Mayor Gray’s Budget Would Mean No More Money for Many Critical Needs

April 16, 2013

As I said yesterday, Mayor Gray’s proposed Fiscal Year 2014 budget provides more money for some, but little more — in some cases, no more — for programs that address low-income residents’ critical needs.

For example …

There will be $700,000 more for permanent supportive housing — reportedly enough to accommodate 45 more chronically homeless individuals and/or families than the program is serving now.

But there probably won’t be money to ensure that homeless families with no place to stay can sleep safely indoors unless it’s freezing cold outside.

Nor will there be money to increase the number of locally-funded housing vouchers they could use to help pay market-rate rents until they can afford the full rent on their own.

This could actually mean fewer of these so-called tenant-based housing vouchers because the DC Housing Authority will get less money for Housing Choice (formerly Section 8) vouchers due to sequestration.

There will be no more money for child care subsidies, though the unreasonably low reimbursement rates providers get account, at least in part, for the fact that parents of some 9,000 infants and toddlers can’t get affordable child care.

In this case, what looks like level-funding — perhaps a small increase even — will mean somewhat over $1.5 million less because sequestration will cut a portion of the District’s federal child care funding.

There will be no more money for adult literacy services — in fact, apparently $734,000 less, though I’m told the budget document may be misleading.

Even without the cut, the District will be investing considerably less than it once did to address a problem that affects not only the job prospects and daily lives of more than a third of adult residents, but the children they’re raising.

Adult literacy programs need more money not only for these “functionally illiterate” residents, but for more proficient high school dropouts, who can get the equivalent of a high school diploma by passing the GED tests.

These tests will get harder next year — and require computer proficiency. Adult literacy programs thus need to invest more in teacher training and equipment to get their students up to speed (literally and figuratively).

One would think that the District’s abysmal 59% GED pass rate would have led the Mayor, who’s so concerned about employment here, to put more money into these programs.

Ditto for adult job training, which the Mayor’s budget would cut by $624,000 — considerably more if measured against what the program will have this year if the DC Council approves his proposed supplement.

There will be no money to protect families in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program from running up against the five-year time limit in cases where the parents have been excused from regular work activity requirements for compelling reasons, e.g., needs to care for a sick or disabled family member, domestic violence trauma.

There will, however, be money to protect long-term TANF families from further benefits cuts for another year.

This is a further indication that the Department of Human Services doesn’t have the resources it needs for its program revamp. Nor will it in the Mayor’s proposed budget, according to the DC Fiscal Policy Institute’s analysis.

Because even if it completes the remaining 9,000 or so assessments that are supposed to produce suitable work preparation plans for TANF parents, there won’t be enough training slots for them.

For a family of three, the reprieve will mean a continuing cash income of $257 a month, instead of the regular $428 — 23.9% less in real dollars than the year TANF was created.

The Mayor might have considered increasing TANF benefits, as a few states have recently done. All he chose to do was replace “lost” federal dollars, which weren’t really lost, but merely funds the District didn’t have left over, as it did the year before.

I understand that the Mayor has competing interests to balance. He wants to make the city an appealing place for higher-income people to live — good for the local economy, essential adequate revenues.

He’s got to worry about the stability and quality of the District’s own workforce.

And he understands that the city’s future hinges in part on how well it educates the next generation — though apparently not that all the early learning opportunities, libraries, modernized schools and the like can’t compensate for resources parents lack to provide for their kids’ basic needs.

Yet his budget truly is, in many respects, what its title says. It’s investing in tomorrow while ignoring investments needed today.

Needed, at any rate, if the District’s prosperity is going to benefit everyone, as the Mayor rightly says it should.


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 Fails Homelessness Test

May 2, 2012

Speak for We blogger Michael Dahl recaps a bit of his experience as a long-time advocate for better homelessness and affordable housing policies in Minnesota.

Over the years, he says, homelessness advocates have given top priority to diverse strategies — prevention, supportive housing, rapid re-housing, etc.

He sees a consistent thread in three elements. They aren’t actually common elements in the strategies, however. They’re questions that policymakers and other stakeholders should ask when they decide what their community needs by way of a homelessness system.

They’re painfully apt here in the District of Columbia as the DC Council considers the Mayor’s proposed Fiscal Year 2013 budget.

