Not Nearly Enough Housing Affordable for Lowest-Income Renters, Nationwide and in DC

March 16, 2015

Nearly a quarter of renter households nationwide fell into the extremely low-income category in 2013, i.e., had incomes at or below 30% of the median for the area they lived in, according to a new National Low Income Housing Coalition report.

Three quarters of these 10.3 million or so households paid at least half their income for rent and basic utilities. This is one measure of the shortage of affordable rental housing in our country — only 31 units affordable and available to rent for every 100 ELI households.

The gap was much greater for the subset of households NLIHC classifies as deeply low-income, i.e. those with incomes no greater than 15% of their area’s median. Only 17 affordable, available units for every 100 of them, making for a shortage of 3.4 million units.

All but 5% of the DLI households paid more than half their income for rent, plus utilities. These, recall, are households that somehow scraped up the money. We don’t have a reliable figure for those who were homeless because they couldn’t.

Surprisingly, at least to me, the figures for the District are somewhat better. But they still confirm the need for more affordable housing, especially for the very lowest-income residents.

And perhaps the figures are overly rosy because, as I’ve written before, the area the District belongs to for affordability calculations includes some very well-off nearby communities.

With that caveat, here’s what NLIHC reports. In 2013:

  • The District had 40 affordable, available units for every 100 ELI households, making for a total shortage 32,752.
  • For every 100 DLI households, only 34 units were affordable and available — a shortage of 21,038.
  • All but 35% of ELI households and 26% of DLI households paid at least half their income for rent, plus utilities.

These figures, recall, are more than a year old. We’ve had condo conversions, out-in-out apartment house demolitions and subsidized housing losses since. Rents have risen, sometimes quite a lot, even for tenants supposedly protected by the District’s rent control laws.

The figures are nevertheless timely because the Mayor and her people are deep into developing the proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year. As the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports, they’ve got to close a $200 million gap between projected revenues and the funds needed to sustain existing programs and services.

Any significantly larger investment to create and preserve affordable housing would widen the gap the Mayor would have to close because the District’s budget must, by law, balance every year.

A wider gap likewise if she — or alternatively, the DC Council — opts for greater investments in housing vouchers — either those that subsidize affordable housing operations or those that enable ELI/DLI households to rent at market rates or both, as the Fair Budget Coalition has recommended.

And again a wider gap if our policymakers boost funding for short-shot assistance that would enable some of those households to catch up on overdue rent or move to a cheaper place, if they can find it.

DCFPI recommends that the Mayor use some of the funds left over from last fiscal year, but they can’t be used for investments that involve multi-year commitments. So it also recommends that she “find ways to raise revenues.” This, I take it, is a tactful way to broach the subject of tax increases.

It’s hard to see how the District will significantly reduce homelessness without them. Because, however complex and diverse the root causes, homelessness for each individual and family reflects their inability to pay for rent, plus the bills for lighting, heating and the like.

Every one of the ELI and DLI households that’s paying over half its income for rent, plus utilities is at high risk of homelessness. Investments in affordable housing for them will pay off in lower costs in other areas — including, but not limited to shelter.

That’s not the only reason the Mayor and Council should make affordable housing a priority — preservation, first and foremost, but creation to replace lost units too.

We have the diversity of our community to consider. We’ve got the well-being and future prospects of children who suffer not only from homelessness, but from unstable housing — and from the stresses their parents experience as they try to earn enough and juggle the bills to keep them somehow housed.

If tax increases are needed, I’ll willingly pay my share. I’d like to think that others whose incomes are well above the ELI/DLI maximums will do so too.

NOTE: As I put the finishing touches on this post, DCFPI issued its own meaty report on “DC’s vanishing affordable housing.” The report includes a number of recommendations for policies to reverse the trends it documents. Highly recommended.


DC Coalition Calls for Some Spending Increases, But They Could Save Money … and Lives

January 29, 2015

A new mayor in the District of Columbia. New appointments to senior administrative positions. Three new Councilmembers — and two more to come.

