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.


Local Nonprofits Tell DC Leaders Not to Govern With Hands Tied

February 1, 2017

Shortly after I published my latest blast against the District of Columbia’s triggered tax law, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute and about 50 other local organizations sent a letter to the Mayor and Council urging them to take the same steps I characterized as first priority defenses against prospective federal spending cuts.

They also recommend changing another law, which requires the District to put any funds not spent by the end of the fiscal year into savings accounts. That makes them unavailable for a wide range of critical needs, including those that may lose federal funds.

The sign-on list is still open. If you work for an organization that would like to join, you’ll find the instructions at the end of the letter. A fairly quick and easy way to support progress in these times of extraordinary uncertainties.


Perilous Time for DC to Trigger More Tax Giveaways

January 30, 2017

We’re into the budget season here in the District of Columbia. The Bowser administration is busy preparing its proposal, aiming to send it to the Council in early April. That will trigger hearings, then votes — first by the committees responsible for the major budget areas and then by the Council as a whole.

Budgets are always somewhat of a crap shoot because officials don’t know how exactly how much the District will collect in taxes and fees.

More importantly, they don’t how much the District will receive from the federal government and for what. But they have to factor some figure in for roughly a quarter of what the District will have to spend.

That figure is much more iffy this year for several related reasons. First, we’ve got a new President — and one that’s set on making major changes that would have both direct and indirect effects on the District’s budget.

Second, it’s doubtful anyone, except maybe insiders will know what’s in his final proposed budget before the Mayor finishes hers. The problem here is that District agencies base their budget input in part on the prospective budgets of the agencies from which they regularly receive grants.

The estimates are always just ballparks, of course. Congress can — and often does — change proposed spending levels. Or makes no changes in what it’s currently approved — something it often does, though rarely for all federal budget areas and the entire fiscal year.

But uncertainty this year will be extraordinarily high. Would be even without Trump’s threat to withhold grants from cities that don’t participate in the federal government’s immigrant deportation efforts.

The Hill reports that the administration aims to send “an initial budget proposal” to Congress long about the second week in March, but that it’s likely to run into big-time flak from some Congressional Republicans, especially in the Senate.

Can’t count on easy sailing through the House either, especially if it reflects, as rumored, either or both the Heritage Foundation’s radical downsizing blueprint and Trump’s promise to invest $1 trillion in infrastructure over the next 10 years.

Well, Congress has to do something by the end of April to prevent a government shutdown. But what that bill will look like is anybody’s guess.

What’s lots more certain are cuts to a range of non-defense programs — not only those that depend on annual spending decisions, but like as not Medicaid. But nobody can know for certain which, how much and when they’ll set in.

And nobody knows how the economy will fare. Dire warnings of a recession — in part, just because it’s time for one, though some economists also cite policies Trump has promised, e.g., new trade barriers.

As always, a recession will drive down local tax revenues, while increasing needs (and eligibility) for safety net programs that the District funds in whole or in part.

One would think that District policymakers would want to make extra sure that the ongoing revenue stream, plus money in savings accounts will cover the community’s critical needs — or at the very least, minimize the need for cuts.

Yet District law requires specified tax cuts whenever projected revenues exceed those projected for the prior fiscal year — this no matter what a longer-term forecast might indicate or what seems likely on Capitol Hill.

As a practical matter, this means that the District could give away millions of dollars — and not just for a single year, but for good, unless the law is changed.

As I’ve said before, Councilmembers didn’t carefully consider the automatically triggered tax cuts before agreeing to approve them.

The Chairman tucked them into the Fiscal Year 2015 Budget Support Act, the package of legislation needed to make existing laws consistent with the budget proper, shortly before the first required vote.

How Councilmembers would have voted after public hearings, written testimony and committee discussions of the triggers is an open question. But that was then, and this now — a very different now from several years ago.

Different not only in ominous prospects for federal funding, but in pressing needs that call for more local funds. They’re mostly not brand new, but more urgent, for various reasons.

They include a remedy for the also hastily-passed rigid time limit on participation in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

Also high on the list are increased investments in affordable housing for the lowest-income residents, both those who are homeless now and those at high risk because they’re paying at least half their income for rent.

