A Slice of the Trump Budget’s Shrunken Pie for the Needs of Low-Income People

May 26, 2017

Well, we finally have the full version of Trump’s proposed budget for upcoming fiscal year. And we’ve all seen and/or heard news reports, op-eds, social media takes and the like.

They generally have one of two focuses — new cuts, both total and by cabinet-level department or cuts to certain specific programs.

These tacks are basically the same as when the administration released its skinny budget preview, except that we now have a shift prompted by a range of cuts to safety net programs that don’t depend on annual appropriations.

I expect to deal with some of both, but for the time being, I’ll stick with a large perspective on a subset of programs intended to serve human needs — the non-defense discretionary programs, i.e., those annually funded as Congress chooses and the President approves, as Presidents generally do.

We have a broad range of these, of course. They include, bur aren’t limited to programs that support:

  • Some healthcare services, mainly for veterans.
  • Sufficient, healthful diets for mothers and their young children, plus food for nonprofits to give low-income people and/or serve as meals.
  • Public education, mainly for low-income children and those with disabilities.
  • Other opportunities to achieve financial self-sufficiency and security.
  • Child care so that parents can participate in such programs and afford paying jobs.
  • Safe, stable housing that leaves enough income to help pay for other needs.

The Coalition on Human Needs chose 185 such programs and tracked their funding from 2010, the year before Congress passed the Budget Control Act, through the budget the federal government’s operating under now.

All but 32 had been cut, either directly or for want of adjustments to keep pace with inflation, it found. Nearly a third had lost at least 25%, even though the Obama administration and wise heads in Congress agreed to temporarily modify the spending caps the BCA imposed.

Seems that Republicans over on the Senate side aim for another bipartisan agreement to suspend or at least modify the caps, lest they have to ax spending below the too-low levels already in force.

What’s sure as dammit, as the Washington Post reports, is that they’ll not try to push through the extraordinarily harsh cuts the Trump administration proposes as-is.

Most of the new news rightly focuses on the billions of cuts to so-called mandatory spending programs — also sometimes called entitlements.

They’re mandatory because the laws that authorize them require the federal government to spend as much as necessary to cover the costs or its share of costs for the benefits of everyone eligible to receive and enrolled to get them.

Truth to tell, I’m torn between delving into these unprecedentedly sweeping proposals to gut the safety net and giving them short shrift because they’re DOA. So I’ll end here with just a few examples of the proposed NDD cuts and consequences.

The Trump budget would deny affordable housing to more than 250,000 of the country’s lowest-income individuals and families who could otherwise have vouchers to cover all but 30% of their income for rent.

At the same time, it would reportedly increase tenants’ rent responsibility to 35% of adjusted income and impose a $50 minimum on those who had no or virtually no countable income at all. Income regardless, tenants would have to pay for their household utilities, which current law folds in with rent.

Public housing, which subsidizes rents at the same rate, would lose another $18 billion — nearly 29% more than it’s lost through this fiscal year. The stock available has been steadily shrinking due to lack of funds for repairs and renovations.

For these, as well as other reasons, we have and foreseeably will have some 550,000 people who’ve become officially homeless or very soon will unless they get some one-time or temporary help with rent.

Some have been homeless for a long time or repeatedly because they need not only an affordable place to live, but services to help them with physical and/or mental disabilities.

The Trump budget, however, would cut the grants local communities receive for shelters, permanent supportive housing for the chronically homeless I’ve just cited and homelessness prevention or when that’s not possible swift support so people can leave shelters for affordable housing.

The budget would terminate the Low Income Housing Energy Assistance Program, another homelessness prevention program — and a lifesaver too, since people, especially the frail and elderly can freeze to death in their homes or die because they depend on medical equipment that uses electricity, as 26% did when the last survey was conducted.

Roughly 6.7 million families would lose the subsidies they need to keep their homes warm if Congress moves from under-funding LIHEAP to excising it from the safety net altogether.

Turning then to those job opportunities. The Trump budget would cut a range of programs that help people prepare for gainful work — adult basic education, including preparation for GED exams, career and technical education programs in high schools and colleges and the diverse programs funded by the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.

The Trump budget would cut WIOA funding by 43%, as compared to 2015 funding, the Center for American Progress reports. Nearly 571,000 workers nationwide — close to half of the total then served — could be left to muddle through with only what has failed to net them a decent paying job or any at all.

