DC Affordable Housing Program Needs Funding Guarantee

May 22, 2014

So Mayor Gray kept his promise to invest $100 million a year in affordable housing — or so it seems. The DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports that his proposed Fiscal Year 2015 budget includes a total of $145 million for affordable housing programs.

This includes some that I personally wouldn’t put in the bucket, e.g., funding to help homeowners deal with lead hazards and other housing code violations, grants to support storefront improvements in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

And as the eagle-eyed DCFPI analysts note, $5 million of the total (for the Department of Behavioral Health’s subsidized housing program) is merely money that used to be in the District’s capital budget, rather than proposed additional spending.

A lot of money nevertheless. How much of it will provide housing that’s affordable for the District’s very lowest-income residents remains to be seen. Some we know won’t.

In addition to the programs I’ve cited, there’s funding for the Home Purchase Assistance Program, a similar smaller program for D.C. government employees and a bit of money to promote homeownership in the east end of the city.

Needless to say (I hope), a couple whose annual income is less than 30% of the area median — currently $25,752 — can’t conceivably afford a house (or a condo) here.

It’s also the case, as I’ve said before, that the Housing Production Trust Fund doesn’t support only development and preservation of housing affordable for the very lowest-income residents, i.e., those with incomes no higher than 30% of the AMI.

It is, however, supposed to spend at least 40% of its money each year on housing for them. And it’s generally viewed as the District’s single most important affordable housing tool.

It not only helps finance construction and renovation, but has helped tenants buy their buildings when the owners put them put for sale — even tenants at the lower end of the income scale. This typically ensures that the housing will remain affordable for 40 years, as DCFPI explains.

So the Fund’s capacity is worrisome — and has been for a long time. We see the problem in the Mayor’s proposed budget, especially as compared to District budgets over the past several years.

In 2002, the DC Council gave the Fund an ongoing revenue stream — 15% of certain taxes collected in connection with real property transactions.

That was fine until the housing bubble burst and the ensuing recession put a damper on the commercial property market.

Then, adding injury to injury, Mayor Gray, with the Council’s concurrence, shifted money from the Fund to the Local Rent Supplement Program, i.e., the District’s locally-funded equivalent to the federal Housing Choice voucher program.

Then the city was flush with cash again. And the Mayor had gotten an earful from nonprofit developers and advocates — and from residents convened for his highly-orchestrated One City Summit.

Some months later, he committed $100 million to affordable housing. Most of it went to the Trust Fund, more than doubling what it would have had from only its share of property transaction taxes.

He now wants the Council’s concurrence to put another $30.1 million into the Fund, using part of the large projected surplus for this fiscal year. It would still have only about two-thirds of what it had last fiscal year, however.

And next fiscal year, only its dedicated tax revenues, estimated at $40 million. Or at least, that’s all anyone can count on.

The Mayor has borrowed an idea from a bill pending in the Council and put it into his Budget Support Act, i.e., the package of legislation paired with the budget proper. In his version, half of any end-of-year money left over after the District has fully funded all four of its reserve accounts would go to the Trust Fund.

Better than nothing, but no substitute for funding that’s both sufficient and reliable.

Mayor-hopeful Muriel Bowser has proposed a bill that could meet both needs. It would establish a baseline for the Trust Fund, i.e., a guaranteed annual minimum, of $100 million. The Fund would still get money from the sources the current law specifies, but also from an appropriation of general revenues if needed to maintain the baseline.

This was one of the options that the executive directors of DCFPI and the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development teed up in 2008, when Trust Fund revenues had dwindled.

And my heavens, they cited a bill introduced by Councilmember Marion Barry that sounds rather like the Bowser bill.  Reportedly overwhelming support from advocates and low-income residents.

I suppose we’ll see something similar at the hearing on the Bowser bill late this month. Perhaps a better outcome this time round.

 

 

 

 


Gray Administration Finds More Effective Way to Divert Homeless Families From Shelter

March 3, 2014

Turns out the emergency isn’t such an emergency after all, so far as Mayor Gray is concerned. Two weeks ago, he wanted a quick vote on his emergency legislation to amend the Homeless Services Reform Act. Now he’s asked the DC Council to postpone it.

