No Government Shutdown Isn’t Good Enough

October 13, 2016

As I’m sure you know, the federal government doesn’t have a budget for this fiscal year. Congress narrowly averted a shutdown with a continuing resolution. So programs that depend on annual spending choices can keep operating at their current funding levels until December 10.

Then what? Well, the government almost surely won’t have a new budget to replace the CR. Nothing unusual about this. Congress has relied on at least one CR in all but four budget seasons since 1977.

Speaker Paul Ryan said the House would return to “regular order” under his leadership, i.e., pass each of the dozen appropriations bills that make up the budget. So did Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

But they’re not even close. The Senate has passed only three appropriations bills and the House five. They haven’t negotiated final versions of any, though one got folded into the CR.

So we’re likely to have another — either that or a package containing some newly-passed appropriations bills and an extension of current funding levels for the rest.

One way or the other we’re unlikely to have a government shutdown. So why should we care whether we’ve got a bona fide budget or not?

We shouldn’t, I think, care much if Congress decides to punt again — and only once more. But a longer-term CR would leave critical programs under-funded, including some especially important for low-income people.

Consider affordable housing. The Housing Choice voucher program needs more funding annually merely to sustain the number of vouchers in current use because, as you’ve probably noticed, rents rise — and with them, the amount the vouchers must usually cover.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development needs roughly $765 million more for that, according to the President’s proposed budget. A somewhat similar program administered by the Agriculture Department needs an additional 18 million.

And steady state isn’t good enough. Fewer than one in four low-income households that qualify for housing assistance have it. Three quarters of those who don’t pay at least half their income for rent.

And, of course, some can’t. We don’t know yet how many people nationwide the latest homeless counts found. But we do know that last year’s identified about 564,700, including nearly 127,790 children who were with parents or other caregivers.

Yet the current budget is still shy about 59,000 vouchers left unfunded by the across-the-board cuts the Budget Control Act required and choices Congress made to comply with its (modified) spending caps.

These are indefinite-term vouchers. HUD’s homeless assistance grants fund, among other things, the time-limited vouchers local agencies provide through their rapid re-housing programs.

They also help fund permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless people — not necessarily permanent, but subsidized for as long as occupants need it.

As with other types of housing, per-unit costs steadily rise. Just renewing current contracts would cost roughly $2 billion, HUD estimates.

This is barely less than the total current funding level for homeless assistance grants, which also help cover costs of shelters, diverse services and short-shot aid to prevent homelessness. Costs for these rise too.

A long-term CR would obviously tighten the squeeze — and so put progress toward ending homelessness even further behind what’s needed to achieve the goals that federal agencies collectively set in 2010.  Likewise the goals that local communities have embraced, including the District of Columbia.

All such efforts require ramped-up investments in housing that poor and near-poor people can afford, as well as the subsidies and services funded in part through HUD’s homeless assistance grants.

The federal partner would need to do considerably more than the majorities in Congress seem inclined to. Both the House and Senate have, however, passed bills that would provide somewhat more funding for both regular housing vouchers and homeless assistance.

But not identical bills. So even slight increases might not reach state and local agencies — and if not them, then not the people who are homeless or paying so much for rent that they’re short on money for food, medical care, shoes for the kids, etc.

These slices of the HUD budget are, of course, only examples of what prolonged level funding would mean.

CLASP cites several others. These would further limit job prospects for youth and older adults who lack the education and skills our labor market demands — and for affordable, high-quality child care.

Experts in other areas could undoubtedly name a host of others that a long-term CR would significantly shortchange. Not only low-income people would suffer, but they’d get hit from more directions.

HUD Acts to Limit Lead Hazards in Low-Income Housing, But Could Do More

October 6, 2016

I’ve said my piece, at least for now, on the leaded water crisis that recently had another 15 minutes of fame. Now to the recent policy development I left hanging.

We know that lead from sources other than water poses risks to far more children. The most common is lead in the paint used on houses before the federal government banned it in 1998.

Lead in the soil around houses — from flecking paint, the exhaust formerly emitted by cars and trucks or some combination — is a major hazard too. In at least one case, nearby factory operations left an extraordinarily high level of lead (and arsenic) in the soil a public housing complex sat on.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has rules to address lead hazards is housing it owns and housing subsidized by programs it administers, e.g., public housing, housing with units covered by vouchers.

But it requires “environmental intervention” only when the blood lead level in children tested in three or four times greater than the trigger the Centers for Disease Control has recommended.

