DC Mayor Wants Law Changed to Allow New Dorm-Style Family Shelters

October 1, 2015

Mayor Bowser has formally asked the DC Council to approve two changes to the Homeless Services Reform Act — the law that establishes the framework for the District’s policies and programs for homeless people.

One would allow the administration to open new family shelters without apartment-style units. The other would alter the regular appeals process in cases where the Department of Human Services shelters families temporarily and then denies them shelter for a longer term.

The administration links the changes to the recently revived policy of sheltering homeless families with no safe place to stay year round, rather than admitting them only in freezing-cold weather, when the law says it must.

Seems the Council — and the rest of us — are to view the changes as an “all or nothing at all” package, though the bill itself would leave in place the current, much more restrictive right to shelter.

I want to give the issues the space I think they deserve. So I’ll confine myself here to the shelter units. Still a lot to grapple with, as you’ll see.

Why the New Shelter Plan Hinges on an Amendment

The HSRA generally requires the District to provide apartment-style shelter units for homeless families — separate bedrooms for parents and children, plus bathrooms, “cooking facilities” and related equipment for only the family. This has been honored more in the breach than the observance for a long time.

Families at DC General, the main family shelter, are in single rooms, barely converted from what were once hospital rooms. The motel rooms DHS puts homeless families in when DC General is full are just that — not suites with kitchenettes. The legal out in both cases is that the HSRA permits private rooms if no apartment-style units are available.

The administration plans to replace DC General with smaller shelters scattered around the city, picking up on the plan of sorts issued late in the Gray administration. It too wants only private rooms in the shelters.

No legal out in this case, since a shortage of apartment-style units wouldn’t apply. So the administration wants a change in the law that would allow it to choose either apartment-style or what’s essentially dormitory-style.

Why the Administration Has Opted for Private Rooms

The bottom line is the bottom line, as DHS Director Laura Zeilinger’s presentation to a “listening session” made clear. The choice, in other words, is cost-driven — in two ways.

The first is what the administration would have to pay for shelters built from the ground up or created by renovation. They’d obviously cost more if all the units were apartment-style, as the HSRA defines it.

Yet a slide in a series Zeilinger used at the session indicates that the extra cost wouldn’t be all that great. We see estimates for 200 units, equally divided into four new shelters. Apartment-style units for all of them would cost roughly $16.6 million more.

Not chump change, but hardly beyond the pale, since the capital budget — the source of the new shelter funds — is about $72.3 million. On the other hand, the Mayor can’t just dip into that budget for anything she chooses.

Cost estimates, of course, reflect not only the type of units, but the number. DHS claims it would need more if they were apartment-style because they wouldn’t turn over as fast. It’s got several slides showing that families stay longer in them.

The only local data presented do seem to support this. But they don’t necessarily indicate that families feel so at home that they don’t try to find housing — or accept it when offered.

The data could instead reflect where DHS has focused its housing placement efforts and/or the fact that families got apartment-style units for reasons that make affordable housing for them unusually difficult to find.

“I’m not saying we want to make shelter uncomfortable,” Zeilinger told us at the listening session. But it’s hard to come to any other conclusion.

What Troubles Advocates

Attorney Amber Harding, speaking for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, says they’re concerned about “lowering the floor for health and safety.” Health because germs spread — endangering all, but especially parents and children with conditions that compromise their immune systems.

Also because families would have to eat whatever DHS provides. Parents at DC General have long complained that they or their children can’t eat what the agency has trucked in for them, in part because of food sensitivities or special dietary needs.

Safety refers partly to the fact that children would have to share bathrooms with adults who may have perverse sexual proclivities and/or uncontrolled tendencies to violence. Unreasonable to expect them to use a bathroom only when a same-sex parent can chaperone.

Beyond the issue of actual physical danger, we should consider what Tamaso Johnson at the DC Coalition Against Domestic Violence referred to as “acute concerns for safety.” These are understandably common among victims of domestic violence, as well as people, including children who’ve experienced other traumas.

For them, strangers in the bathrooms they’d have to use and in other “intimate settings,” as Johnson called them, could trigger anxieties they wouldn’t experience in apartment-style units — or at the very least, less communal arrangements.