So here they are (with some minor edits):

  • Do we have enough affordable housing?
  • Do we have jobs in the community that pay for housing here?
  • Do the supports that we rely on when we fall on hard times, e.g., a job loss, poor health, work for our lowest income residents?

These components, Dahl says, “provide stability and a pretty sturdy safety net.” If they’re all in place, the number of homeless people will be small, and the time they spend homeless will usually be short.

If they’re not in place, then “you need a homeless system to pick up the slack.”

Well, the District surely doesn’t have enough affordable housing.

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute took a close look at the situation two years ago. It found that the market had lost 23,700 low-cost rental units between 2000 and 2007 — more than a third of the stock.

Two in every five households were spending more for housing than they could afford, based on the standard 30% of income. Nearly three in five of poor and near-poor households paid at least half their income for a roof over their heads.

We’ve good reasons to believe that the situation has gotten worse. Rental costs have risen. More affordable units have been converted to upscale rentals or condos. More may have fallen into such disrepair as to be uninhabitable — victims of a combination of forces, including the recession.

The Housing Production Trust Fund — the District’s main tool for supporting affordable housing development and preservation — suffered losses when property sales slowed and prices dropped.

Then the Fund was raided to shore up the Local Rent Supplement Program — the District’s locally-funded voucher program. And now the Mayor proposes another raid, leaving the Fund with enough to support only 170 new units next year.

This second fund shift to LRSP would cover the projected costs of all existing vouchers, but no additional vouchers for people who are homeless — or may become homeless in months to come.

Whether the District will be able to renew all federally-funded vouchers is anybody’s guess.

The District does have jobs that pay for local housing, but not nearly all residents have them.

The local unemployment rate seems stuck at 9.8% — and that’s only residents who are actively looking for work. The latest rates for Wards 7 and 8 are 16.3% and 24.3%.

The average income of the poorest fifth of D.C. households was just $9,100 in 2010 — about $4,770 less than the annual rental cost of a modest efficiency unit then.

Even if the District prepares more residents for living wage jobs — and cracks down on enforcement of its living wage law — housing will remain unaffordable for a substantial number of workers.

At the current living wage rate, they’d have to pay more than half their income for rent on that efficiency, assuming they work full-time, year round.

Our safety net is far from sturdy for our lowest income residents.

They can get health care through Medicaid or the DC HealthCare Alliance, though those in the latter might lose essential services if the Council goes along with the Mayor’s savings plan.

Unemployment benefits are available for some, though far from all residents who lose their jobs. But they’ll be cut off sooner due to changes in federal law.

For families with children, we have the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program. But cash benefits are way too low to cover the cost of unsubsidized housing. The maximum cash benefit for a family of three — currently $428 a month — is less than 37% of what the efficiency unit costs.

This is true, however, only for a family that’s been in the program for less than 60 months. For a family that’s been in longer, the benefit is only $257 a month. And the Mayor’s proposed budget would reinstate further cuts that the Council wisely deferred last year.

So it would seem that we truly do need a robust homeless services program. Under the Mayor’s budget, it would have $7 million less than last year.

And it already lacks funds to provide homeless families with shelter or other housing now that the winter season is officially over.

In short, the District fails Dahl’s test on both counts. Not enough stability or safety net support. Not enough in homeless services to pick up the slack either.


Fair Budget Coalition to Host Its Own One City Summit, Says DC in Crisis

March 10, 2012

Monday morning, March 12, the Fair Budget Coalition will host its own One City Summit. One City (In Crisis) they call it.

No Convention Center space for this one. No slick participants’ guides. No digital keypads to vote on preferences. FBC doesn’t have half a million to blow on such things.

What it does have are some pretty alarming figures to justify its claim that the District is in crisis. For example:

  • One out of every three D.C. children is living in poverty.
  • One out of every five residents is on the waiting list for public housing or a voucher to help pay the rent.
  • One out of every ten residents is unemployed — and that’s just those who are actively looking for work.

The crisis doesn’t directly affect high-income residents, of course. Councilmember Jack Evans’s Georgetown constituents, for example, aren’t likely to be on that waiting list for subsidized housing.

It does, however, affect all of us who want to live in a city that’s not so radically divided between the haves and the have-nots. And all of us who want a secure, sustaining safety net for the latter.