As I earlier wrote, the bill would authorize provisional placements, i.e., short-term shelter for homeless families while caseworkers try to find a friend or relative to foist them off on.

I’d like to say the Mayor’s request is altogether good news, but it isn’t because it means the administration has found another way to keep homeless families out of the shelter system — or get them out swiftly, perhaps at risk to their safety.

It is good news insofar as it eliminates the remote chance that the Council would hastily approve a proposal aimed at coercing homeless families into doubled-up situations — a high risk for becoming literally homeless again.

But the Mayor hasn’t withdrawn his bill — merely asked that the Council defer consideration. “We’re pressing the pause button,” the Mayor’s spokesperson says.

More disturbing is the reason the Mayor cited for the pause. Pressure on the shelter system is easing. The Department of Human Services needs more time to determine whether the emergency measure is “as urgently needed as previously believed.”

Hardly so urgent if the current trend continues. The number of newly homeless families seeking shelter has recently dropped by about 90%.

Ordinarily one would think that fewer families seeking shelter — and gaining it because they have no safe place to stay — is good news.

But these aren’t ordinary times. DHS is now sheltering newly-homeless families in recreation centers — on cots in big open spaces that were initially divided only by the sort of flimsy partitions the Red Cross throws up during a natural disaster.

An administrative law judge ruled that this violated the HSRA — as it surely does, since the law, honored more in the breach than the observance, requires “apartment-style” shelter units for families.

But the ruling applies only to the families for whom the complaint was filed. DHS is reportedly putting in sturdier partitions. The families, however, are still all in one big room. No real privacy, of course. Nor safety, since any adult in the center can just walk into their space.

And the families can stay in their space only at night. They have to pack up and leave first thing in the morning and can’t get back in until 9:00 at night — not even then unless they return to the intake center, as Marta Berensin at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless recently testified.

And, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute adds, not unless it’s again freezing-cold outside. Otherwise, they may have no place that’s even marginally safe to spend the night.

Needless to say, I hope, working parents can’t return to the intake center over and over again without putting their jobs at risk. Parents who do return have to hang out someplace, with all their belongings and their kids, well into the evening.

So it should hardly surprise us that the number of new shelter placements has dropped precipitously — or that families in the rec centers are “finding other options on their own,” as DHS Director David Berns told the Interagency Council on Homelessness last week.

I’d guess these are mostly doubled-up arrangements like those the Mayor’s bill would constrain homeless families to agree to. As I said before, they’re inherently unstable — even if not a sequential couple of days here, couple of weeks there.

Others may be egregiously unsafe. We know that domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness for women with children. We know that they often return to their abusers because they’ve nowhere else to go when the time they can spend in a shelter runs out.

Might some make the same choice if the only shelter for them and their kids is a partitioned-off nighttime space in a rec center?

In short, the rec center placements are a pernicious form of diversion. Berns seemingly felt he had no other option.

Spaces at the DC General family shelter weren’t opening up fast enough — in part because DHS couldn’t rapidly re-house as many families as it needed to.

All the low-cost motel rooms it had contracted for were full. It couldn’t find any more, Berns told his ICH colleagues. So he concluded, “We’re stuck.”

Maybe. But I can’t persuade myself that the Mayor couldn’t have unstuck the agency if he didn’t view diversion, by any means possible, as an appealing solution to what his chief of staff referred to as “a crisis of too many families in shelter.”

As Berensin pointed out, the Mayor found $9 million to gift housed District residents with new Supercans. For that, he could have provided hundreds of homeless families with locally-funded vouchers to subsidize market-based rents.

He could create vouchers for about 140 families* right now, using only the additional revenues the Chief Financial Officer recently projected for the current fiscal year.

Subsidizing housing would be a whole lot cheaper than sheltering the homeless families — and altogether better for them too, especially those the administration is warehousing in rec centers.

* This estimate is based on the average 2012 cost of a tenant-based voucher for a three-person family — the average size of families in shelter now. It may, therefore, be somewhat too high, though Berensin’s testimony suggests otherwise.