What Standards Would Apply

Zeilinger says we need to look at the bigger picture. The flexibility the administration wants if part of “a larger plan to improve resources for struggling families,” including “better quality rooms” than what they have at DC General.

This seems to me a very low bar. And, in fact, the amendment the administration seeks would license another warehouse for homeless families because it sets no minimal standards.

DHS has shared two possible layouts, reflecting “principles” or “prototypical design elements” of a new shelter. These include several types of bathrooms, including at least one unit per floor with its own.

But all the administration would have to comply with is the “private room” definition the Council set after the Gray administration contended that screened-off spaces in recreation centers qualified — four permanent walls, a ceiling, a door that locks, lights that can be turned on an off from inside the cubicle and access to a hot shower.

The heart of the debate, I think, is how much more flexibility the DC Council should build into the HSRA. The Mayor and her lead officials may have all the best intentions. They may tweak the design principles to accommodate some concerns.

But who knows that will happen to them, tweaked or otherwise, if officials can’t contract for enough replacement units without compromising them?

The proposed amendment does require the administration to maintain apartment-style units. But there’s nothing to ensure it will lease up enough for all the families that would suffer harm during even a brief stay in a single room. Zeilinger’s focus on lengths of stay could make one queasy.

In short, it seems prudent for the Council to balance relief from the apartment-style unit mandate with some legally-binding constraints.

Alternatively, it could find the funds for apartment-style units or, at least, some compromise. What about rooms with private bathrooms, plus some food storage and prep equipment, for example?


Will We Have DC Families Living on Less Than $2 a Day?

September 28, 2015

Short answer to the question the title poses is we already do, as the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports. And about a year from now, we could have well over 6,000, including about 13,000 children with no cash income whatever unless Mayor Bowser comes up with a lifeline that the DC Council approves.

“This is the single most important moment for poverty in D.C.” since the birth of DCFPI in 2001, Executive Director Ed Lazere told a group of us meeting to discuss the crisis those families may face.

What Has Driven So Many Families Into Such Deep Poverty

Families who’ve participated in the District’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program for a lifetime total of 60 months or more have exceeded the time limit District law now sets. It provides for a benefits phase-out leading to zero in October 2016.

The Council suspended the phase-out after the first cut, but then let it resume. So a three-person TANF family now receives a benefit equivalent to 9% (not a typo) of the federal poverty line.

What Federal Law Has to Do With the Time Limit

No state or the District must have a time limit. We can trace the reason virtually all do to the law that established TANF. It generally prohibits states from using their federal block grant funds for cash assistance to adults or minor heads-of-household after they’ve been in the program for 60 months. Exceptions allowed, however (of which more below).

What We Know About TANF and Work

Parents do, by and large, seem to have a sense of urgency about finding work. Extremely low benefits, as well as imminent cut-offs help account for this, though we shouldn’t ignore aspirations and values they share with the great majority of Americans.

Staying in the workforce — and in a job that pays more than the very low maximum for TANF eligibility — is another matter.

We know from past research that adults who leave TANF for work or because work they had began to pay more often return to the program — about one in five during the late 1990s, when the labor market was considerably more favorable than it is now.

A more recent audit of the District’s longest-term participants casts severe doubts on their employment and earnings prospects. Fewer than half the parents who’d received job training and/or placement help got a job of any sort. And only a tiny fraction still had those jobs six months later.

These dismal results probably reflect, among other things, reasons they’ve come up against the time limit. A deplorable lack of current research here.

But we know from a 2002 study of the District’s TANF caseload that most parents who’d remained in the program for three years faced multiple barriers to work, e.g., less than a high school education, little (or no) work experience, mental health problems, recent and severe domestic violence, sick children or other family members they had to care for.

These findings generally conform to others. An evaluation of a Minnesota TANF employment program, for example, found, among other things, that about two-thirds of participants had a physical or learning disability, a mental health problem and/or responsibility for an incapacitated family member.

What the District Could Do

The District had no time limit until 2011, after soon-to-be Mayor Gray pushed through a bill during his last days as Council Chairman — a license for him to revert to his earlier benefits phase-out plan.