Pretty ironic — or one might say hypocritical — for a President who’s made such a big deal about job opportunities and, more recently, about how he’ll change safety net programs so they no longer discourage work.

More as the dust clears or perhaps as I find angles you’re unlikely to see highlighted in the plethora of conventional and social media stories, analyses and overt budget-bashing.

Meanwhile, we do have ways we can support the defensive campaigns that will give Congressional Republican pause.

CAP and fifteen partners, including CHN have launched an initiative called Hands Off—and #HandsOff as a hashtag for those who want to tweet about programs they want protected.

They’ve got a website where we can contribute stories about how the programs have helped us and what would happen to us, our families or others we know if they’re cut. With our permission, they’ll share our stories.

Reporters, as you know, are always looking for the personal lead-in or thread.

The coalition, CAP says, will also ensure that members of Congress learn from the stories how their own constituents would be affected. How then they may vote, as it doesn’t say, but needn’t.

Some members lean toward — or out-and-out support — less federal spending, especially on so-called welfare programs. But getting reelected and preserving their majority will trump the Trump proposals handily.


Bowser Budget Scants Needs of Homeless and Others at High Risk

April 20, 2017

Picking up where I left off, some major parts of Mayor Bowser’s proposed budget don’t link as obviously to the inclusive prosperity road its title promises as, for example, adult education and available, affordable child care.

Yet two other parts we care about do because both are virtual preconditions to earning income and having enough left over after basic needs to invest in boosting one’s marketable knowledge and skills.

But I don’t want to leave impression that I equate “prosperity” with income or wealth, as I think Bowser’s budget title does because it seems an indirect way of referring to the extraordinarily high level of income inequality in the District.

The Latin root of “prosperity” means made successful, but also made happy, according to one’s hopes. One can surely make a homeless family happy by providing it with decent, stable housing it can afford without—or before — doing whatever necessary to boost its income so that it can pay full rent.

So we need to look at the following from multiple perspectives.

Affordable Housing

No one, I suppose, needs anything further said about the acute shortage of housing in the District that its lowest-income residents can afford.

Such prosperity as they might achieve — through taking college courses, for example — is beyond their means because, if they’re not homeless, most are paying more than half their income for rent and more than half of those at least 80%.

The Mayor, to her credit, would again commit $100 million to the Housing Production Trust Fund, plus $10 million to a new fund dedicated solely to preserving existing affordable housing.

But helping developers finance new affordable housing construction and/or renovations isn’t enough to produce units affordable for the lowest-income residents.

Those units need housing vouchers attached to cover the difference between what tenants must pay — no more than 30% of their income — and ongoing operating costs, e.g., maintenance, utilities, staff wages. The Mayor fails to propose funding to increase the number of these so-called project-based vouchers.

And as I earlier said, additional funding could be needed merely to sustain vouchers now in use because if Congress extends the current funding level for federal Housing Choice vouchers, the DC Housing Authority won’t have the money to issue any.

If the Republican majorities in Congress accede to anything like Trump’s budget plan, a larger loss, as yet unestimated at the state/District level.

Homelessness

Want of affordable housing obviously causes homelessness. But it does more than that. It’s hard to get and keep a job when you’re living in a shelter.

That’s especially true if the shelter’s for adults only because they generally have to get in line in mid-afternoon to get back in. And those who make it may not be able to wash themselves and are highly vulnerable to theft.

There goes the cell phone that’s the only way to contact them — and the photo ID they’ll need, if they have one.

All but impossible to get a job if they’re among the chronically homeless without the safety, stability and appropriate services they’d get in permanent supportive housing.

The Mayor does increase PSH funding by $2.7 million. But that would meet only 30% of what’s needed to end chronic homelessness, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports. (The target year set by the strategic plan the Mayor’s embraced obviously won’t be met,)

Other single homeless people get shorted in several different ways. No additional rapid re-housing for them, though some temporarily down on their luck could pick up the full rent when their short-term subsidies end.

About 46% for less for families as in the current fiscal year. But its success in ending homelessness — or as the program’s formally titled achieving “stabilization” — is at the very least debatable.

