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.


What Lies Behind the Plan to Close DC’s Housing Assistance Waiting List?

October 9, 2012

A small piece of news buried deep in the avalanche of last week’s debate commentary: The DC Housing Authority says it may close its waiting list.

In other words, it will stop adding names to its registry of low-income people who’ve asked for, but haven’t gotten admission to public housing or a voucher that subsidizes the costs of market-based rents.

DCHA has more than 8,000 public housing units and some 12,000* vouchers — most, though not all of them issued.

More than 67,000 households are on the waiting list. So it’s pretty clear that most of them will stay there until DCHA decides they’re not eligible any more, takes them off the list because they don’t communicate otherwise — or die of old age.

I’m not kidding about this last. A local homeless woman interviewed a few years ago said she knew people who’d signed up for housing assistance when they were young and were grandparents now, still waiting.

DCHA says it’s a waste of resources to maintain a waiting list that’s so unrealistically long. Also that it has to “increase transparency, … manage expectations, … and increase choice.” Choice apparently of something it can’t provide.

The Director of Bread for the City’s legal clinic says it should keep the list open to demonstrate “the crushing need for affordable housing in this city.”

It’s certainly true that the waiting list has often been cited by advocates for more local affordable housing funding. Problem is that demonstrating need doesn’t seem to be getting us anywhere close to where we need to be.

On the contrary. The Gray administration seems to want to get out of the affordable housing business.

I’ve thought this ever since the Mayor’s first budget covered the costs of locally-funded housing vouchers in current use by shifting money out of the Housing Production Trust Fund — the District’s main source of public funding for affordable housing construction, renovation and preservation.

Thought it again this year, when he tried to make a further cut in the Production Trust Fund and to let the Local Rent Supplement Program, i.e., the source of locally-funded vouchers, wither away — just as he had in 2011.

An unnamed affordable housing advocate has arrived at a similar conclusion.

The Gray administration, s/he told Washington City Paper reporter Aaron Wiener, “doesn’t believe it should fund long-term affordable housing.” It’s decided to tackle the affordable housing shortage by increasing income instead.

It’s absurd to think — and I doubt the Mayor does — that his strategies for growing the economy and preparing residents to fill the jobs it creates can boost the incomes of most of those on the waiting list so much that they can afford the very high costs of housing here.

He nevertheless has injected a “demand side” component into the deliberations of his Comprehensive Housing Strategy Task Force and appointed members who will shape its recommendations accordingly.

In other words, he’s looking for solutions that will reduce need at least as much as increase supply — preferably more.

Perhaps also, in some manner, redefine need. The Housing Authority’s executive director, for example, says she’s working on initiatives that will persuade low-income people to give up their subsidies, notwithstanding their fears of illness, job losses, etc.

Surely no one would quarrel with strategies to improve the financial circumstances of the District’s low-income population.

And no one, I hope, would underestimate the affordable housing problems the Gray administration faces — some inherited, some of its own making and most magnified by the cumulative impacts of inadequate federal support.

But it’s hard not to feel that the Mayor’s much more interested in building a high-tech, green economy — and making the city a congenial living place for the high-earning taxpayers it will employ — than in addressing the struggles of the folks on the waiting list.

His policies didn’t create the inordinately long housing assistance waiting list. But they will contribute to its growth — if DCHA doesn’t close it.

* This number represents only vouchers households can take into the rental market. DCHA also issues vouchers to developers, nonprofit housing operators and other landlords, which they then attach to specific housing units.


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