And indeed, he did, but with none of the relief options federal rules allow. For example, the District could extend benefits beyond the time limit for up to 20% of its average caseload and still use federal funds to pay for them so long as the families met criteria for “hardship,” however it chose to define that, or had a member who’d been “battered or subjected to extreme cruelty.”

Most states extend benefits when parents, for various reasons, can’t be expected to immediately find work — because they’re victims of domestic violence, for example, sick or incapacitated or caring for family member who is.

As of mid-2013, 14 states provided extensions when parents were “cooperating,” i.e., doing what their plans said they should, but couldn’t find work. This would seem especially relevant to the District’s at-risk families.

Though we don’t know how many of the parents have less than a high school diploma or the equivalent, we do know that working-age residents (25-64 years old) without the credential have very high unemployment rates — nearly 14.6% last year, according to the American Community Survey. Probably even higher for younger residents.

We also know that parents in the District’s TANF program are still on waiting lists for job training and placement services — about 300, the new head of the agency responsible for TANF told us at the meeting.

More to the point perhaps, parents waited, on average, 11 months for such services last year. But the clock kept ticking toward the time limit.

And some of them were pretty far along before the Department of Human Services rolled out improvements in both the training component and the assessments used to decide which services would best prepare parents for work. Time in the old problem-riddled program still counts.

What Will Happen Next

The budget for the upcoming fiscal year pushes back the benefits cut-off that was originally set for October 2015 in part because the Mayor wanted DHS to have some time to develop an extension policy — something it should have done four years ago.

One can hope the policy recognizes the fact that the vast majority of TANF parents aren’t to blame for remaining unemployed — or so egregiously under-employed as to still be income-eligible.

Nor to blame if some unforeseeable barrier arises after they’ve passed the time limit, e.g., an eruption of domestic violence or stalking, a debilitating illness. Needless to say, children aren’t to blame, no matter what.

All this calls for not only liberal extensions, but a rollback of the benefits cuts that have caused such dire hardships for the 60-month families.

Yet even the best extension policy and fully restored benefits can’t make up for flaws in the basic structure of the federal TANF law — the main reason some 1.5 million families have had to get by on, at most, $2 a day.

A Better Winter Plan for Homeless DC Families … At Last

September 10, 2015

I’ve remarked before on promising shifts in the District of Columbia’s approach to homelessness generally and to family homelessness in particular. We see them again, I think, in the Winter Plan the DC Interagency Council on Homelessness adopted last Tuesday.

‘Bout time because we’ve witnessed a series of funding cutbacks — and worse — by the past two administrations. Some, though not all surfaced, if you knew what to look for, in the annual plans the ICH developed, as legally required, to lay the groundwork for what the District would do to keep homeless people safe during severely-cold weather.

I’ve been blogging on the plans for six years now — mainly on how they address the District’s legal responsibility to shelter or otherwise protect homeless families from freezing outdoors.

Last year’s plan for families was, in most respects, the worst. An effort initiated the prior year to estimate shelter needs on a month-to-month basis was abandoned — or shared only among the drafters.

No specifics at all for how the District would shelter or house the estimated total number of families who’d be entitled to protection during the five or so months of the winter season.

As I wrote at the time, the ICH basically threw up its hands because the homeless services budget clearly fell short of the resources needed.

The new plan doesn’t — and perhaps couldn’t — specify the number of families that won’t need shelter because help they receive kept them housed or will need it only for a short while because they get subsidized housing of one sort or another.

It does, however, make a serious effort to project shelter needs for each winter month — a more sophisticated projection than the plan for 2013-14 disclosed.

We see, on the one hand, the number of families that will qualify for shelter and, on the other hand, the number that will “exit” — not only those who’ll leave because they find some alternative, as before, but also those who receive assistance.

This may sound like a technical matter, but it isn’t because the estimates provide the basis for monitoring the in-and-out flow — and thus for action, if needed, to avert another crisis. The plan, in fact, commits the District to updating the figures.

Three other changes reflect policy shifts — all embedded in the estimates. One is the Bowser administration’s decision to shelter homeless families who’ve got no safe place to stay year round, rather than let them in only when the law says it must.

This is something that advocates have urged, for both humane and practical reasons, ever since the Department of Human Services, under the Gray administration, abandoned an unofficial, but operative year-round shelter policy dating back to some time before the Homeless Services Reform Act established a right to shelter.