Prospects for that don’t look so good — hence the FBC Summit.

At a recent briefing, Eric Goulet, Mayor Gray’s budget director, explained to us why the District couldn’t tap its reserve fund accounts — even the excess revenue surplus the Mayor chose to put there.

Also why the District couldn’t possibly cut funding for education or public safety.

And why it couldn’t, as the DC Fiscal Policy Institute suggested, borrow for some capital projects, at current very low interest rates, rather than immediately pay for them out of operating revenues.

Capped all this by saying that the Mayor wouldn’t propose any significant revenue raisers to help close the budget gap — now reportedly $115 million. Last year’s flap over the modest income tax increase for high earners was enough for him.

So notwithstanding the usual claim that everything’s on the table, it seems that the only big thing left there is spending for human services programs.

These and other programs for low-income residents have been hit hard by successive budget-balancing feats.

Cuts to them last year accounted for 61% of the total — even after the DC Council restored about $23 million. Chalk this up, in large part, to the raid on affordable housing.

Taking the programs off the table would restore some balance to the budget, but still leave them far short of the resources they need.

We’re told that the DC Housing Authority needs an additional $6 million just to pay its share of the rent for people who have locally-funded housing vouchers.

Homeless services is running up hotel bills — and running through its budget — because it doesn’t have shelter space or other housing for nearly all the families who’ve become homeless.

This isn’t a shelter problem, Department of Human Services Director David Berns rightly says. It’s “inadequate affordable housing.” Closing the gap in the Local Rent Supplement Program won’t do a thing about this, though it could keep some now-housed families from becoming homeless.

The Mayor apparently wants to go at the housing problem from “the demand side,” i.e., to get more people into good-paying jobs so they can afford to pay market-rate rents. Well, that’s going to require some additional spending too.

The Fair Budget Coalition flags the need to increase funding for adult education and literacy programs — an obvious priority given the high functional illiteracy rate and the demands of our local job market.

Also advocates more money for child care subsidies so that parents who find jobs can go to work — and, I’d add, to pay for rent, food, clothing and other basic needs. Hard for low-income parents without subsidies to do when child care costs in the District can eat up two-thirds of full-time minimum wage.

The District’s redesigned Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program would fit in well with the demand-side focus — if DHS has the funds to do what it plans.

DCFPI rather doubts it does.

And, as the Institute notes, parents who’ve had no opportunity to benefit from the improvements will nevertheless lose more and more of the meager cash assistance that’s keeping some, though not all of them from homelessness.

Well, I could go on this way, but I think the point is clear. A Fiscal Year 2013 budget that’s balanced by spending cuts alone will not only cause greater hardships. It will undermine what the Mayor himself says he wants to achieve.

He couldn’t learn this at his One City Summit. Maybe FBC’s will get the message through.


Proposed DC Budget Would Gut Affordable Housing Programs

May 2, 2011

Seems that Mayor Gray has decided that the District of Columbia should get out of the affordable housing business.

Hard to see how else one can interpret the end results of the proposed cuts and related policy changes the DC Fiscal Policy Institute details in its brief on the proposed Fiscal Year 2012 affordable housing budget.

The affordable housing budget, if one can call it that, is hard to get one’s mind around — three different housing agencies, a number of programs designed for different purposes and, to some extent, different segments of the population.

And there’s housing in the homeless services and mental health budgets too.

Brief overview of the biggest issues, as I understand them.

Housing Production Trust Fund

The mayor’s proposed budget would siphon $18 million out of the Housing Production Trust Fund as a substitute for the customary separate appropriation for the Local Rent Supplement Program.

The $18 million cut wouldn’t be a one-time thing. The same amount would be transferred — though not necessarily to LRSP — every year until at least 2015.

The Trust Fund is a major source of local funding for affordable housing construction and preservation. It’s the most flexible tool we’ve got.

Developers can use Trust Fund commitments together with other public sources, including certain types of LRSP vouchers, to show private lenders that their projects are credit-worthy. The Trust Fund can also provide critical time-sensitive grants and loans that enable tenants to purchase the buildings they live in.

The Trust Fund gets a percentage of revenues from the deed transfer and recordation taxes that buyers and sellers pay when properties in the District change hands. So it’s been cash-short ever since the local housing market cooled a couple of years ago. As a result, lots of approved projects in the pipeline have stalled.