And the District’s youngest homeless people — those under 25 who’re on their own in the city — will continue to suffer from neglect, in addition to the egregious neglect (or abuse) that caused some to leave home to begin with.

Others became homeless when they became legally adults. Various reasons for this. For example, they were either kicked out by their parents (something that can happen earlier) or reached the maximum age for foster care and didn’t have foster parents who’d foster them for free — or any one else who’d take them in.

These young people need safe, stable housing, but also education and/or training and mentoring because, as the National Network for Youth puts it, many are in a state of “extreme disconnection.”

In other words, they’re worst cases of youth commonly referred to as “disconnected” — or more hopefully, “opportunity.” They’re not only neither in school or working. They lack basic life skills, e.g., how to keep themselves healthy, look for a job, manage such money as they make.

The DC Interagency Council on Homelessness developed a five-year plan specifically for homeless youth, based on census (no link available) that’s surely an undercount. It nevertheless captured 545 youth who were either homeless or insecurely housed, e.g. couch-surfing.

The ICH developed a five-year homeless youth plan, as an amendment to the District’s basic homeless services plan requires. The Mayor’s budget invests $2.4 million — less than half what the upcoming (and first) year requires.

Homeless now — others to become so. How then will the District make not only youth, but former youth homelessness brief, rare, brief and non-recurring  — let alone enable these potential contributors to our economy and our civic life share in the prosperity the Mayor dangles before us?


DC Coalition Urges Major Investments in Affordable Housing

March 20, 2017

While I’m on an affordable housing tangent, I’ll turn to what’s going on in my own community, the District of Columbia.

We’re in the fairly early stages of the annual budget season. And advocates have already begun pressing their cases — for more affordable housing funds, among others.

The Fair Budget Coalition has released its annual recommendations — a far-reaching set, both in scope and total cost. Not a mere wish list, however, since we’ve reasons to expect funding increases for some of the priorities, even if not as hefty as FBC calls for.

Nine of the recommendations address what the report terms “housing security,” i.e., safe, affordable housing for both families with children and people without. These recommendations represent at least 53% of the total new spending FBC advocates.*

Surely everyone who lives in the District or attends to what goes on here outside the White House and the Capitol buildings knows that the shortage of housing the lowest-income residents can afford is a huge problem — hence also the homeless problem.

The recommendations go at the linked problems in several different, though in some cases related ways.

Housing Security in the FBC Report

Housing Production Trust Fund. This is the District’s single largest source of financial support for projects to develop and preserve affordable housing. Funds available for the upcoming fiscal year will be half again as high — $150 million — as what the Mayor has consistently committed to and the Council approved, if FBC and allies prevail.

The new figure reflects the DC Fiscal Policy Institute’s 10-year estimate of the cost of meeting the District’s affordable housing needs and what seems realistic for the administering agency to actually commit within the upcoming year.

The recommendation wouldn’t necessarily mean $50 million more in the budget itself because the Trust Fund, by law receives a small fraction of taxes the District collects when it records deeds to real property and transfers to new owners.

The larger policy issue here is that the Trust Fund hasn’t done what it’s supposed to for the lowest-income households, i.e., those with incomes below 30% of the median for the area. The law requires that it commit 40% of its resources to housing for them.

Last year, only 15% of funds awarded helped finance new rental housing affordable for this officially lowest-income group, DCFPI’s housing policy expert recently testified. FBC wants the required percent raised by 10% and a mandated plan for meeting the full need.

Permanent Supportive Housing. FBC recommends $18 million for permanent supportive housing, That, it says, would provide 535 units for single individuals and 317 families.

The former, by definition, have been homeless for a long time or recurrently and have at least one disability. The latter have at least one member who meets this definition. The “supportive” part of the term refers to individualized services residents are offered, but not required to accept.

So the budget would have to include additional funding for these services. Don’t suppose I need to say why the District can’t expect the federal government to provide more.

Housing Vouchers. These now come in two different flavors — those funded by the Local Rent Supplement Program, i.e., indefinite-term vouchers like the federal Housing Choice vouchers, and the almost-new Targeted Affordable Housing vouchers, first proposed in the DC Interagency Council on Homelessness.

The TAH vouchers subsidize rents for individuals and families that no longer need the ongoing, intensive services they’ve received while in PSH, but will probably become homeless again if they have to rent at market rates.