The humane aspect needs no explanation. The practical, however, perhaps does. Basically, the intake center was overwhelmed with homeless families on the first freezing-cold day — and DC General, the main homeless family shelter, immediately full, if it wasn’t already.

This is one, though not the only reason that DHS had to scramble to find a place to park homeless families. Also why intake center staff may not have done the best job with needs assessments and referrals, the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless has suggested.

The two other changes reflect a budget that realistically anticipates the need to shelter more families than DC General can accommodate.

Would seem like a no-brainer, one might think. But the last Gray administration budget included no funds for motel rooms, even though it also left roughly 90 DC General units unfunded. This, more than anything else, accounts for the no-plan Winter Plan for homeless families last year.

Now we have not only projections for “overflow units needed,” but a subset for “contingency capacity.” This, I’m told, provides for an extra number of motel rooms DHS will contract for to ensure swift, adequate shelter if the entry estimates prove too low or the exit estimates too high.

The numbers can, of course, be adjusted as the season goes on. But the very fact that the plan expressly includes a fudge factor indicates that DHS has both the will and some confidence in resources to agree to a crisis prevention measure.

Here again, I’m struck by the difference that the Mayor has made by her choice of a new director and inferentially her commitment to support. Looking back even before the later days of the Gray administration, we see instead empty assurances that DHS will somehow muddle through.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that the DC Council also deserves credit for policies and plans that promise more enlightened, effective services for both homeless families and singles.

The ICH has long had members with the expertise and commitment to propose such policies and plans. But the Council’s decision to create what became a funded executive director position for the ICH has clearly made a difference.

I’ve already commented on the thoughtful, ambitious plan the ICH developed to make homelessness in the District “rare, brief, and non-recurring.” The budget for the upcoming fiscal year shows that the Mayor intends to jump start action on the plan.

So we’ve got grounds to hope for more effective homeless services, better tuned to the diverse needs of homeless and at-risk residents — a prospectively fewer of them, though that hinges on developments beyond the reach of DHS.

I feel similarly hopeful about the new Winter Plan — and for similar reasons.  As I learned early on, non-agency members of the ICH working group that develops the annual plans may propose, but it’s DHS that disposes so far as resources are concerned.

Not saying everything will fall nicely into place now. But the Winter Plan, so far as it goes, does seem to  reflect the “fresh start for homeless families” that the Mayor promised the ICH last Tuesday.

NOTE: Not everything the Mayor told the ICH merits as much confidence. I’ll probably have more to say about her legislative plans when I’ve got a clearer fix on them.

Some Photo ID Help for DC Homeless, But Hard to Get Without Expert Help

September 2, 2015

I started looking into the District of Columbia’s photo ID requirements when I heard several formerly homeless men complain about the difficulties their peers have had with a process that’s supposed to enable them to get the ID when they’ve no fixed address and/or can’t afford the fee.

I thought it best to begin with why they, like all District residents, need a photo ID and what the District ordinarily requires to issue one. The District, to its credit, does afford homeless residents several workarounds. So, as promised, a brief look at them.

Homeless people, as I noted, may not have any of the documents applicants must have to prove they’re District residents, e.g., a recent utility bill in their name, a lease or any of several documents homeowners probably have on file somewhere.

There used to be a workaround for those living doubled up with friends or relatives — a form their host could use to certify their residency. Burdensome for the host, who had to show up in person at the Department of Motor Vehicles, with a photo ID and at least two current proofs of residency.

But at least an avenue toward getting a photo ID that anyone could find out about if s/he looked around online. Now it’s open only to minors.

Doubled-up adults can get certification directly from the Department of Human Services, but only if a caseworker provides a letter stating that they’re homeless and can use his/her organization’s mailing address as their own. They’d need a well-informed caseworker to even know what DHS could do.

What about homeless people who live in shelters or on the streets? For some, there’s another workaround — a voucher that will both substitute for the usual residency proofs and cover the photo ID fee. An even more complex process — and virtually impenetrable to anyone who doesn’t know the system.

Basically, DHS makes vouchers available to pre-approved social service providers that are willing to accept mail on an applicant’s behalf.