HUD has (belatedly) heeded the CDC — and undoubtedly the widespread media coverage of lead poisoning found in children who live in poor neighborhoods.

It’s proposed a rule change that would align its trigger with the CDC’s — and potentially with any the CDC subsequently adopts.

The rule would also establish more comprehensive testing procedures for federally-owned and assisted housing when a young child living there has had a blood test showing lead above the new intervention level.

Swift interim controls and subsequent longer-term measures would apply wherever the inspections found lead paint hazards. So children who hadn’t been tested might be protected from further exposure, as would adults.

But the proposed rule still leaves them at high risk for lead poisoning. For example, it doesn’t change the types of inspections required before a family with children moves into a federally-subsidized unit — or a unit that will be subsidized by the family’s housing voucher.

For the latter and some of the former, that’s just a look around the place, not an actual test of the paint, dust, etc. When inspectors do find lead hazards, landlords don’t have to eliminate them before children suffer damage. They’ve got up to 90 days to finish the job.

They do have to do some things to limit exposure sooner, e.g., clean off surfaces. But note that a child’s high blood lead level often remains the trigger for thorough inspections.

So children will remain the canaries in the coal mine. And families will still have to choose between staying where their children incurred lead poisoning and leaving, perhaps for a shelter or a home in their car — this because the proposal, like the current rule, fails to ensure they can move to another affordable place.

The proposal also preserves a big exemption — no inspection of any sort for an efficiency unit, though the prospective tenant may plan to have a child living with her.

Or she may have one on the way. The CDC warns that lead poisoning can cause pregnant women to miscarry or lasting damages to babies that survive.

The lead hazard standards HUD uses for paint and dust are themselves flawed. The agency relies on the Environmental Protection Agency’s — one established more than 20 years ago, the other dating back to 2001.

Both permissible lead levels are far higher than what scientific research would now support. (A lawsuit seeks to change them, but HUD could de-link in favor of its own.)

In short, the proposed rule is a step in the right direction, but it wouldn’t protect low-income children as well as it could. Not the end of the story, however.

Interested parties have until the end of this month to comment on the proposal. One can hope the end result is a stronger final rule — and as soon as possible.

Because the health of young children in some 128,000 homes is at risk now — or already damaged. Countless more in the future, of course.

But even a stronger rule won’t protect them. Everything we read suggests that neither HUD nor EPA has the resources to ensure that their lead-poisoning protections don’t leave seemingly protected people in danger.

The endangered, if not already damaged, aren’t only children, as I’ve briefly noted before. Some will remain exceedingly vulnerable, unless Congress acts — and not only on the resources issue.

HUD, for example, requires no lead hazard inspections of subsidized units exclusively for low-income people with HIV/AIDS, unless they’re pregnant or will have a child under six living with them.

So here are people with compromised immune systems who may unknowingly live in a place that heightens their risks of diseases they’re already prone to.

Nothing HUD alone can do about this. Congress largely exempted the units when it created the Housing Opportunities for People With AIDS program in 1990, when we knew far less about the disease and what lead in the body can do.

More work then for advocates, even if HUD beefs up its proposal to afford children more protection.

NOTE: I’m indebted to a rulemaking petition filed by 30 organizations and academic experts and to Professor Emily Benfer at Loyola University Chicago School of Law for insights into he current HUD rule and what the proposal would and would not do. Opinions and any errors are my own.

Congress Does Yet Another Pretty Good Thing … Unanimously

August 8, 2016

Just before Senators left the capital for a long summer break, they passed by unanimous consent a bill that’s had strong support from leading advocates for policies that make housing affordable for low-income people.

The House had earlier passed it. No dissents there either. Nor objections from the White House. So we’ll soon have a law in effect that does various things styled as “housing opportunity through modernization.”

It’s a complex piece of work — administrative streamlining here and there, some new data collection and disclosure requirements, further support for ending veterans’ homelessness and more.

The most significant changes, it seems, will make more public housing units available for low-income individuals and families and perhaps subsidize more units in another type of housing.

Public Housing for Low-Income Only

The law tightens up income eligibility standards for public housing tenants. The standards for renting to them initially remain the same — generally no more than 80% of the median income for the area.

The law instead addresses a problem that sometimes surfaces later — income increases that put households substantially over the maximum. Yet they still occupy fully-subsidized units that could house some of the many people on waiting lists.