They’re also designed for individuals and families who’ve reached the end of their short-term rapid re-housing subsidies and like the prospective PSH graduates will probably return to shelters — or the streets — if left to fend for themselves.

FBC recommends 425 subsidized TAH units for singles and 513 for families. It also calls for enough LRSP funding to house an estimated 466 families on the DC Housing Authority’s enormously long — and still closed — waiting list.

These vouchers will all be the tenant-based kind, i.e., those the fortunate families could use to rent on the open market from any landlord that would accept them.

We’ve reasons to expect that the voucher increases, whatever the kind will be more than offset by losses due to insufficient Housing Choice funding — about 1,300, if Congress passes the nick Trump’s budget takes.

Rapid Re-housing. Rounding out subsidies of the voucher sort, FBC recommends enough funding to accommodate 343 single individuals in the rapid re-housing program.

No more for families, which may tell us something — at the very least, doubts about how successful the vouchers are at truly ending homelessness for all but those temporarily down on their luck.

Public Housing. Funding to repair public housing units is the single biggest ticket item on the FBC housing security list — $25 million to eliminate such safety and health hazards as leaking indoor pipes, broken windows and doors, holes that rats and roaches crawl through.

This wouldn’t make all public housing units fully habitable. DCHA estimated its capital needs at $1.3 billion last year, noting ongoing shortfalls in federal funding for them. Yet another prospective cut that the District may have to deal with at best it can.

Bottom Line

FBC’s housing security recommendations total $118.9 million — not counting, as we probably should some portion of the Trust Fund investment.

In one respect, this is what we’re told good bargainers do — put on the table more than you think the folks on the other side will agree to.

But more importantly, it’s yet another sign that the Mayor and DC Council should revise policies that unduly limit what the District can spend.

The Chief Financial Officer’s latest revenue forecast estimates about $221 million more than the the current budget requires — and further increases over the next four years.

Under current policy, the forecast will automatically trigger all the tax cuts that haven’t already reduced what the District can spend.

Next year’s budget would then have only 57% of what it could without the cuts — $103 million less for a host of critical needs. Even less in future years, as DCFPI’s analysis shows.

At the same time, the District continues to sweep all budgeted funds unspent at the end of each fiscal year into what are essentially savings accounts. It’s now got about $2.4 billion parked, probably earning at a miniscule interest rate.

It could well end the fiscal year with more unspent funds again. We’ve had surpluses every year since 2010, when the Council decided to save every penny of them.

They can’t be used for budget items that require ongoing funding commitments, but any one-time expense is okay. A transfer to the Trust Fund would qualify.

So, as the current campaign slogan says, the Mayor and Council should untie DC’s hands — or more precisely, their own. At the same time, with prospects of budgetary tornadoes, rather than rainy days, setting some money aside in a reserve they can readily tap would be prudent.

* In some cases other than housing, FBC recommends a range, rather than single dollar figure. And, as noted above, the Trust Fund recommendation would not involve total spending through the budget. The percent I’ve cited is the lowest.


Policy Changes Could Shrink the Affordable Housing Gap, But Trump Budget Likely to Worsen It

March 15, 2017

Picking up where I left off on the acute shortage of housing for the lowest-income renters. As I said, we’ve got policy remedies, but also threats. Those seem more imminent since the Washington Post reported a leaked preview of Trump’s proposed budget.

A Range of Policy Remedies

More Financing for Affordable Housing. The National Low Income Housing, as you might expect, focuses on the housing, rather than the income side of the equation. Within this broad spectrum, it’s zeroed in, though not exclusively on building the National Housing Trust Fund.

First, it calls for legislative changes that would significantly increase revenues that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac could transfer to the Fund, which at long last got some money last year — a down payment, of sorts, on its promise.

Second, NLICH would have the mortgage interest deduction cut in half, to $500,000 and the additional tax revenues shifted into the Fund.

These two measures — if swiftly enacted and gradually phased in — would generate an estimated $21.3 billion over the first 10 years, NLIHC says, using in part a study by the Tax Policy Center. Millions more then to states and the District of Columbia.

They can use their Trust Fund shares to help finance a range of activities that preserve, create, upgrade and otherwise make available more affordable housing.