Unexpected challenges for them all because the current fiscal year’s budget seems likely to be short about $83.3 million. It could be considerably more if the District decides to, at along last, settle its overtime dispute with the firefighters.

And there’s a bigger potential budget gap for next fiscal year — perhaps $161.3 million, according to the Chief Financial Officer’s latest estimate of the costs of District agency operations.

Into this still-fluid environment comes the Fair Budget Coalition, with its annual recommendations for (what else?) a budget and related policies that are fair to all District residents. “Fair,” as its mission statement says, means policies, including budgets, that “address poverty and human needs.”

As I’ve remarked before, FBC’s recommendations, worthy as they all may be, tend to be difficult to wrap up in a blog post because they’re a compendium of top priorities identified by working groups that focus on diverse issue areas — housing and homelessness, workforce development and income supports, etc.

So, at least for now, just a few observations.

Everything Is Connected To Everything Else

Though FBC offers diverse recommendations, they fit together, as all speakers on the panel the coalition hosted on report release day emphasized.

For example, if you’re homeless, free health care — and prescription drugs — won’t keep you from suffering life-threatening emergencies because it’s hard to follow a doctor’s recommendations when you’re out on the streets. And impossible, of course, to keep medications refrigerated, though you know some won’t be effective if you don’t.

Thus, said panelist Maria Gomez, the founder and CEO of Mary’s Center, “Health care will not help without other investments” — in the immediate case, obviously affordable housing. Perhaps other public benefits also, e.g., nutrition assistance, transportation subsidies.

A Budget Gap Doesn’t Make Spending Recommendations Moot

FBC’s recommendations seem to involve about $45.2 million in additional spending, plus some unspecified amounts, at least one of which would add to the tab. Some of the total could be offset by a pair of tax recommendations, however.

One would make the local income tax system “more progressive,” i.e., shift more of the tax burden to high-earners. The other would raise the property tax rate on “high value” homes and homes that the owners don’t live in for most of the year.

No revenue estimates for these, however — at least, not yet. More importantly, I’m inclined to doubt that the Bowser administration and the Council would revisit tax reform at this point, since the current budget adopts key recommendations that emerged from the Tax Revision Commission’s studies, debates and ultimate compromises.

This doesn’t mean that the District simply can’t afford the spending FBC recommends, budget gap notwithstanding. For one thing, the gap, large as it may seem, is only 2.3% of the projected FY 2016 budget.

For another, it’s far from certain that everything the District now spends money on is the best investment of our taxpayer dollars.

Take, for example, the Film Incentive Fund, beloved by Councilmember Vincent Orange. We’ve got research showing that the tax subsidies and other incentives used to entice TV and movie companies to film in the District don’t even pay for themselves, let alone generate additional revenues.

Nor, according to studies elsewhere, do they create steady, full-time work for residents. Not much work at all, in fact.

Just an example of where one might look for funds to, say, actually improve employment prospects for low-income residents. The modest investment FBC recommends to create career pathways for D.C. adults without basic literacy and math skills probably would.

Connections Have Budget Implications

The Mayor and Council don’t need to short worthwhile programs in order to shore up others because investing more in some yields high returns in savings and/or revenue increases. Here’s a pair of related examples — often cited.

FBC recommends an additional $12 million to expand permanent supportive housing for people with disabilities who’ve been homeless for a long time or recurrently. Studies in other communities have found that PSH not only prolongs and improves lives, but usually costs less than leaving chronically homeless people on the streets or sheltering them overnight.

Likewise, vouchers that enable homeless and at-risk families to afford market-rate housing and other vouchers that help cover the operating costs of affordable housing not only provide families with a safe, stable place to live — and thus a healthier environment and a secure platform for working or preparing for work.

These indefinite-term vouchers also cost less than a third of what the District spends, per family, on shelter at the notoriously awful DC General — or the hotels that it’s again constrained to use as shelter because there’s no room left at DCG.