Public housing authorities will no longer be able to cover all but 30% of these households’ incomes year after year. They’ll have to either charge higher rents or evict the tenants when their incomes exceed 120% of the area median for two years in a row.

This accommodates relatively short-term income increases — a spate of paid overtime, for example. And it surely addresses Republicans’ oft-made claim that safety net programs discourage gainful work.

But it reserves ongoing subsidies for people who’d have a hard time finding an apartment they can afford on their own. So it’s likely to free up some units for more, though not many nationwide, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ summary of the bill.

Public Housing Rehabs

A separate provision might make more public housing units available in a different way — or at least, make occupied units safe and otherwise livable.

Housing authorities can henceforth supplement their share of the capital fund, which is supposed to cover major repair and renovation costs, with up to 20% of the funds they get for operations.

Congress has shortchanged the capital fund for years. We seem not to have comprehensive figures on the number of units empty or scheduled for demolition because the costs of renovating them would break the budget.

We do, however, know that large-scale repairs would have cost well over $25 billion in 2010 — and an additional $3.4 billion each year thereafter. The country as losing “thousands for units” a year then, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said.

Whether the new law will make much difference is an open question. Many PHAs haven’t had enough for operations either, CBPP reports. But some may have funds they could shift, especially because of the various administrative streamlining provisions.

More Affordable Units in Better Neighborhoods

The law will allow PHAs to use a higher percent of the funds they receive for housing vouchers to subsidize units in privately-operated projects — or so it seems. The law changes the way the percent is calculated — from their share of the funds appropriated for vouchers to their voucher allotment itself.

The project-based vouchers require that specific units remain affordable for at least 15 years. The new law lets PHAs increase that to 20 years, thus doing more to preserve such affordable housing as we still have.

But it makes more significant changes. One will allow PHAs to use an additional 10% of their funded vouchers for the project-based sort so as to provide stable, affordable housing in neighborhoods where it’s hard to use the tenant-based, i.e., portable, kind.

These are the so-called high-opportunity neighborhoods that the voucher program — and two HUD pilots — have sought to move more families into.

Trouble is that rents in those neighborhoods are generally quite high — many higher than the maximum vouchers can now subsidize. And owners of lower-cost units have proved reluctant to rent to voucher-holders.

So the project-based option may move more families to opportunity — to to work, as the newer version of HUD’s pilot is called.

No evidence that moving to a low-poverty neighborhood gets more low-income adults into the workforce. But it does, as you’d expect, improve their mental health. And it benefits children in ways that later translate into higher earnings — provided they’re moved when quite young.

Vouchers for Targeted Populations

PHAs don’t have to use their additional project-based allotment for housing in higher-cost neighborhoods. They may instead use some or all to create housing elsewhere, but only for certain populations —  homeless people, veterans, seniors and people with disabilities.

They have some further flexibility to use these vouchers for housing with supportive services — the preferred solution for chronically homeless people, as you probably know.

Another piece of this very complex law expands a program to prevent children from being placed or kept in foster care because their parents can’t afford “adequate” housing. The expansion, however, addresses cases where “family unification” failed.

It makes former foster care youth eligible for vouchers until they’re 24 years old, rather than 21. They can have these vouchers for three years — twice as long as before. And youth who are about to leave foster care can get them if they’re likely to become homeless then — a high risk for many, the research shows.

More Flexibility, But No More Funds

The downside of these and other reforms is that the law gives PHAs no more money. So, for example, the additional project-based vouchers they create will mean fewer of the tenant-based kind. And those do have virtues — housing choice, among them.

If PHAs respond to the big push on veterans’ homelessness, they can’t move as many families with children to neighborhoods where they’ll fare better. And so forth.

The new law may save federal funds, however — $311 billion over the next five years, the Congressional Budget Office estimates, assuming Congress follows through with the needed appropriations.

It could, of course, use the project savings for anything — or nothing, which would make a nick in the deficit. But it could plow them back into affordable housing programs, as CBPP hopefully notes.

New Hope for Poor Families Stuck in High-Poverty Neighborhoods

July 7, 2016

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has tried for some time to get more poor families out of poor neighborhoods and into those with better opportunities for work, a decent education and the like.

Now it’s proposed a rule that would go further — and at the same time, probably make more housing more affordable in neighborhoods that will remain high-poverty, at least for now.

The proposal builds on a pilot that addresses a fundamental problem with the way HUD effectively caps rents for households with Housing Choice vouchers.