All but 10% must go to rental housing and at least 75% of that for the benefit of extremely low income households, i.e., those with incomes no more than 30% of the median for the area they live in.

More Opportunity to Increase Housing Assistance. Even with a beefed-up Trust Fund, we’d still need more funding for Housing Choice vouchers — both project-based, i.e., those that subsidize rents for specific units, and tenant-based, i.e., those that enable recipients to rent at market-based rates, while still paying only 30% of their income.

Funding for these vouchers got whacked by the 2013 across-the-board cuts. The annual caps on appropriations now leave a lot of discretion to the top-level decision-makers in Congress — and even to majorities in the subcommittees.

The caps have nevertheless surely played a role in severely limiting the reach of not only Housing Choice vouchers, but available public housing units and those funded by several programs that are smaller and more specifically targeted, e.g., for the elderly, for people with disabilities.

The Campaign for Housing and Community Development — a substantial, broad-based coalition — has just called on Congress to lift the originally-mandated caps, which will otherwise again become effective for the next fiscal year’s budget.

Very importantly, it calls for parity, unlike the lopsided defense increase/non-defense decrease we’re likely to see in Trump’s proposed budget, of which more below.

New Renters Credit. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has floated a proposal that would get around the caps — a renters credit. Not, you note, technically federal spending, because spending through the tax code doesn’t count.

The credit would work somewhat like the Low Income Housing Tax Credit in that states would get a certain number of the credits and then parcel them out to expand housing affordable for low-income people.

The new credit could go to both developers and owners and would subsidize rents like the Housing Choice vouchers, limiting what tenants pay to 30% of their income.

The difference here is that the developers and/or owners would get the difference as a tax reduction, rather than a direct payment from a public housing authority. And the big difference from the LIHT is that it would make units available for only the lowest-income households.

Like the NILHC mortgage tax interest reduction, the renters credit would shift the balance in current federal policies from housing assistance for high-income homeowners to the lowest-income renters and prospective renters.

The mortgage interest deduction, the related property tax deduction and some other tax preferences recently saved the highest-income households a total of more than $130 billion, according to the Center’s estimates.

All rental assistance was somewhere around $55 billion — less than the mortgage interest deduction alone.

Threats on the Horizon

We don’t know yet exactly what Trump will propose for next fiscal year’s budget, but he’s said it will increase defense spending by $54 billion. Not, however, so as to increase the deficit. He seems intent on doing that in other ways.

His forthcoming budget will offset the significant breach in the defense spending cap by reducing spending for non-defense programs that depend on annual appropriations. How he’ll apportion the cuts remains to be seen.

But the Washington Post reports that “preliminary budget documents,” probably the marks that the Office of Management of Budget passes down to federal agencies, call for more than $6 billion in cuts to Housing and Urban Development programs — roughly 14% of the insufficient amount they get now.

The work-in-progress budget would level-fund rental assistance programs, the Post says. This would not preserve the number of vouchers in current use because they cost more annually to plug gaps between what renters pay and landlords’ permissible rental charges, which HUD bases on the costs of  modest units on the open market.

Both the Center and NLIHC say that about 200,000 vouchers would effectively vanish, leaving more low-income renters with the huge cost burdens many already bear — or homeless.

Public housing would take big hits. The capital fund would lose about $1.3 billion or more than 31%* — this when public housing has major repair/rehabilitation needs that now total nearly $40 billion, NLIHC says.

The cut, on top of years of under-funding would mean the loss of even more public housing units — more than half of which provide affordable units, presumably with accommodations hard to find on the open market, for seniors and younger people with disabilities.

The budget document also cuts funding for operating public housing by $600 million. This funding stream subsidizes not only administrative activities like overseeing buildings and renting vacating units, but routine maintenance. Neglect that and you’ve got a capital need, as all of us housed people know

The prospective budget would also blow away a flexible block grant that densely-populated communities can use to provide affordable housing and cuts two others, including one helps fund improvements in rundown subsidized housing and surrounding neighborhoods.

A fourth — the Native American Housing Block Grant—would be cut by more than 20%, leaving housing on some reservations severely over-crowded and without such basics as hot and cold running water and/or toilets.

In not-so-short, billions more for defense, billions less for poor and near-poor people who urgently need affordable housing — like, for example, what the First Lady’s living in, rent-free.