No room left because the Department of Human Services can’t move enough families out fast enough to make room for all the newly-homeless families entitled to shelter. While DHS had reportedly achieved a so-called exit rate of 64 families per month, only 37 families exited the emergency shelter system during the last four weeks we’ve got (unpublished) reports on.

More locally-funded housing vouchers, especially the kind families can use in the private market as long as they have to would swiftly free up shelter space and/or keep families from needing it.

Cost-savings include not only shelter, but the collateral costs of harms associated with homelessness, especially for children. These include, but are not limited to health, behavioral and academic problems that can ultimately diminish earning power — and thus tax revenues. More immediate costs — some justified, some perhaps not — include interventions by the child welfare agency.

By these lights, FBC’s recommendation for an additional $10 million in locally-funded housing vouchers, split evenly between the first and second type, makes sense from a fiscal, as well as a moral — or if you prefer, humanitarian — perspective.

 


More High-Poverty Neighborhoods in DC Area, Less Affordable Housing in DC

January 8, 2015

I couldn’t say nearly everything I wanted to about high-poverty neighborhoods in a single post. So I focused only on the big picture. The report I took off from, however, includes breakdowns for each of the major metro areas the researchers analyzed.

So here’s what we learn from it and other sources about the District of Columbia.

The report itself doesn’t provide figures for the District because it carves out some census tracts, i.e., small, relatively permanent subdivisions of a county or the equivalent, as a surrogate for a neighborhood.

So what we get are figures for the central business district and tracts within 10 miles of that — basically, what we consider the Washington metro area, less perhaps some of the more distant suburban neighborhoods.

Some surprises here, at least for me, especially given all we hear about gentrification — and all we who live in the District and nearby suburbs see.

For example, the number of high-poverty neighborhoods in the metro area increased from 19 to 41 between 1970 and 2010. And the number of poor people in these neighborhoods more than doubled.

Only six neighborhoods that were high-poverty at the beginning of the period had poverty rates at or below 15% at the end. And only seven had poverty rates at or above 30% in both years. So newly high-poverty neighborhoods account for most of the increase.

This may have something to do with the fact that the metro area, like the country as a whole, had experienced large poverty increases during the Great Recession, which officially ended less than a year before the Census Bureau took its read on poverty in 2010. But that’s not the whole story.

An earlier Urban Institute study traced the growing diversity of the area’s poor population — and more to the point, where poor blacks, whites and Latinos lived in 1990 and during what was then the most recent five-year period the American Community Survey covered.

The Institute’s maps show how poor blacks had remained heavily concentrated east of the Anacostia River. Poor Latinos, who were once clustered in the now-gentrified Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights neighborhoods, had been displaced. Both they and poor whites were widely scattered throughout the region.

As a result, only one high-poverty census tract was outside the city limits during 2005-9, even though far more poor people lived in the suburbs than in the District. What we see here, the researchers say, is “how stubborn” the legacy of official segregation, persistent race discrimination and public housing policies are.

Still another evolving Institute study focuses solely on changes in the District itself. We see how the population has rebounded, mainly because whites are moving in faster than blacks are moving out.

We see, as if we didn’t already know, how housing costs are soaring, sending the number of units affordable for the lowest-income residents plummeting.

Somewhere around 46,500 households lived in subsidized housing in 2013, according to Institute estimates. As many as 28,000 were in “assisted” housing that’s privately owned. Local funds presumably supplied the assistance, since the Institute accounts for public housing and federally-funded vouchers separately.

It warns that affordable housing owners and developers in fast-growing, gentrifying neighborhoods “may decide it is more lucrative to switch to … providing luxury apartments or condominiums.”

Some already have. Between 2000 and mid-2007, the city lost nearly 2,000 affordable units because owners decided not to renew the time-limited contracts they’d agree to in exchange for federal vouchers that subsidized below-market rents.