What HUD Does to Set Maximum Rents

Setting the maximum rents for units vouchers will subsidize is a two-step process — and more complex than I think one needs to understand in order to grasp either the problem or the solution.

Basically, HUD sets fair market rents based on what renters who recently moved in pay for decent, modestly-priced housing units. One FMR for a no-bedroom unit, another for a one-bedroom unit and so forth.

The FMRs reflect these rents throughout a metropolitan area the federal government has carved out based on how far workers commute to and from their jobs. These are, for the most part, counties, though some housing markets HUD defines are broader.

Local housing authorities then use the FMRs to set maximum rents that vouchers will subsidize. They’ve got some flexibility, but within a fairly narrow band defined by the FMRs for the market they operate in.

How the FMRs Limit Housing Choice

Housing markets may encompass neighborhoods with widely varying rents, as anyone who’s looked for a unit in a city or nearby suburb knows.

The high-rent neighborhoods are, of course, those with so-called amenities that better-off households can and will pay for, e.g., good schools, convenient public transportation, nearby grocery stores, relative safety on the streets.

The low-rent neighborhoods contrariwise. So they’re typically where most poor and near-poor families perforce live, including those with vouchers.

HUD boosts the FMRs when very few neighborhoods are home to unusually high numbers of voucher holders because so few units meet the regular FMR-based payment standards in the rest.

But the FMRs still apply to the entire metro area. The boost merely uses the median rents for the area, rather than the 40th percentile. So families with vouchers are still priced out of many high-opportunity neighborhoods, as HUD (and others) call them.

At the same time, landlords in low-opportunity neighborhoods charge more than they otherwise could because the FMR-based payment standards will cover higher rents than they could get on the open market.

They also have an insurance, of sorts, that they’ll get regularly paid at least a goodly portion of what’s owed. So they recruit voucher holders, an in-depth study of tenant “sorting” in Baltimore suggests.

That, of course, reduces housing choice for the majority of low-income people, since fewer than one in four households have vouchers. They must rent units that don’t meet the safety and other qualify standards public housing authorities require, pay far more than they can afford or both.

The perverse incentives built into Housing Choice help account for the high concentrations of poor and near-poor people in poor neighborhoods — and, not coincidentally, for persistent housing segregation, as the Baltimore researcher explains.

How HUD Plans to Change FMRs

The rule HUD proposes would make rent caps much more sensitive to rental costs in metro areas that meet certain criteria — ballparked by HUD at thirty-one.

It would set small area FMRs — specifically, one for each zip code within the select metro areas. So families would get higher subsidies if they found landlords that would rent to them in better neighborhoods.

And landlords couldn’t charge as much in high-poverty neighborhoods. This would not only reap savings to partly offset the costs of vouchers in high-opportunity neighborhoods. It would also probably make more units more affordable for poor and near-poor families without them.

What Will Probably Happen and What Should

The period for public comments on the proposed rule just ended. We’ll probably see a final rule before year’s end — in part to amplify the HUD Secretary’s legacy of efforts to fulfill the promise of the Fair Housing Act.

Like that promise itself, the promise of more choice for Housing Choice voucher holders will become a reality only if the next administration doesn’t backtrack — and then only if local housing authorities act affirmatively.

It’s one thing to adjust rent caps, quite another to make sure that families understand the new opportunities they have — and to help them find places to rent in neighborhoods unfamiliar to them.

That will require, among other things, persuading landlords to accept them as tenants when they can’t jack up their rents, as landlords in high-poverty neighborhoods have.

Even in the best of cases, the small area FMRs will be only one better tool in the affordable housing toolkit. We’ll still need more funding to help finance the construction of more affordable housing — and preservation of what already exists. We’ll need zoning to support both.

We’ll need more funding for housing vouchers too, of course. Because, as things stand now, we’ve got some 7.2 million households whose choice is whether to stave off eviction by paying more than half their income for rent or to have food on the table till they’re kicked out.


Aging in Place a Challenge for Low-Income Seniors, If They Still Have a Place

June 16, 2016

Looking back to Older Americans Month, I seized on one hardship that too many of the celebrated suffer — food insecurity and outright malnutrition.

That’s not the only reason why the so-called golden years aren’t so golden for a lot of seniors. Another that looms even larger is unaffordable (or no) housing.

Acute Affordable Housing Shortage

Last month brought us a new report from the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Senior Health and Housing Task Force. As you’d guess, it focuses on the urgent need for more affordable housing suitable for seniors and the implications for their health and our country’s healthcare system.