Aunt Suzy Is No Answer to DC Homeless Family Crisis

February 24, 2014

As expected, Mayor Gray has asked the DC Council to pass proposed changes to the Homeless Services Reform Act as emergency legislation, i.e., on a single vote instead of the usual two and without a public hearing.

There’s an emergency all right. Nearly 750 families are in the DC General shelter or in cheap motels because they had no safe place to stay when it was freezing cold outside — the only time the District will grant families shelter now.

Gray’s chief of staff nevertheless says that those of us talking of a homeless family crisis are wrong. The crisis is simply “too many families in shelters.”

So the administration plans to keep them out, “even if that means living with a grandmother, a sister, whatever.” Even if that means, as it frequently will, creating another crisis for the homeless family.

The Mayor has, for all intents and purposes, resurrected a proposal the Council wisely rejected last year. He wants to institute provisional placements. This is what the Mayor’s plan means by taking “advantage of all opportunities to keep families in their communities.”

Now, doesn’t that sound better than giving families a choice of sleeping on Aunt Suzy’s floor for the weekend or in a Metro station?

I’d intended to run through all the things wrong with the provisional placement proposal, but lead advocates beat me to it. And did a better job than I would have.

So I suggest you read the assessment of the Mayor’s plan by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute’s Policy Director Jenny Reed and Policy Analyst Kate Coventry and the Huffington Post column by Patty Mullahy Fugere, Executive Director of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.

These responses are all the more important because the Mayor misleadingly claims that his emergency legislation is “part of a comprehensive new strategy developed in partnership with many of the District’s homeless advocates and service providers.”

Two parts of the plan, which is far from comprehensive, do reflect recommendations in the advocate-service provider strategy I recently wrote about. I understand that some of the authors have been talking with the Department of Human Services about how to implement them.

But there’s nothing in the strategy that could be construed as recommending provisional placements aimed at coercing homeless families into doubled-up situations.

Fundamentally, that’s because they don’t, as the Mayor claims, increase families’ “chances for stability.” Quite the contrary. They’re inherently unstable — and thus a major risk factor for future homelessness, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

We don’t need data to know this, though we do have them. Consider Aunt Suzy, the mythical relative my husband Jesse and I refer to when we talk about provisional placements.

She’s used to living alone and somewhat set in her ways. So she and her homeless niece start bickering about one thing and another. She gets tired of having kids running around — or crying in the middle of the night. She misses her privacy — and use of her living room for something other than a makeshift sleeping space.

And this assumes she’d welcomed the family for an indefinite stay. The Mayor’s bill would authorize an “alternative housing arrangement” far more unstable than this.

An arrangement DHS would have the “flexibility” to impose could be no more than a weekend with Aunt Suzy — followed perhaps, the DCFPI analysts suggest, by a couple of days with someone else. Yet a family would have no choice but to accept the arrangement or fend for itself on the streets.

Families couldn’t return to shelter — even provisionally — unless it was freezing cold outside. And those placed with friends or relatives in public housing will probably be on the streets in April.

This is because the Mayor’s plan takes a stab at addressing advocates’ concerns that doubled-up arrangements could violate leases and thus put hosts at risk of eviction.

But all it does is relax the occupancy rules in public housing (not Aunt Suzy’s duplex because it couldn’t) until the winter season ends. At that point, shelter doors will again close to families and remain closed until November.

The bottom line here is that the Gray administration has a serious problem. And it’s trying to solve it in part by shirking responsibility for the well-being of vulnerable District residents.

Note, the homeless families are residents or they wouldn’t have passed the initial screening Fugere mentions. The Maryland and Virginia families who’re supposedly overwhelming our shelter system are as mythical as Aunt Suzy.

The D.C. families the Mayor wants to put in provisional placements have been evicted — even perhaps from a doubled-up situation. Or they’ve had to flee from an abuser or housing that was unsafe for some other reason.

So they’ve already experienced an upheaval. The end of a provisional placement — no more than two weeks from the time it began — creates another. The sort of alternative housing arrangement that Gray and his people have in mind sets them up for another.

And for the possibility of living in “places not meant for human habitation,” as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development puts it, until the next freezing-cold day, when the cycle will begin again.