Aaron Wiener at Washington City Paper warns of more affordable unit losses when obligations based on another financing source expire. But some owners may keep their apartments affordable, he says, especially those in the poor neighborhoods east of the river.

Not a good sign for achieving less concentrated poverty there, though one wouldn’t wish for even less affordable housing, of course.

“DC has a challenge ahead,” the Urban Institute observes. “Once-neglected neighborhoods … are now recovering and even thriving — but revitalization can drive out long-time residents. How can we make sure they have the opportunity to stay and benefit from the city’s new prosperity?”

And how can we ensure they’re not packed into high-poverty neighborhoods, with all the disadvantages those entail?

We have a new mayor now. She’s said that affordable housing is a high priority for her. And the people she’s chosen to head both the Department of Housing and Community Development and Human Services seem to back that up.

Over in the DC Council, Chairman Mendelson has restructured committee responsibilities, in part to sharpen the Council’s focus on housing and homelessness.

The new chair of the Housing and Community Development sponsored a bill that would have accelerated the loss of affordable housing. But we’ll have to wait and see how she addresses her part of the challenge.

To say it’s a big challenge for all concerned would be an understatement, even if everyone were on the same page. Doubtful, if past is prologue. But again, we’ll have to wait and see.


Some Good Things That Happened This Month … and Some Bad

December 22, 2014

Well, you know the big good thing, of course. We didn’t have another government shutdown. And we’ve got a budget that will defer further Republican efforts to gut domestic spending until work on next year’s budget begins. Only a brief respite, however, from efforts to block the President’s recently-announced immigration enforcement policies.

You know some of the big bad things too, I suppose. Banks will again be allowed to invest federally-insured deposits — your savings and mine — in some risky derivatives, e.g., bets on the creditworthiness of borrowers.

And very wealthy people will be allowed to donate a whole lot more to the national political parties — a far less risky investment in election results and policy decisions that serve their interest.

For us who live in the District of Columbia, the override of our vote to legalize small-scale marijuana possession and production is a big bad thing too — if not in itself, then because it’s a grating reminder that Congress can meddle in our local affairs whenever it chooses.

Other good and bad things happened this month that didn’t get as much media attention. Here are four that follow through on issues I’ve been blogging about.

Funding for the National Housing Trust Fund

The National Housing Trust Fund will, at long last, have some money for grants to support the development and preservation of affordable housing — mostly rental housing for the very lowest-income households.

Brief review of the history for those who’ve lost track.

When Congress created the Fund, in 2008, it designated a certain percent of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s new business as the main revenue stream. Well, you know what happened to them when the housing market tanked at about the same time.

Despite the recovery, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which took over their affairs, preserved its freeze on their contributions to the Fund.

We’ve had a series of legislative proposals to create another revenue stream. Nothing’s come of any of them — or of the one-time financing the President has included in his proposed budgets.

Earlier this month, FHFA told Fannie and Freddie to begin transferring money to the Fund, as the law that created it envisioned. Hardly the be-all and end-all for the acute shortage of housing that affordable for extremely low-income people, but every bit helps.

A Boost for High-Quality, Affordable Child Care

The budget package Congress just passed includes an additional $75 million for the recently updated and improved Child Care and Development Block Grant. The increase will surely help, though, as CLASP says, far more will be needed.

States will have to spend more to carry out their mandated responsibilities, as my overview of the new block grant law noted. They’ll need even more funds to reverse the downward trend in the number of children with CCDBG-subsidized child care — fewer in 2012 than in any year since 1998.

But again, every bit helps. And it’s encouraging to see continuing bipartisan support for high-quality child care that’s affordable for low-income families, as it surely isn’t without a subsidy.

Another Funding Cut for the IRS

The just-passed budget package cut funding for the Internal Revenue Services by $346 million, leaving the agency with less, in real dollars, than in any year since 2000, when it had fewer tax returns to process and fewer responsibilities as well.