We know, of course, about the shortage of housing that the lowest-income renters can afford. There were about 11.3 million of them in 2013, including 2.6 million elderly singles or couples. The market lacked about 6.9 million units that were both affordable and available to rent.

But not all those units would suit the needs of seniors who’ve developed (or always had) difficulties moving around without walkers or wheelchairs.

Only 3.8% of all housing units in the country have design features to accommodate moderate mobility limitations, the task force co-chairs say. These, note, are not necessarily affordable for lower-income people or available for anybody to buy or rent.

Higher-income people can afford to have features in their homes modified, e.g., doors widened, ramps built. They can have doorknobs and turn-on faucets replaced with levers if their hands have weakened or stiffened.

Or they can move to an apartment that has such features — even, if they choose, an assisted living facility where they can age in place, with increasing services as they need them. About 70% ultimately will for even such basic daily tasks as bathing, dressing and taking prescribed medications.

But an estimated 1.8 million seniors paid more than half their income for rent two years ago — an upward trend that’s unlikely to turn around on its own.

They’re already short on money for food, transportation and their share of medical costs — an especially big bite of the budget, as we can see from how they boost the more accurate senior poverty rate.

Seems the crunch will worsen as more people live long enough to become seniors — and longer thereafter. An estimated 1.8 million more senior households — a total of 6.5 million — will have less than $15,000 a year to live on by 2024, the Harvard Joint Center on Housing Studies reports.

The Bipartisan Policy Center’s task force recommends more affordable housing for seniors, including a new, special form of supportive housing — supports here being in-home health care and help with those other daily tasks.

The only federal program specifically for this sort of housing has had no funds for grants to develop new units since 2012. And contracts that keep an estimated 41,900 affordable will have expired within the next eight years.

What the task force doesn’t address is the income side of the equation, beyond recommending state and local programs to defray senior homeowners’ costs.

There’d be fewer seniors struggling to pay for rent if they’d gotten paid enough while working to have had income left over for long-term savings.

There’d be fewer if Social Security retirement benefits for former low-wage workers were higher — a forward-looking policy change already teed up by leading Democrats (and predictably trashed on by the Washington Post, among others).

There’d be fewer if the Earned Income Tax Credit didn’t exclude most workers over 65 — and do so little for childless workers.

As things stand now, a very large number of seniors and prospective seniors who hope to age in place will have a hard time doing that without risks to their health.

And the risks they knowingly take to cut costs — skimping on meals or skipping doses of medication, for example — may not save enough for them continue paying for their own place.

Rising Tide of Homelessness

Homelessness is, of course, the end result of the affordable housing shortage for some seniors, as well as younger people. Recent months have brought us several articles on the aging of America’s homeless population.

Both The New York Times and focus on seniors living on the streets or the equivalent. Many have been homeless for a long time and suffer from serious health problems, including substance abuse.

Some, however, became homeless only after a fairly recent setback — often a job loss, but sometimes other problems, e.g., a stroke that forced a woman to leave her subsidized unit because the building had no elevator.

Long-term and newly-homeless older people have shifted the profile of our country’s homeless population. Nearly a third of those counted two years ago were at least 50 years old — a 20% increase since 2007, the Times reports.

A 2010 analysis by the National Alliance to End Homelessness concluded that senior homelessness would increase by 33% within the next 10 years, assuming no significant changes in population or poverty rates.

By 2050, more than 95,270 seniors would be homeless, according to the Alliance’s projection — unless, of course, policymakers invest significantly more in affordable housing and in cash or cash-equivalent benefits.

Even the little I’ve pulled together here shows we’ve got the tools in the toolbox. What we seemingly don’t have is the political will to make them sufficient to the needs of homeless and at-risk seniors.

Nor those who’ll have a good chance of becoming seniors, if they don’t become homeless first. So if we’re going to celebrate Older Americans Month, we ought to put more money where our mouths are.

House Republicans Move to Expand Moving to Work (Again)

June 6, 2016

We’re familiar by now with studies showing that poor families, especially the children do better when they move to better neighborhoods. Fewer of us perhaps are familiar with Moving to Work — a program that House Republicans now want to expand to virtually all public housing authorities in the country.

Congress expanded MTW only six months ago, setting the stage for nearly tripling the number of participating housing authorities over the next seven years.