Research tells us that emotional and behavioral problems resulting from the stress of constant change are among the many negative effects of homelessness on children. This is partly because constant upheaval and uncertainty cause stress for parents too.

Rolled together, they help explain why homeless children often fall behind in school. So does having no place to do homework except in Aunt Suzy’s crowded living room — or a train station.

You’d think the Mayor, who truly does want those standardized test scores to rise, would care about this. Not, however, apparently as much as diverting homeless families from shelter — and getting them out of the news.


More and Less Money for Affordable Housing in DC

February 11, 2013

Well, Mayor Gray finally said what a majority of District of Columbia residents at his One City Summit implicitly called for a year ago. He’ll invest in affordable housing.

Local advocates have long been beating the drum for a bigger commitment, most recently at the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development’s Housing for All rally.

Now it seems the Mayor has enough confidence in the upward revenue trajectory — and enough confidence that the Chief Financial Officer will acknowledge it — to propose a $100 million investment in preserving and creating more affordable housing.

Affordable for whom is an unanswered question. The Mayor cited seniors, District employees (specifically police officers, firefighters and teachers) and “the most vulnerable residents, like people who are homeless and those with disabilities.”

Needless to say, what’s affordable for a teacher is far from affordable for a homeless family. And we’ve got seniors at all income levels — up to and above the $69,530 that would qualify a couple for housing that could be officially designated as affordable here.

Also unanswered is what the promised investment will achieve. The Mayor cited 10,000 affordable units. A little back of the envelope math shows that would mean, on average, $10,000 per unit.

You can’t produce housing for that, says Bob Pohlman, CNHED’s Executive Director.

Nor would any units created be affordable for the District’s lowest income residents if the investment the Mayor talked about weren’t paired with housing vouchers.

These, notes the DC Fiscal Policy Institute’s housing expert Jenny Reed, require annual funding. And, as she tactfully doesn’t note, it shouldn’t be taken out of another affordable housing program, as the last two budgets have done.

The Mayor’s recognition that a city so flush with cash shouldn’t keep hoarding it all is welcome, however, as is his recognition of those “most vulnerable residents.”

DC General — the District’s main shelter for homeless families — had no vacant units, as of early last month, according to a new, profoundly disturbing report by the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.

The Department of Human Services won’t provide any family with a safe place to stay unless freezing temperatures give it no legal option or there’s room at DC General

And when the winter season officially ends, families with no place to stay will again be on their own, unless some of the units DHS originally planned to use this winter are vacant.

They would be, of course, if families now occupying them could afford to move into housing.

Ironically, both the Mayor’s announcement and the Legal Clinic’s report come at a time when the federal government — long a weak housing partner — is poised to further reduce funding.

The across-the-board cuts I’ve gloomily forecast will include housing assistance programs. Also homeless assistance grants, though it seems reasonable to expect an uptick in homelessness as housing agencies retrench.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities gives us specifics for the nation as a whole and for the District, as well as each state. Briefly:

  • The Housing Choice vouchers cut will leave an estimated 111,233 families without this form of housing assistance. Here in the District, 530 fewer families will have these vouchers, according to CBPP’s estimate.*
  • Public housing funding will be cut by $298 million, leaving less for both ongoing operations and expenditures to keep — or in some cases, make — facilities livable. The District will lose more than $2.9 million.
  • Funding for HOPWA (Housing Opportunities for Persons With AIDS) will be cut by $15 million. For the District, this will mean about $694,800 less to house and serve one of our highly vulnerable populations.
  • Homeless assistance grants will be cut by a total $100 million. The District’s share will be $1.1 million — this on top of original $7 million shortfall that DHS is trying to make up for.

These are far from the only federal fund losses the District will sustain unless Republicans and Democrats in Congress come together on a plan to halt sequestration — or rather, a plan that doesn’t make even larger cuts on the non-defense side of the budget.

Even the sample here, however, shows that the Mayor and DC Council will have challenges barely hinted at in the State of the District address.

Will they view them as occasions to tap the reserves the Mayor is so proud of building, even at the expense of vulnerable residents’ urgent needs?

Or will our rip roaring economy yield enough revenues to close the gaps — and still leave enough for the Mayor’s new affordable housing commitment?