This is a good thing if you’re anxious about having your tax returns audited. Not a good thing if you want an IRS representative to answer questions so you can file an accurate return.

And a very bad thing indeed if you’re worried about insufficient funding for non-defense programs, including those intended to provide both opportunities and a safety net for low-income individuals and families.

Or, for that matter, if you’re worried about the deficit. And we who care about these programs should be, since it’s been used to justify harmful spending cuts, including, but not limited to those Congress has already passed.

Because less money for the IRS means less money to offset spending. The Treasury Department estimates that every $1 spent on enforcement yields a $6 return in revenues collected. Citizens for Tax Justice cites considerably higher ROI figures.

The latest funding cut seems likely to further reduce the number of audits the IRS conducts — especially the potentially high-yielding, complex audits of high-income individuals and big businesses.

Thus, says sharp-witted economist/blogger Jared Bernstein, the budget cut is “a way to cut taxes without explicit tax cuts.” And tax cuts without offsetting revenue-raisers mean a shrinking pot of money for the already-squeezed non-defense share of the budget.

Another Victory for the White Potato

Buried deep in the budget package, we find a provision that requires the U.S. Department of Agriculture to add white potatoes to the list of foods that states must and can include in their own WIC packages, i.e., what low-income mothers of young children can buy with their WIC coupons or the equivalent.

The coupons are supposed to supplement the family’s diet with nutrients it might otherwise not get enough of. So the list includes foods like whole-grain bread, low-fat dairy products and fruits and vegetables. These reflect recommendations by experts at the Institute of Medicine.

The IOM panel did not recommend white potatoes because, in its view, mothers and their young children already ate quite enough of them. The potato industry loudly protested. And Congress members from potato-growing states swiftly launched a series of maneuvers to insert white potatoes into the WIC list.

Now they’ve succeeded — a first-time-ever successful effort to override the scientific judgment the WIC list reflects. Not, however, the first time Congressional potato champions have successfully interfered with dietary guidelines for federally-subsidized meals.

Further proof, were any needed, that bipartisan isn’t always better.

NOTE: I’m painfully conscious that I’ve left out some noteworthy good things — and some bad as well. What would you add?

 


Acute Affordable Housing Shortage for Lowest-Income Renters

September 11, 2014

A new and notable brief from the National Low Income Housing Coalition provides further evidence of the shortage of housing that low-income individuals and families can afford to rent.

As in the past, NLIHC flags the acute shortage of units that extremely low-income households could rent at an affordable rate, i.e., for no more than 30% of their income.

ELI households are the poorest category used for publicly-subsidized affordable housing — and the poorest analysts customarily use. They’re those whose incomes are at or below 30% of the median for the area they live in.

The most notable thing about the NLIHC analysis is that it introduces a new poor category — deeply low-income households. Their incomes are, at most, 15% of the applicable AMI.

ELI and DLI Renters Nationwide

DLI households are part of the ELI category, but we can see how recent housing and income trends have disadvantaged them the most. For example, in 2012, the latest Census figures NLIHC had to work with:

  • There were 10.3 million ELI renter households nationwide, but only 3.2 million available units they could afford — in other words, 31 for every 100 households.
  • Of these households, 4 million were DLI.* The shortage for them was nearly as great as their number — 3.4 million units. This translates into 16 units for every 100 households.
  • All but 13% of ELI households paid more than they could afford for rent, plus basic utilities. And 75% of them paid more than half their income for these basic needs.
  • Housing burdens, as they’re called, were even worse for DLI households. Ninety percent paid more than they could afford and 95% more than half their income.

Drilling Down to DC

Another notable thing is that NLIHC includes (un)affordability figures for states and the District of Columbia and for major metropolitan areas, including the one used to set the AMI for the District. So we who have a particular interest in affordable housing for the District’s lowest-income residents have new grist for our mills.