There are roughly 40 of these providers. Most will issue vouchers only to homeless people who are clients, residents in their shelters or members of a target group the provider exists to serve, e.g., people who identify as LGBT.

Providers can get only a limited number of vouchers at any given time. They don’t always have enough to meet demand. This, in fact, is what the formerly homeless men griped about — understandably, since trips to any of the sources, except the pre-approved shelters are a costly crap shoot.

It’s also the case, I’m told, that staff at those shelters don’t always know they can issue vouchers — or understand the process. So homeless individuals who’ve heard of the vouchers have been told they can’t get one.

In short, accommodations for homeless people, but probably unknown to those who don’t have a relationship with a well-informed caseworker or the equivalent — and one who’s got the time and concern to help them navigate.

Now, a voucher doesn’t clear the way to a photo ID. Homeless people still have to produce a proof of identity — in most cases, a birth certificate — and proof of a valid Social Security number.

Both, as I earlier wrote, may not be ready to hand for someone who’s homeless. Nor for some of the rest of us. But the costs and wait times for us are probably more annoying than truly problematic — unless, of course, we want to fly someplace in the near future.

Nothing anyone can do about the wait times, it seems. But low-income residents may get help with the costs of a birth certificate. Two local nonprofits offer such financial assistance, though not for the swifter online process.

One source says it can help only the first 15 people who show up in the morning. The other will help the first 36 on Fridays and alternate Saturdays, but only those who’ve got appointments made by a social service provider.

So we’re back to the relationship issue. Homeless and other low-income people who’ve got no such relationship will obviously have to take their chances — perhaps many times.

On a more positive note, the District will waive the documentation requirements and the fee for returning citizens who can get an official letter from the Department of Corrections or either of two agencies responsible for supervising ex-offenders.

Might there be some equally streamlined — and readily discoverable — workaround for residents who haven’t recently spent time behind bars? Shouldn’t the District, at the very least, explore the options?

Shouldn’t nonprofits reconsider their own photo ID requirements?


We Need Photo IDs, But Not Easy for Poor and Near-Poor in DC to Get

August 31, 2015

Most of us, I suppose, have a photo ID and don’t think much about what we’d do without it. If we do, it’s probably because 17 states, mostly red, have made photo IDs a passport to the voting booth, not coincidentally disenfranchising disproportionate numbers of blacks, Hispanics and others who tend to vote for Democrats.

Nothing of that sort in the District of Columbia, which would probably be the bluest state if granted statehood. But lack of a photo ID here, as well as elsewhere is a problem — and getting one can be a big problem for people with little or no income.

Why Poor and Near-Poor Residents Need Photo IDs

Doubtful that very low-income residents will be trying to board planes — another occasion when the rest of us may become fleetingly conscious of the need for a photo ID. But they’ll face barriers to opportunities that can improve their situation if they don’t have one.

First off, federal rules require employers to verify the identity of people they hire. All but two of the acceptable documents are photo IDs. The only exception for adults will do nothing for the vast majority of prospective workers.

Second, lack of a photo IDs limits access to cash and in-kind assistance. Some local nonprofit sources of the latter, including many food pantries and some free-clothing providers will distribute only to residents with photo IDs.

The Department of Human Services agency that administers Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, SNAP (the food stamp program) and several smaller safety net programs advises applicants to bring photo IDs with them to the interview that’s part of the application process.

The IDs are not an absolute requirement, according to the department’s policy manual. We can nevertheless assume, I think, that the more accessible instruction — and thus prospects of hassle, if not denial — can deter residents from seeking help they need.

They may also figure it’s futile to try because they believe they must have a photo ID. That’s what the Washington Examiner reported — and what the District itself says homeless families must bring to the center that’s their gateway to services.*

A third reason is that lack of a photo ID can limit low-income residents’ opportunities to advocate for policies, including budgets that will alleviate their hardships — among them, the costs, frustrations and complexities of getting a photo ID.

The problem here is that only people with photo IDs can get into federal and District office buildings, including the building where the DC Council holds hearings and Councilmembers have their offices.

Why Poor and Near-Poor Residents May Face Problems

Getting a photo ID is a one-time nuisance for all District residents. but it’s singularly challenging for those who’ve got no money to spare, haven’t recently worked, except perhaps on a day-to-day or off-the-books basis, and/or don’t own or rent a home of their own.

