, however, since it doesn’t include people employed part-time who wanted — and, in some cases, used to have — full-time work. Nor does it include people who didn’t look for work because it seemed futile.

The median household income was a bit lower in 2011 and the official poverty rate 0.6% higher, pushing the number of poor adults and children up to more than 48.4 million.

Some of them were undoubtedly beyond the risk stage.

On the housing cost side, fair market rents increased in 38 states. The nationwide FMR for a modest two-bedroom apartment, plus basic utilities rose 1.5%, making for a five-year increase of 15.1%.

More than 6.5 million households spent more than half their income for rent — 5.5% more than in 2010. And the bottom fifth on the income scale spent, on average, a mind-boggling 87% of their income.

Well over 7.4 million people in poor households were living doubled-up with friends or family members. This represents a 9.4% increase over 2010.

HUD reports tell us that doubling up is a major warning sign for future homelessness. In 2011, nearly 32% of people admitted to a shelter had been staying with friends or family immediately before.

The policy implications here seem blatantly obvious. Putting people back to work — and to work for the first time — would help reduce homelessness if the jobs paid a decent wage.

But we need much greater investments in affordable housing too — more support for construction and preservation, more funds for public housing operations and maintenance and considerably more for housing vouchers.

We see marked downturns in the rates of chronically homeless individuals and veterans. They show what could happen if our government got equally serious about the rest of the homeless population.


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.


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