Somewhat surprising, at least to me, is the fact that the crunch for them is apparently somewhat less severe than the nationwide crunch — at least, according to the NLIHC figures. We should take them with a grain of salt, however, because the AMI for the District is considerably higher than the District’s own median income.

That said, the local housing market is hardly friendly to the District’s lowest-income renters. And we’ve got a lot of them. NLIHC reports that:

  • There were 26,485 ELI households in 2012 and only 45 affordable, available rental units for every 100 of them.
  • Nearly 71% of them — 18,750 — were DLI households. For them, the affordable housing shortage was worse — 34 units for every 100 households.
  • All but 29% of the ELI households — and all but 23% of those in the DLI subgroup — paid more than half their income for rent.

So for large majorities of both, rental housing wasn’t just somewhat unaffordable, but so unaffordable as to represent a significant risk of homelessness — or if not that, then other hardships.

Trade-Offs Made to Pay for Unaffordable Housing

A recent survey for the MacArthur Foundation found that nearly two-thirds of childless adults — and 75% of parents — whose rents or mortgages were unaffordable had made at least one trade-off in order to cover their housing costs.

Trade-offs included cutting back on health care and/or “healthy food,” amassing credit card debt and giving up on saving for retirement.

Why ELI and DLI Renters Can’t Find Affordable Units

As NLIHC has explained before, part of the problem is that more higher-income households are choosing to rent. So the law of supply and demand has kicked in, driving up what landlords charge.

At the same time, developers have seen a money-making opportunity. Of the 2.5 million rental units added to local markets since 2009, fewer than half a million were affordable for households with incomes below 80% of the AMI, i.e., the highest of the low-income tiers.

It’s also the case, however, that higher-income renters are occupying units that ELI households could afford — about 45% of them nationwide. A recent in-depth study of the Washington metro area came up with virtually the same crowd-out figure.

So there’s a large unmet need for low-cost units. But, as NLIHC says, organizations that want to help meet it face significant challenges, e.g., insufficient subsidies for both developers and operators, who can’t otherwise cover their costs with the rents they’ll collect.

A clarion call for greater public investments in affordable housing programs, of course. And since we can’t look to Congress any time soon, state and local governments, including the District, will have to do more for their lowest-income residents.

Obvious, but I felt I had to say it.

* The American Community Survey, which NLIHC used for most of its analysis, reaches only people who are in some manner housed. So the affordable housing shortage for the very lowest-income individuals and families is even greater than reported, as the brief duly notes.


Another Round in the Debate Over Who Is Truly Homeless

August 25, 2014

The National Alliance to End Homelessness has again raised objections to the proposed Homeless Children and Youth Act — the formal title of a pair of bills now pending in Congress.

As I earlier wrote, they would expand the definition of “homeless” that controls uses communities may make of their federal homeless assistance grants.

They would, among other things, extend eligibility to homeless children and youth if they’re living doubled up with friends or relatives or in a cheap motel, just as they’re already eligible for services from public schools that receive funds under another part of the same law.

Families and children could become eligible in other ways as well, as could youth who are out in the world by themselves, without a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.”

NAEH argues that federal funds for homeless people can’t even meet the needs of those already eligible. “Tens of thousands of families and unaccompanied youth go unsheltered every night,” it says, “because there is not enough money to serve them all.”

No one, I think, would say otherwise. Funding for homeless assistance grants has remained virtually flat since Fiscal Year 2010. And they will get either no increase or a very small one when Congress gets around to agreeing on funding for the upcoming fiscal year.

NAEH also notes egregious under-funding for programs the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services administers for unaccompanied youth who’ve run away from home or are homeless for other reasons.

These programs, plus HUD’s serve barely 14% of these youth now, according to the Alliance’s estimates.

But NAEH goes further. “[M]ost people in doubled up households are not homeless,” it says. And the HEARTH Act, which governs HUD’s homeless assistance program, already covers those who are.