* The Center, which links to the Post report, says the capital fund cut is about $2 billion.


Affordable Housing Crunch for Lowest-Income Renters

March 9, 2017

Another year, another report on how extraordinarily unaffordable housing is for low-income people nationwide and in every state, as well as the would-be state of the District of Columbia.

Affordability Basics

The National Low Income Housing Coalition’s overview of the “housing gap” focuses on rental units that the lowest tier in the official housing policy lexicon could afford and actually move into.

These are extremely low-income households — those whose incomes are at or below 30% of the median for the area they live in. NLIHC includes a sub-tier it introduced several years ago — deeply low-income households, whose incomes are half that.

Housing affordability for both, as generally means costing no more than 30% of income. So, for example, a family with one full-time, year round worker paid the federal minimum wage would have a gross income of $15,080 and thus could afford, at most, $377 a month for rent.

Acute Affordable Rental Shortage

As of 2014, the survey year NLIHC has used, there were roughly 10.4 million ELI households in the country — 24% of all renters. They could hope to rent, at an affordable rate only 3.2 million units. Virtually no affordable units for the DLIs — just about 700,000.

The shortage is surely greater than what NLIHC could report because the Census Bureau survey it uses doesn’t reach homeless people. So what we have instead are households that did rent, but mainly way above what they could afford.

Nearly three-quarters of the ELIs were severely cost-burdened, i.e. spent more than half their income for rent, plus basic utilities. A mere 7% of the DLIs weren’t so cost-burdened — not to say they weren’t cost-burdened at all, however.

Far From Enough Money Left Over for Other Needs

We can readily fathom what the cost burdens mean. Our minimum wage worker family would have, after payroll taxes, no more than $590 a month and change for all other expenses.

Low-income households with, at most, 50% of their income left spent, on average, 38% less for food and 55% less for health care than comparable households without cost burdens, the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies reports. Those most likely to face such trade-offs are households with children and seniors well past retirement age.

Not hard to see the long-term health consequences —  and others for those children, e.g., reluctance to form trusting relationships, lags in learning the basic skills schools measure.

These and others put them at higher risk for poverty as adults, perpetuating the cycle of severe cost burdens — or worse.

Many Shortage Drivers

Both NLIHC and the Joint Center cite diverse reasons for the affordable housing shortage, e.g., foreclosures during the recession, a broader preference for renting, developers’ understandable preference for units they can charge much more for.

At the same time, rental units subsidized by Housing Choice (formerly Section 8) project-based vouchers, i.e., those that cover all but 30% of rent, plus basic utilities for specific units, are disappearing far faster than they’re being replaced.

NLIHC cites a nationwide loss of 46,000 such units over the last decade — some demolished, others no longer affordable because the contracts that bound the owners to keep their rents within the limits HUD set expired.

Add to these roughly 150,000 public housing units lost — most, though not all for ELI households. The Joint Center estimates the loss at 10,000 every year.

This should come as no surprise to anyone who’s followed federal funding for major repairs and renovations. A study for HUD estimated the total funding need for such capital investments at more than $25.6 billion in 2010.

The total grows annually at roughly $3.4 billion, as costs rise, more units deteriorate and deteriorated units get worse, leading ultimately housing losses, but perhaps in the meantime units egregiously below any reasonable standard.

Since the 2013 across-the board budget cuts, funding for capital investments has remained virtually flat at about $1.9 billion. This isn’t the only reason so many units became so unlivable that public housing authorities closed them. NLIHC cites others, but the bottom line is lost units affordable for ELI and DLI households.

The supply-demand dynamic includes another factor. Higher-income households live in nearly half the units the ELIs could afford. If the ELIs could actually move into those units, the gap would shrink by about 2.6 million.

Now this is only one side of the story, of course. If you’ve got more income, you can afford more for housing. But incomes generally aren’t keeping pace with rent increases — quite the contrary. While rents rose, on average 7% between 2001 and 2014, incomes dropped 9%.

This average includes households that had plenty of money. Those in the bottom fifth, where we’d find the ELIs and DLIs had to cope with losses through at least 2015. Sparse federal housing assistance for them. Only about a quarter of low-income households get any at all.