Now the House Majority Leader has introduced a bill that would ultimately let all housing authorities that like what MTW offers to have it, except those the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development had recently rated as troubled.

MTW has thus far been an experiment of sorts. The ultimate aim is to identify practices that would achieve at least one of three purposes more effectively than regular rules for Housing Choice vouchers and the main federal funding streams for public housing allow.

The demonstration project, as it’s called, still awaits a comprehensive, independent evaluation. In other words, Congress has barreled ahead — and may barrel further — without knowing whether Moving to Work works.

One can understand why House Republicans would find MTW so attractive. Basically, it converts the voucher and public housing programs into a block grant that affords participating housing authorities a lot of flexibility.

They can shift funds from one housing program to another — or to other programs, so long as they in some manner assist “substantially the same total number of eligible low-income families” as they would have if they hadn’t merged their funds.

They don’t have to assist them as much, however, or for as long. They don’t have to enable poor families to move to neighborhoods with better opportunities to work or with better transportation to get to where work is.

They don’t have to provide training and other services that would enable potentially employable family members to find gainful work in the neighborhoods they’re living in either.

Some housing authorities may have done both. We know, however, that some have achieved savings — one of those main purposes — at the expense of poor families.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities cites increases in the portion of income families must spend for their housing. Instead of the usual 30%, more than half the housing authorities have raised rents for at least some very poor families, it says.

Families in several communities had to come up with $200 a month or more — unless they sought and received hardship exemptions. Not likely, unless things have changed a whole lot for the better in recent years.

Some housing authorities have put time limits on housing assistance and/or established work requirements — in both cases, for any household with an adult assumed capable of getting a job, i.e., not disabled or elderly.

Here too one can see why leading House Republicans fancy MTW — just as they still do Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which, as you probably know, features both time-limited benefits and work requirements.

The flexibility MTW provides has had another, apparently more general consequence — fewer housing vouchers that families can use to help pay rent wherever they can find a moderately-priced apartment a landlord will rent to them.

Two years ago, MTW housing authorities shifted nearly a fifth of the funds they’d otherwise have had to use for vouchers to “other purposes,” the Center reports. Or to no purpose, as was the case in Chicago.

More often, housing authorities have used their voucher funding stream for other defensible purposes. Many, I gather, have tapped it to repair and renovate public housing units — or replace them with subsidized units in new mixed-income developments.

We can’t altogether blame them for this sort of fund shift. As I’ve written before, Congress has persistently shortchanged the public housing capital fund, leaving them with far less money than they need to keep their public housing units habitable.

And for some poor and near-poor people, public housing is a better option than a voucher that would require them to find a suitable apartment — people with disabilities that require features most apartments don’t have, for example.

But you’re not going to find much public housing in those neighborhoods where families could move to work. So fund shifts that left some 63,000 eligible families without housing vouchers two years ago seems a reason to hit the pause button on MTW.

Not the only reason, however. I’ve already mentioned several others. but one of the biggest is the fate of block grants generally. TANF is a prime example — now worth 32% less in real dollars than when Congress created it.

It’s not the only block grant that’s significantly shrunk. Two that HUD administers have lost well over half their value — and in less time than TANF.

All this said, MTW seems to have enabled some housing authorities to innovate in ways that benefit low-income families. Some, for example, have streamlined administration by rechecking income eligibility only every couple of years instead of annually.

So they’ve cut costs, thus freeing up funds they could shift to providing more and/or better subsidized housing, while also relieving households of a time-consuming, burdensome routine imposed more often than needed.

Some have used more funds than they otherwise could have for project-based vouchers, i.e., the kind that subsidize specific housing units, rather than whatever unit a holder can find to rent.

Flexibility here may have enabled agencies to provide more affordable housing in those better neighborhoods — and to lock in affordability, wherever the projects are, says Abt Associates, the source of these and other examples.

“May,” you note, not necessarily did. And “some” because we’ve no study that’s looked across-the-board at what MTW agencies have done — let alone in light of results that matter, e.g., less homelessness, fewer poor families stuck in poor neighborhoods.

HUD has appointed a committee to advise on MTW evaluations, as Congress required. This seems a step toward assessing the outcomes of policy changes housing authorities have adopted.

Whether these assessments can show whether Moving to Work works is a question mark. Surely Congress should wait for an answer before deciding whether to expand the block grant further.


