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.


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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