This is perhaps especially notable because Congress has restored and supplemented the funding needed to offset the cut that caused public housing authorities to withhold or cancel nearly 60,000 unused tenant-based vouchers, i.e., the kind recipients can use to rent at market rates and still pay only 30% of their income.

We’ve got policy remedies, as well as reasons for the gap. But at this point, we can foresee threats to even sustaining current funding levels. More than I can do any justice to here.

But since this is supposed to be a policy-focused blog, I’ll return to them shortly.


Congress Likely to Worsen DC’s Affordable Housing Crisis

February 16, 2017

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute recently hosted a gathering to discuss how the District of Columbia could continue making progress in the face of uncertainty — largely due to the unsettled and unsettling prospects for programs that depend on federal funding.

DCFPI Executive Director Ed Lazere led off his remarks on the self-imposed budget constraints I’ve already blogged on by identifying affordable housing as the District’s number one challenge.

A challenge too for residents, especially the lowest-income households — and one they can’t overcome on their own.

About 26,000 of these households pay more than half their income for rent, as compared to the 30% that’s the general standard for affordability. A large majority pay 80% or more. Hard to imagine how they get by, even with public benefits. And they often find they can’t.

The District has several locally-funded programs that enable some of these lowest-income households — technically, extremely low-income households — to live in units they can afford. It’s tended, however, to give these households short shrift, as the DCFPI report I’ve cited shows.

So the District could make different choices. But it would still have to depend in part on federal funding.

And that, as I’ve already said, is a big uncertainty that the District, like states and other local communities faces now. What I didn’t mention is a further source of uncertainty — the DC Housing Authority’s participation in the Moving to Work pilot program.

Basically, MTW allows participating housing authorities to treat funds for housing vouchers and the two main sources of public housing funding as a block grant.

This means, for example, that they can use funds appropriated for housing vouchers to make repairs and renovations that keep public housing habitable. They can instead defer some public housing work to make up for voucher funding shortfalls, though the data suggest they haven’t.

They may also shift funding appropriated for the type of vouchers that enable recipients to rent at market rates to the type that’s attached to particular units in privately-owned projects. Or vice versa.

So caveats abound as we look at what the District — and its lowest-income residents — seem likely to face when Congress decides, as it eventually must, how much to appropriate for vouchers.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities gives us a starting point. About 11,160 District households had Housing Choice vouchers last year, it says.

These are only the first type of vouchers I mentioned — commonly known as tenant-based because the subsidy goes where the recipient finds a unit to rent.

The appropriations bill the Senate passed would eliminate funding for 139 of these vouchers. A bill that simply extends last year’s funding through the end of this year would leave the District shy funding for nearly 560.

The latter is considerably more vouchers than DCHA customarily awards to other households because those who had them are no longer eligible. What then? I asked DCHA staff and have thus far heard nothing.

I’d like to think, as I’m sure we all would, that we’ll never know — and not because DCHA apparently prefers, at this point, not to put its cards on the table. Nor because its annual MTW reports don’t enable us to trace recent funding shifts.

What we can bet good money on, I think, is that DCHA won’t have more federally-funded vouchers to make a dent in its 41,000 or so households on its still-closed waiting list.

Nor enough to relieve other extremely low-income households that are shy on money for food, transportation, health care, etc. — and one further hit to the budget away from homelessness.

Doesn’t mean that the fate of so many thousands of residents lies solely in the hands of Congress and our mercurial, distracted President.

It does mean, however, that the Mayor and DC Council will have some harder choices to make—and a couple that shouldn’t be hard at all.


How Many More Families Will Have No Affordable Housing?

February 9, 2017

We all, I think, know at least a few things about affordable housing. First, there isn’t enough of it. Second, not everyone who talks about affordable housing means the same thing. Nor do all affordable housing policies aim to help the same type(s) of people.

Third, an effective strategy requires multiple programs, some potentially funded by multiple sources. Which brings us to what we don’t know — impending budget decisions at federal, state and local levels.

Uncertainty at the Source

So far as federal funding’s concerned, we don’t know yet what Congress will do — only that it must do something to avert a government shutdown in late April and that there’s no consensus on what it should do, even among the Republican majority.