But the market’s on an upswing again. So some of these projects could move forward if the revenues earmarked for the Trust Fund were left where they belong. With the proposed transfer, the Fund would instead have $1 million less next year.

Only $8.9 million would be available for the Fund’s core purposes. It will have to use increasing amounts of its total revenues for debt service on bonds. So what’s left for core purposes will shrink over time. Only $4.8 million will remain in 2015.

Local Rent Supplement Program

The transferred funds would not sustain LRSP. Far from it.

The mayor’s proposal would phase out the tenant-based vouchers that are part of the program. These are the vouchers that recipients (all very low-income) can use to help pay market-based rents on any approved unit in the District.

The District would continue to subsidize rents for current voucher holders. But as households left the program, their vouchers would effectively disappear. So another major affordable housing tool would continuously shrink.

LRSP also provides vouchers that are attached to units in affordable housing developments. Like the tenant-based vouchers, they’re supposed to make rental housing affordable for a range of very-low income residents. And indeed, they do.

But the mayor wants to use all vacant LRSP units for the District’s permanent supportive housing program — a key part of the Department of Human Services’ homelessness strategy.

Though PSH is affordable housing, it’s only for individuals and families who’ve been homeless for a long time or recurrently due, at least in part, to severe challenges like mental illness and/or substance abuse.

So another fund shift — or the equivalent. And another case where a tool that was serving a particular purpose gets used for another.

Bottom Line

At the end of the day, the shifts would drastically curtail the District’s efforts to ensure that low-income individuals and families can afford to be part of this “one city” the major has promised.

And dollars to doughnuts, they’d put more pressures on the under-funded homeless services budget too.

What Now?

It’s up to the DC Council now to restore the funds the mayor’s budget cuts.

The Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development and allies in its Continuum of Housing Campaign have organized a rally to urge this. We’re asked to show up at the John A. Wilson building tomorrow, May 3 at 6:00 p.m., just before the last of three back-to-back hearings on Fiscal Year 2012 budgets for D.C. Housing Agencies.


My Blog Turns Two

December 6, 2010

Today is my blog’s second birthday. An occasion for me to thank all of you who’ve been reading what I write. Special thanks to the many of you who’ve contributed — through your comments, your analyses and your generous responses to my many questions.

In some ways, it’s also an occasion for me to celebrate. When I started this blog, I was plunging into the unknown. Had no idea whether I could sustain it, no clear plan beyond the next posting and no knowledge whatever about some of the issues I’ve addressed.

And now I’m writing my 250th posting, with some sense of presence, purpose and place in the interlocking advocacy communities I so admire.

In another way, it’s not an occasion to celebrate. My first posting was about how the DC Council had rebalanced the Fiscal Year 2009 budget with spending cuts that disproportionately affected low-income residents.

And here we are two years later with the Council considering a plan that would achieve nearly 40% of its savings by cuts in programs that serve them.

That first posting focused on a couple of issues — affordable housing and cash benefits for participants in the District’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. The cuts on the table now would be worse.

The Local Rent Supplement Program would lose $3 million. Once again, a small approved increase would be rescinded. No new housing vouchers for any of the 26,000 households on the waiting list. No additional support for new affordable housing development.

Funds in reserve would also be cut. So some who have vouchers might lose them as housing costs rise and/or the incomes of beneficiaries drop.

The first TANF benefits cut I wrote about rescinded a small just-approved increase. This time, maximum benefits, which have remained level ever since, would be reduced by 20% for all families who’ve participated for a total of more than five years.

Perhaps the Council will reject these proposed cuts. But it’s sad that we’re once again fighting the same battles. Sadder that victory would mean significantly less funding, in real terms, for these and other programs that serve low-income people.

Even so, there’s something to celebrate.

Local service and advocacy organizations have risen to the challenge. They’ve expanded their reach, developed new messaging and organizing capacities and perhaps most importantly advanced well beyond a “just say no” defense of the diverse programs that affect them and their clients.

The very fact that they’ve coalesced around a new top income tax bracket and gotten it into the gap-closing dialogue — both within the Council and beyond — indicates how far they’ve come in the last two years. If only we could say the same for our low-income neighbors.


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