This is partly because the District charges most residents $20 for an ID card and more than twice as much for a driver’s license, which serves the same identification purposes.

The larger problem is that the District requires three different types of documents for a photo ID — each with its own potential challenges.

Proof of Identity. Photo ID applicants must prove they’re U.S. citizens or legally-authorized immigrants. Many options, but for citizens, the most common are probably a birth certificate or currently-valid passport — unless they’ve already got a photo ID from another jurisdiction.

Not many poor folks have the passport, of course. They may not have a birth certificate handy either. The District will issue a copy to people born here, for a $23 charge. But they’ll need a photo ID or three other documents, none of which everyone is sure to have.

They’ll need a photo ID for sure if they want to request the birth certificate in person because the Vital Records Division is in one of those buildings that requires the ID for entrance.

States charge varying amounts for copies of birth certificates. Mine would cost $20 if I got a paper copy and could wait 6-8 weeks. To speed things up, I could order online — for nearly $88, even more if I need it ASAP.

Social Security Number. The District also requires applicants to present a document proving they have a Social Security number. Most people who work for pay — or did in the prior year — shouldn’t have a problem with this.

They’ll presumably have a pay stub or the end-of-year form their employer filed with the Internal Revenue Service, assuming they are or were actually on a payroll. Not much hope for many day laborers or people who do low-wage, occasional work for individuals and families.

For them, the only official option is a Social Security card. Lots of people who once had one don’t any more, for any one of a number of reasons, including theft of the wallet it was tucked in or just simple loss.

Either may be particularly likely for homeless individuals who spend their nights in shelters or on the streets and have to lug all their worldly belongings around during the day.

The solution then is getting a replacement Social Security card. But for that, one has to prove identity, with that photo ID, which won’t be issued without the card, or an ID of another specified sort, e.g., issued by an employer, school or government agency.

And if the Social Security Administration hasn’t issued the applicant a card before, it requires a birth certificate or passport. This is also true for a replacement if the applicant became a U.S. citizen after the original card was issued. Bit of a Catch 22 here, as you can see.

Proofs of Residency. Applicants must also produce two documents proving they live in the District, e.g., a recent utility bill, current lease or home insurance policy with their name on it, official mail from a federal or District government agency, with the envelope it came in.

Even homeowners and renters might have difficulty coming up with such documents. What if, for example, the lease and utility accounts are in a spouse’s name — or if they’re paying for a room or two on an informal month-to-month basis? And who, pray tell, saves the envelopes agency mail comes in?

The challenges are obviously greater for homeless people, including those who live doubled-up with friends or relatives, especially if they move frequently from one home to another. Though the District does have some workarounds, they’re a complex business — and known only to those in the know.

Why Such Challenges

The District didn’t just gin up all these documentation requirements. After 9/11, the Bush administration and Congress decided we’d all be a lot safer if terrorists couldn’t so easily board planes (or enter federal facilities and nuclear plants) with fraudulent IDs.

So the District had to impose requirements that would meet federal standards. Whether it could comply using a simpler, more flexible set is beyond my ken.

Whether it could do more to help homeless and other very low-income residents deal with the challenges the current set poses is a separate question. Look for a followup post on this.

* The statement about intake at the Family Resources Center appears, on its face, inconsistent with DHS policy. I have tried, without success, to fact-check it with staff directly responsible for center operations.




Too Soon to Lock in DC Tax Cuts

June 25, 2015

Life is full of surprises, they say. So is the District of Columbia’s budget. I’m referring here to the Budget Support Act, the package of legislation that’s paired with the spending bill.

Turns out that the BSA the DC Council will soon take its second required vote on could trigger tax cuts before either the Mayor or the Council knows how much the District will need to spend just to keep services flowing — let alone how much it should spend.

Whoever knew? Doubtful all Councilmembers did, since Chairman Mendelson distributed the final BSA shortly before the first vote. Other interested parties surely didn’t because it wasn’t published.

And one would have needed time to figure out what the Chairman had done because his bill doesn’t spell out how it would change trigger provisions enacted as part of last year’s BSA.