Bowser Budget Shorts Vouchers, Leaves Huge Affordable Housing Gap

April 7, 2016

The National Low Income Housing Coalition reports that the District of Columbia has only 40 apartments affordable and available to rent for every 100 extremely low-income households and only 30 per 100 for the deeply low-income.

ELIs have incomes no greater than 30% of the area median — at most, $32,600 for a four-person family in D.C. For DLIs, the maximum is 15% of that median.

The NLIHC figures actually understate the affordable housing shortage here because the area includes well-off communities beyond the city line. Several years ago, the District’s own median was 23% lower.

Even so, clearly a yawning “housing gap” — a shortage of more than 30,600 units two years ago, when the Census Bureau conducted the survey NLIHC used.

It helps explain why nearly two-thirds of the District’s ELI households and nearly three-quarters of the DLI subset had to spend more than half their income for rent, plus utilities — commonly (and aptly) referred to as a severe housing burden.

The gap also, of course, helps explain why the District had so many homeless individuals and families — and still does, though we’ll have to wait a bit for new hard numbers.

The report confirms what everyone has known for a long time. The District sorely needs more housing that’s affordable for its lowest-income residents. And the District government must invest local tax dollars to create it — and preserve what remains.

The Mayor’s budget includes another $100 million for the Housing Production Trust Fund, which helps finance both construction and preservation, though not exclusively for ELIs and DLIs.

But developers can’t afford to build or renovate housing for them without an ongoing source of funds to help pay operating costs. That’s why the District also needs enough housing vouchers of the sort that’s attached to specific units — so-called project-based vouchers.

At the same time, it needs more tenant-based vouchers — those that make up the difference between what low-income people can afford and the market-rate rent of units landlords will lease to them.

Don’t look to the federal government to fund more vouchers. The current budget at best barely sustains those already in use. And the District hasn’t gotten anything like the number of vouchers it needs for many years.

That’s why its policymakers created the Local Rent Supplement Program — a source of vouchers modeled on the federal.

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute has raised concerns about proposed funding for LRSP in next year’s budget. There’d be only enough more to provide affordable housing for some 200 formerly homeless individuals and families, it says.

These would be tenant-based vouchers. They would replace some of the short-term vouchers individuals and families have through rapid re-housing and/or enable either or both to move from permanent supportive housing because they no longer need such intensive services.

The Mayor proposes no additional funds for the project-based type. How then could the Production Trust Fund actually produce more affordable housing for ELI residents — let alone the subcategory NLIHC has created?

The Fund, by law, is supposed to spend 40% on ELI housing every year. It hasn’t always in the past. But the head of the Housing and Economic Development Department said she’d ensure it did. And the latest awards seem to confirm that.

But developers may not respond to all the new opportunities the Fund will create if the Bowser administration can’t assure them of the ongoing subsidies project-based vouchers provide.

This isn’t the only problem with the significantly smaller LRSP increase the Mayor proposes. If all the tenant-based vouchers go to residents in rapid re-housing and/or PSH, there’ll be none for the ELIs and DLIs with housing burdens that put them at high risk of homelessness.

NPR recently profiled a single mother who’d just narrowly escaped eviction, but can’t rest easy because her monthly rent is about $335 more than what her job pays.

She knows that she should move the family to a more affordable place. but even the no-bedroom apartments she’s found rent for barely less than what she makes.

She applied for a housing voucher eight years ago. The family is now “1,000 something” on the DC Housing Authority’s waiting list, she says. There are about 40,000 families behind her. And there would be more if DCHA hadn’t closed the list three years ago.

The problem NLIHC documents is hardly unique to the District. The shortages it documents are actually larger nationwide, as are the severe housing burdens. We can, I think chalk this up partly to investments of local funds.

But that’s hardly a source of comfort to District families who can barely come up with the monthly rent and money for the electricity bill — or who can’t, but manage to stay housed, heated and the like by putting off first one and then the other.

These families are obviously one loss of working hours or other new strain on their budgets away from homelessness — or just one more late rent payment.

The District may rapidly re-house them. But few will be able to pay full rent when their short-term subsidies expire — or find an apartment they can afford. And the proposed budget would by no means fund LRSP vouchers for all that will need them to remain securely housed.

The Mayor has embraced the goal of making homelessness a rare, brief, one-time experience in the District. So it’s perplexing to see that she’s proposing a smaller real-dollar increase for LRSP than budgeted in any recent year but one.

Not much of the “fair shot” her budget promises for those residents on the waiting list and the severely housing-burdened who aren’t because they couldn’t apply.