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute has cited some others, e.g., more for public schools due to increased enrollment and rising costs, improvements in our aged, hazardous Metro system.

DCFPI and other local advocacy organizations earlier recommended a pause in the triggered tax cuts. It’s surely high time the Mayor and Council do that and set the revenues saved aside to help offset federal spending cuts the upcoming budget didn’t account for.

Didn’t, as I said, because it couldn’t. And sadly, neither the District nor any state can fully offset what they could lose in federal funds.

The DC auditor reports that just the “rollback” of the Medicaid expansion piece of the Affordable Care Act, i.e., the enhanced federal match for newly-eligible beneficiaries, would cost the District $563 million next fiscal year alone.

Just one of many signs that the District needs every penny it now collects in fees and taxes.


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.


Some People’s Water Crises Are More Urgent Than Others

October 3, 2016

A public epidemic has become public knowledge, thanks, in a manner of speaking, to egregious negligence by Michigan state and local Flint officials.

We’ve learned that millions of children are at risk of lead poisoning — or already have it. Undoubtedly adults too. And they can suffer a wide range of harms. But such research as we have focuses on young children because they’re at highest risk for lifelong damages.

So what then have our federal policymakers done since all this became common knowledge?

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has taken a first step toward strengthening protections against the most common sources of lead poisoning — old house paint and the soil around housing.

But I’ll defer that and focus here on water because it’s been made newly newsworthy by a cliffhanger we may see again.

The administration sent water, filters, funds and folks to Flint shortly after Michigan’s governor declared a state of emergency. But there are still reportedly problems with the water there. And they’ll cost many millions of dollars to fix.

Flint is hardly the only community with lead in the water that comes out of faucets in homes and schools. And, as with Flint, dumping some chemicals into the water supply won’t solve the problem. Lead pipes corrode and have to be replaced.

USA Today reports nearly 2,000 other water systems with higher lead levels than the maximum the Environmental Protection Agency has set as a trigger for action. They’re in all 50 states, it says.

In the District of Columbia too, it seems, though our big lead-in-the-water crisis supposedly ended in 2005 — not, however, because the District no longer has lead pipes. And not apparently because the chemicals added to the water protect us.

The agency responsible for public buildings recently found that over half the public school water systems it tested had lead levels higher than the EPA trigger.

That’s three times higher than what the Centers for Disease Control now says should trigger public health actions. So we’ve had a child health emergency for some time.

The Senate recently approved $220 million to address leaded water problems — this by an overwhelming majority. About $100 million would go to states with drinking water emergencies.

They’d get an additional $70 million to subsidize (not by much) loans for related infrastructure projects. Another $50 million would be divvied up among small, economically disadvantaged communities to help them comply with existing drinking water standards.

This much is fully offset in the much larger water resources development bill. The substantial investments needed to remedy water infrastructure problems would hinge on the outcomes of the annual budget process.

Leading Senate Democrats wanted the paid-for piece included in the continuing resolution needed to prevent a government shutdown. The Republican leadership would have none of it, though it included more than twice as much to aid recently-flooded communities, mainly in Louisiana.

A stalemate then because not enough Democrats would agree to vote on the CR unless it did something about both water crises. And the House couldn’t pass a CR without Democrats because too many Republicans there object to such a short-term stopgap.

A compromise forged by the House Speaker and Democratic Minority Leader averted this different sort of crisis. Seems that impending government shutdowns, like hangings, concentrate the mind wonderfully.

Basically, they agreed to amend the House version of the water resources bill. It had no funds for Flint or any other community whose residents, the youngest especially, are at risk of lead poisoning.

The amended bill, also passed by a large majority, would add $170 million. So there may be some money in the pipeline for some communities with lead in their water pipelines in the upcoming year.

But the $50 million difference in emergency spending is only one of many differences between the House and Senate bills. So negotiators will have a lot of work to do. And whatever they come up with will, of course, have to pass in both the House and Senate.