Some of them are people who’ll have no place to stay at the end of two weeks. Others are those who’ve fled — or urgently need to flee — the place they’ve been living because of domestic violence or some other dangerous situation, if they don’t have the resources or networks to move into other housing.

For the rest, NAEH says, the answer is HUD-funded rental assistance. But, it continues, there’s not enough money for that either. Indeed.

Only about one in four very low-income households receives rental assistance, according to HUD’s latest (somewhat outdated) assessment. And the prospects for the remainder are dismal.

In fact, we may be looking at a loss of even more than the 72,000 or so housing vouchers local agencies retired to deal with the across-the-board cuts in 2013, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports.

Like as not, the agencies will also have to keep more public housing units vacant because they won’t have the funds to make essential repairs.

So NAEH is right in saying that we need a significant increase in funding for affordable housing.

What divides the Alliance from the large coalition that supports the bills is its view that we need to preserve the current restrictive definition of “homeless” so that “the very limited resources” available remain “dedicated to children, youth, and families who are without any housing at all.”

It essentially pits their needs against those of families and youth who are living doubled up. The proposed legislation, it says, “asks people living on the street and in shelter to compete with them.”

Not really. The bills would merely allow communities to include services for the newly-eligible families and unaccompanied youth in the plans they must submit to receive homeless assistance grants — and prohibit HUD from denying them grants merely because it has other priorities.

The larger issue, I suppose, is whether we should draw a bright, white line between families who are living with Aunt Suzy one month and a charitable friend the next and those who’ve exhausted such options.

Should we put families living in motels through two extra weeks of acute anxiety and stress before we offer them HUD-funded rapid re-housing, knowing they won’t have enough money to stay where they are?

And do we really want young people who’ve left their families, been kicked out or aged out of foster care to bounce from one couch to another when we know this puts them at risk of abuse, problems (or worse problems) in school and more?

NAEH apparently feels we must because the Homeless Children and Youth Act doesn’t increase funding.

The National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth vehemently disagrees. It’s “nonsensical,” the Association says, to define a problem by the funding currently available to address it.

That just gives policymakers “an unrealistic view of the scope of the problem.” Congress “needs to know who and how many people are without housing in order to define effective solutions,” NAEHCY contends.

This seems to me as incontrovertible as what NAEH says about insufficient federal funding for both homeless and affordable housing programs. Yet Congress already knows more than enough to know it’s short-changing them.

Amending the HEARTH Act to include doubled-up families, motel-dwellers who can’t afford their rooms, couch-surfers and others precariously and perhaps unsafely housed would give communities more flexibility to develop plans based on their own assessments of local needs.

But until we have a Congress that’s prepared to spend more on our safety net, every dollar spent on the newly-eligible will be a dollar less for other homeless people — at least so far as federal dollars are concerned.

That much, I think, NAEH is right about. Whether dollars spent to keep doubled-up families and the rest from joining the already-eligible on the streets or in shelters is another matter.


New Rule Shows Need to Rename DC’s Rapid Re-Housing Program

August 7, 2014

The District’s Department of Human Services has issued another emergency rule* for its rapid re-housing program — formally named the Family Re-Housing and Stabilization Program. The notice says that the agency intends to make this one permanent.

It’s got me wondering what DHS has in mind for its rapid re-housing program — and what we should have in mind. Here’s why.

DHS has, in the past, looked to rapid re-housing as its main tool for getting homeless families out of the DC General shelter quickly so as to free up space for more. That has never worked out as planned, but it’s still apparently reflected in the agency’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

The budget assumes only 150 families at DC General and allocates no funds whatever for hotel rooms if this assumption proves egregiously over-optimistic.

So you’d think that DHS would give its all to make rapid re-housing an attractive option for homeless families — and to get all takers rapidly re-housed. You’d also think its recent experience with the Mayor’s 500 Families in 100 Days campaign would have made an imprint.

I’m thinking here about how the campaign managed to identify something pretty close to the targeted 500 acceptable units landlords would rent to families with only short-term housing subsidies.