Well, we know now — or could, thanks to a heads-up from the DC Fiscal Policy Institute and a DC for Democracy post that adds some angles.

The basic issue here — though not the only one — is when tax cuts recommended by the Tax Revision Commission should go into effect. Both the original BSA provision and the new version require a revenue projection higher than an earlier one.

Tax cuts wouldn’t all kick in at once, since that would immediately throw the budget out of balance. Last year’s BSA ranked them in priority order. The ranking would stay the same. But that’s as far as the parallels go.

Set aside for a moment the egregious lack of transparency. What’s wrong with the latest plan for triggering tax cuts based on rosier revenue projections? Three big things.

Tax Cuts Take Priority Over Spending Needs

The new plan would dedicated all of the projected revenue increase to tax cuts, rather than the excess over a threshold set by the current BSA.

And it would do that before the Chief Financial Officer had estimated the costs of sustaining existing programs in the upcoming fiscal year. These tend to rise for various reasons, as DCFPI notes.

Beyond that, we’re not spending as much as we should in a number of areas — affordable housing and homeless services, to name just two. This year’s budget makes some progress on both. But further progress will stall if the Mayor and Council can’t allocate the revenues needed.

Without them, the Housing Production Trust Fund — the single largest source of financial support for affordable housing construction and preservation — could have less next fiscal year, since half of the $100 million it has now reflects a one-time appropriation.

The next steps envisioned in the latest strategic plan to end homelessness in the District also hinge on further investments. For example, the plan envisions year-over-year increases in permanent supportive housing for families, plus some rapid re-housing vouchers extended past the usual one-year limit.

It also calls for some indefinite-term vouchers earmarked for families and single adults who can’t afford housing when they don’t need intensive supportive services any more or come to the end of their rapid re-housing extensions.

And at the risk of beating a dead horse, I’ll add that we’re likely to have homeless families until the Mayor and Council significantly increase Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits, which now, at best, leave a family of three at about 26% of the federal poverty line.

More generally, setting automatic triggers for a series of tax cuts denies both the Mayor and Council a chance to weigh priorities during budget seasons. Those tax cuts, recall, will mean relatively less in revenues not only next year, but every year — unless they’re repealed.

A whole lot harder politically to repeal a tax cut than to defer it until it won’t preempt spending that will do more good for more people than reducing tax obligations for some.

Cuts in the Offing Tilt Toward Well-Off Taxpayers

The Tax Revision Commission made nearly a dozen recommendations for cuts — a mixed bag if you believe that individuals and businesses should contribute to the general welfare according to how well they’re faring.

The Council adopted a couple that ease tax burdens for low and moderate-income residents. But those ranked highest in the BSA now don’t reflect a consistent preference for a progressive tax structure — far from it.

The second listed, for example, would reduce the tax rate on income between $350,000 and $1 million. Next on the list — and again in fifth place — are cuts in the franchise taxes that businesses pay.

The threshold for any tax on estates would increase to $2 million before filers would get larger standard deductions — the option virtually all low-income taxpayers choose because they’d pay more by itemizing.

Bigger Revenue Losses Than Recommended

The Tax Revision Commission recommended revenue increases to offset the losses resulting from its recommended cuts. The Council took a pass on two. The new BSA would do the same, forgoing $67 million, DCFPI reports.

So there’d be a straitjack on revenue growth — possibly indeed future shortfalls. The District has had these before — the latest only just remedied by savings found.

What the shortfalls tell us is that revenue projections are inherently iffy — the more so as they estimate collections beyond the upcoming quarter of a fiscal year. That’s just how forecasts are. Ditto projections of spending needs.

Who, for example, can foresee a prodigious snowstorm, requiring millions more to clear the roads than budgeted? Who, at this point, can predict how much crucial programs will lose due to federal spending cuts?

So it seems unnecessarily risky to plow ahead with tax cuts before next year’s budget is even on the drawing board. And if past is prologue, programs that help low-income residents are what the BSA would actually put at risk.

UPDATE: I’ve learned, from reliable sources, that the excess revenue threshold in the current BSA applied only to the forecast used as the basis for next fiscal year’s budget. Under the current law, tax cuts would kick in with any higher revenue forecast, but not until next February. The Mayor could, if she chose, ask the Council to approve using the extra for unmet needs instead.