No such delay or doubts for the flooded communities, however, because their half million is in the CR. Some people’s water crises are more urgent than others.

Now, if lead-laden water had been flowing into members’ own homes — or out of the drinking fountains in their children’s schools ….


No Text Messaging Service, More and Longer Waits for Help From Social Security

August 15, 2016

I used to say that I was the only person in the developed world over the age of three who didn’t have a cell phone. Then my brother Tom told me he didn’t have one either. Now it seems that having not only a cell phone, but one that’s text-enabled isn’t just a handy alternative to email.

The Social Security Administration has just informed me that I can’t use my online account unless it can send me a text message whenever I try–and I text back. So I’m doomed again to hours on hold — and probably hours sitting in the local SSA office, as I had to do when some glitch in the system blocked my online account.

I could, of course, join the 21st century. But not all elderly and younger people with disabilities can afford a cell phone and the related fees, let alone the surcharges for texting.

The federal government offers low-income residents free cell phones and some variable number of free minutes. All but eight states restrict eligibility for this so-called Lifeline to people whose incomes don’t exceed $15,890 — this for people who live alone, as I do.

The cut-off is barely more than the average Social Security retirement benefit before the deduction for Medicare Part B, which most prudent retirees choose. And it’s less than 150% of the federal poverty line for a single person — a measure some analysts use to define low income.

Even income-eligible people may not have cell phones. One reason, I think, is that they have to choose between a cell phone and a landline. Some feel they can’t do without the latter — easier for people with poor vision to punch buttons for outgoing calls and see who’s calling them, for example.

Others might willingly forgo the landline, but live with someone who depends on it. The Lifeline choice isn’t personal, but for everyone in the household.

Texting poses other challenges. I think of my mother-in-law, who’s about to turn ninety-seven. Her right hand, never fully functional since a stroke some years ago, couldn’t readily peck out a message on a little keyboard.

SSA says it’s imposing the text messaging requirement as part of a government-wide effort to tighten up cybersecurity. I can see how a hacker could do mischief by accessing my account.

But the agency delivered the text messaging requirement as an edict, giving no one a chance to raise concerns or suggest alternatives. The executive order it refers to seems open to the latter.

Congress may make matters worse — not only for text-less seniors, but their younger counterparts who’ve either become too disabled to continue working or never could.

The House Appropriations Committee has reportedly decided to cut SSA’s budget by $250 million, though the agency has already lost roughly 10% in real dollars since the across-the-board spending cuts and caps required by the Budget Control Act.

A cut over on the Senate side too, the Washington Post reports in a column focusing on what unnamed agency officials say the House cut will mean for people applying for benefits, waiting for decisions and simply needing some personal help from a staff member.

Now there will surely be more of the last, thanks to the texting screen. Waiting for hours in an office isn’t nearly as bad as waiting for months to receive the benefits you need when your spouse dies — or for nearly a year and a half, on average, when you’ve appealed the agency’s rejection of your initial disability claim.

But my ample opportunities to observe others sitting in the office I go to suggest those long waits may do more than provoke acute impatience — something I’m more prone to than I should be.

I saw, for example, people with disabilities who had to have relatives with them to help with the applications process — or the interactions needed to resolve problems.

Not only they, but some other former workers, including seniors had somebody there to take them home — presumably the same person who brought them there. So they might have had to do without the benefits they needed for weeks (or months) longer because no one could immediately take enough time off from work.

Fulminating over SSA services last year, I cited a Los Angeles Times columnist who suggested that Republicans want to get us so riled up that we’ll accept some private-sector alternative. The head of the union that represents many agency employees says that’s why House Republicans voted for the latest budget cut.

I’m pretty riled up, as you can see, though not nearly that riled up. I do, however, feel that SSA has further disadvantaged people who’ve already got disadvantages not freely chosen, unlike my stubborn resistance to a smartphone.

UPDATE I: Minutes before I published this, I got a message from my bank, saying that it had instituted a multi-factor authentication process  — the technical term for what SSA has adopted. It does not require use of text messaging.

UPDATE II: My gripe abut text messaging is moot, as my next post reports. My concerns about long waits aren’t.