Lots of outreach by nonprofits that had relationships with potentially willing landlords. Efforts to acquaint them with rapid re-housing — something hopeful parents couldn’t always do on their own. Reassurances that reportedly included promises of financial help if tenants defaulted.

Yet the FRSP rule instead requires homeless families to find suitable units, sign leases for them and actually move in within 30 days.

As a fallback, they can attempt to prove they’ve done their best to find a unit that a landlord will rent to them at a rate consistent with the applicable affordability standard — and one that can pass inspection.

Only then can the service provider they’ve been assigned to offer them a unit that’s already been identified as suitable and available, assuming such exists. The rule makes no provision for maintaining an inventory of units.

The burden on homeless families is consistent with what the emergency rule says FRSP will do — “provide District residents with financial assistance for purposes of helping them become rapidly re-housed” (emphasis added).

Staying re-housed is a whole other matter. DC Fiscal Policy Institute analyst Kate Coventry notes that families must initially pay 40% of their rental costs, rather than the 30% that’s used for public housing and indefinite-term housing vouchers — and more generally, as the maximum for housing affordability.

Families will then become responsible for increasing shares of their rent every four months, when their provider decides whether they’re still eligible for rapid re-housing. Or at the very least, their ability to pick up a bigger share will be a factor.

This is consistent with initial eligibility, as the rule defines it. Only families providing information leading to “a reasonable expectation” that they “will have the financial capacity to pay the full amount at the end of the FRSP assistance period” can qualify.

So in one respect, shifting the rent burden to them at four-month intervals might seem reasonable, especially because they’ll get no subsidy at the end of a year — unless their need for further assistance is “caused by extraordinary circumstances.” What those might be the rule doesn’t say.

We can assume, however, that merely lacking enough money to pay the rent won’t suffice. So a reality check seems in order.

Families who’ll get top priority for FRSP are those in a publicly-funded shelter or transitional housing and those who’ve been designated Priority One because they have no safe place to spend the night.

A large majority of those at DC General are enrolled in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. This means they are dirt poor and relying, at least officially, on benefits that wouldn’t begin to cover rental costs in the District.

By way of reference, the maximum monthly benefit for a family of three will probably be about $438 come October. A modest one-bedroom apartment costs, on average, roughly $1,240 a month, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s fair market rent calculations.

So a family that’s relying on TANF would have to rapidly bootstrap its way up the income scale to avoid becoming homeless again when its FRSP subsidy expired. And I do mean up. A full-time minimum wage job would leave the parent in our three-person family with about $305 for expenses after s/he paid the rent on the FMR apartment.

In short, FRSP, as now designed, may rapidly re-house homeless families. But it shouldn’t lay claim to stabilization. And though the name still does, the new rule doesn’t.

DCFPI’s comments on the new rule observe that the one it replaces defined the purpose of the program as “assisting … [families] to obtain and remain in a new rental unit.”

Now “and remain” is gone. And the rule is utterly silent on services that might help some rapidly re-housed families become stably housed, though one infers they will receive case management of some sort.

Arguably, even a year (or less) in a reasonably decent private apartment is better than enduring conditions at DC General. But respite from shelter isn’t what rapid re-housing is supposed to be about.

It’s undoubtedly all that some families need to get through a bad patch, e.g., an injury that sidelined the breadwinner for awhile, an over-long break between contracts.

And it’s altogether possible that some other families will overcome barriers that have made them unable to afford market-rate rents for a long time. But I doubt we’ll find all that many of them at DC General — or entitled to shelter, if it’s freezing cold, because they’re designated Priority One.

And I suspect DHS shares these doubts. How else to explain the retreat from the goal of stabilization?

* Unlike ordinary rules, emergency rules become effective immediately, rather than after the public has had an opportunity to comment. The District’s Administrative Procedures Act says they are for occasions when “the adoption of a rule is necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, safety, welfare, or morals.”

 


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