Or will he seek to fulfill that commitment no matter what happens to the homeless individuals and families who need long-term affordable housing right now?

As with the impacts of the commitment itself, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

* The Director of the DC Housing Authority told me several weeks ago that she thought sequestration would require DCHA to hold back about 200 vouchers rather than reissue them when households no longer needed or were eligible for them. I sent her the CBPP report, with a request for her views. She has thus far not responded.

UPDATE: CBPP has just slightly revised its estimates of the total spending cuts for programs subject to annual appropriations, as the various kinds of housing assistance and homeless assistance grants are. This means that the dollar figures above may be somewhat too low.


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.


Homelessness, Child Poverty Not Emergencies, DC Mayor and Council Decide

November 5, 2012

Last Thursday, the DC Council hastily approved emergency legislation* Mayor Gray had requested to spend $23 million left over from last fiscal year.

As the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports, the funds went to the District’s charter and regular public schools, the Metro system, parks and recreation and the detention facility for youth who’ve gotten in trouble with the law.

At least some of the money may have been needed to cover agency budget overruns. These are prohibited by the Anti-Deficiency Act.

But it’s hard to see how technology upgrades for the public schools would qualify as an emergency. What we see here rather is a clear display of the Mayor’s priorities — and perhaps the Council majority’s as well.

The Fair Budget Coalition and allies had earlier asked the Mayor to propose a bill that would allocate some of the projected $140 million revenue surplus — another pot of found money — to three top priorities he and the Council had already agreed on.

These priorities would have served pressing needs of the District’s homeless residents and its families (many of them homeless) in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

They would also have restored some of the funds diverted from the Housing Production Trust  Fund, thus supporting efforts to address the acute shortage of affordable housing here.

Not only homeless families, but some of the 36,000 District households who are paying half or more of their income for rent would have been better off.

The FBC requests were carefully framed to be one-time spending because laws governing the District’s budget prohibit measures that could create deficits in future years.

The proposals the Council just approved instead were also for one-time funding.

So the Mayor clearly could have decided that it was more urgent to mend the safety net and/or shore up the Trust Fund than to give nearly $7 million more to the public school system, plus an equal amount to the charter schools — the latter nominally for facilities, but actually for whatever they want.

Or, as DCFPI suggested, the Council could have postponed final decisions on how best to spend as much of the new-found money as wasn’t needed to cover overruns.

Some Councilmembers reportedly were fussed that the Mayor waited until the eleventh hour to give them a plan for the extra $23 million. But only two fussed enough to dig in their heels.

Set aside what seems to be deliberate manipulation — “a gun to our head,” in Councilmember Catania’s words.

I’d have thought that Councilmembers would have had enough concern for the priorities they’d already identified to balk at a bill that totally ignored them.

Shouldn’t they, at the very least, have wanted to make sure that the emergency shelter and other services triggered by Hurricane Sandy didn’t leave the Department of Human Services even shorter on funds than it’s likely to be?

I know this sounds as if I don’t care about the quality of public education D.C. children receive. In fact, I care a lot.

I do think, however, that the Mayor and Council might have considered that homelessness puts children at high risk for academic failure — no matter how nifty a “learning environment” their schools provide.

Living in a home where there’s not enough money to keep the heat and lights on doesn’t help kids get a quality education either.

Nor shoes that pinch because a new pair isn’t affordable. Nor the stress of worrying whether your belongings will be all piled on the sidewalk when you get home.

All more likely for the nearly 14,000 children in families who’ll soon lose a hefty portion of their very low cash benefits from the District’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

DCFPI thanks the Mayor and Council for putting $11 million more into the TANF program.

But these are funds the Mayor had promised over two months ago. And they’ll delay the scheduled benefits cuts only until April.

Some 6,100 families will face dire emergencies then — as may hundreds of homeless men and women who could be out on the streets because DHS doesn’t have enough money to shelter them.

Not enough money to shelter newly homeless families either, though the benefits cuts will presumably create more of them.

All emergencies worth some of that $23 million, I think.

* The Council designates bills as emergency legislation to bypass requirements that ordinarily require two votes at successive meetings, plus 30 days for Congressional review (and potential disapproval).


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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