Nor, one must always add, what the President will ask it to do. He campaigned on a promise to actively support a repeal of the current ceiling on defense spending — currently $32.5 billion higher than the ceiling on non-defense spending that depends on annual appropriations..

Both the White House and Congress have already done a workaround for defense, but not so as to force a larger cut in non-defense. Trump, however, said he planned to reduce non-defense spending by a penny on the dollar each year, while holding Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid harmless.

That would slash funding for the already shrunken non-defense, discretionary part of the budget by roughly 26% in real dollars over the next nine years. No hint yet how he would parcel out the cuts — or even whether he will now go ahead and try.

Spillover to the States

All but three states must have budgets for the upcoming fiscal year by July 1. So they may or may not have a good fix on what to expect for affordable housing programs. All but one must balance its budget, though laws differ on what that means.

A large majority must end the year with no more spent than received in tax revenues, fees and federal funds, including grants like those for affordable housing programs.

So what may have seemed to balance when a governor signs a budget may turn out not to be — even if some of Trump’s recent and promised actions don’t throw the economy into a recession. As in the past, shortfalls will force unplanned, disruptive cuts.

Impacts at Community Level

Some affordable housing funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development go to states, which then parcel them out. But others that make housing affordable for the lowest-income people go instead directly to local housing authorities or to a designated organization within a network HUD calls a continuum of care.

The latter, however, is only to house particular groups of the lowest-income people — those who’ve been homeless for a long time or recurrently and have at least one disability and others chosen for time-limited subsidized housing.

These funds are iffy, as all HUD’s affordable housing funds are. So we’ve got, at best, a funding range for housing vouchers — the heftiest tool to make housing affordable for the lowest-income people.

These vouchers come in two flavors. One enables people to rent units at market rate by limiting their share to 30% of their income. The other subsidizes rents on certain units in housing projects — a needed support for operating expenses, since tenants are paying only the same limited share of their income.

The voucher programs got whacked by the across-the-board cuts required by the same law that gave us the spending ceilings. Housing authorities held onto vouchers freed up when tenants no longer qualified for them. Some also yanked vouchers from people who’d finally made it to the top of the waiting list.

Additional funds have enabled the agencies to put the withheld vouchers back in use. But merely sustaining them will require more funding because, as we all know, rental rates are rising — in some communities, soaring. Utility rates are rising too, and they’re included in covered costs.

Meanwhile, incomes for the lowest fifths of the scale have, on average, actually shrunk. This is due partly to real-dollar wage losses for the lowest-paid workers and partly to the absent or miniscule cost-of-living adjustments in the social insurance benefits that nearly half the households with vouchers depend on.

So vouchers must pick up a greater share. This means that level-funding won’t cover all vouchers in use. A year-long continuing resolution would cause a nationwide loss of roughly 108,500 vouchers, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates.

The bill that the Senate has already passed would bump up funding for both the so-called tenant-based vouchers and those attached to units in housing projects. The House bill, which still awaits an all-member vote, would also increase both, but give give less to the former.

If both chambers agree to go with the Senate bill (big if), housing authorities would still be shy about 26,575 vouchers. No way that state and local investments in affordable housing development can produce that many more units within six or so months.

Nor can the states and cities that use their own revenues to fund vouchers plow that much more into their programs. In fact, some of the affordable units they now have may disappear because the contracts with project owners are time-limited.

But the people who need those vouchers will still be homeless or potentially so because they’re paying at least half their income for rent. So what state and local budgets lose in federal funding for vouchers, will drive up needs for other resources.

These include, obviously, homeless services, including shelters. Don’t look to the federal government to supply what’s needed. Neither the House nor Senate bill would provide even a quarter of a million more for homeless assistance grants.

Other budget pressures are many and various. For example, more children will come within the purview of child welfare agencies because they’ll be living in homes unsafe for them due to domestic violence, unintended, but still harmful neglect and/or egregiously unhealthful physical conditions.

Healthcare costs themselves will rise. Schools will face needs for more remedial education and other services to compensate for the effects of hunger, parental stress and just plain moving around from place to place because their parents or other caregivers can’t afford rent.

So that’s a bird’s-eye view of the uncertainties — and partial certainties — that state and local policymakers and the people they were elected to serve face now. Members of Congress were elected to serve them too. But you’d be hard put to see that in the agendas the majority leaders have put front and center.