So what I wrote about the current BSA is misleading, but my basic point that the new BSA would trigger cuts prematurely stands.



DC Moves Forward on Affordable Housing. House Republicans Pull Back.

May 18, 2015

Here in the District of Columbia, we’re hopeful about prospects for more affordable housing, especially for our very lowest-income neighbors — both those homeless now and those at high risk because they’re paying at least half their income for rent.

The Mayor’s proposed budget largely accounts for these hopes. Meanwhile, our Republican neighbors on Capitol Hill have decided to put a damper on our progress — and the progress of communities nationwide.

National Housing Trust Fund Defunded

The Mayor’s proposed budget would dedicate $100 million to the Housing Production Trust Fund — our largest source of public financial support for projects to build and renovate affordable housing.

This would double the amount the Fund has for the current fiscal year and probably expand the District’s affordable housing stock by 1,000 or more units, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports.

The District could have counted on a share of the revenues that at long last were to flow to the National Housing Trust Fund. But the House subcommittee responsible for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s appropriations raided those revenues.

A bit of budgetary legerdemain here. Basically, the subcommittee cut funds for the HOME program, which provides grants to state and local governments for a wide variety of activities related to housing and home ownership.

But it then partially offset the cut by allocating to HOME all the funds that were supposed to go to the Trust Fund. And for reasons not altogether clear to me, it tucked into its bill a provision prohibiting any other funding for the NHTF.

The defunding — and the under-funding I’ll discuss below — were approved by the full Appropriations Committee last week, on a straight party-line vote.

So much then, so far as the majority’s concerned, for funds intensively targeted to rental housing for extremely low-income households, as only 40% of the District’s Trust Fund resources must be.

Federally-Funded Housing Vouchers at Risk

The Mayor’s proposed budget would expand the Local Rent Supplement Program — the District’s locally-funded version of the federal Housing Choice (formerly Section 8) voucher program.

LRSP would get an additional $6.1 million — $3.7 million for tenant-based vouchers, which go directly to extremely low-income households so that they can afford to rent at market rates, and $2.4 million for project/sponsor-based vouchers, which help cover the operating costs of housing that’s affordable for these households.

But it’s doubtful the DC Housing Authority, which administers both LRSP and Housing Choice, will have more vouchers to award.

The House HUD appropriation reduces the funding local housing authorities will have to renew Housing Choice vouchers. They’d be shy a total of $183 million of what HUD estimates they’d need to sustain all vouchers now in use.

Here in the District, about 280 fewer families would receive Housing Choice vouchers, according to a White House fact sheet. If accurate, this means that DCHA would have to retire even more vouchers than it did after the across-the-board cuts known as sequestration.

DCHA and other housing authorities may face similar problems with the contracts they’ve awarded to affordable housing projects. The President’s proposed budget included HUD’s best estimate of the cost of renewing all such contracts. The House HUD appropriations bill falls $106 million short of that.

Further Losses in Habitable Public Housing

A nationwide study conducted for HUD five years ago found a $26 billion shortfall in the funds needed to repair and renovate public housing units. DCHA alone figured it would need $1.3 billion to preserve and redevelop all the units it manages.

That was about a year ago, not long before Congress level-funded the public housing capital fund, leaving it with $625 million less than it had when the HUD study produced its shortfall estimate. And level-funding doesn’t translate into the same level and quality of goods and services, as all of us with personal and household expenses know.

The House Appropriations Committee has nevertheless cut funding for the capital fund by $194 million. Hard to see how this wouldn’t further increase the number of public housing units left vacant — or demolished — because they’re egregiously substandard or so damaged by fire, flooding and the like that repair costs exceed available resources.

Squeeze on Homeless Services

The Mayor’s proposed budget includes a range of investments to move the District forward toward the goal of making homelessness in the District “rare, brief, and non-recurring,” as the new Interagency Council on Homelessness strategic plan envisions.

Her budget also includes a more realistic estimate of the costs of providing emergency shelter for families during the winter months — a refreshing change from the past few years, when the Gray administration minimized family shelter needs and then had to shift funds from other human services programs to cover the costs of motel rooms.

As in the past, local funds would supply most of the homeless services budget. But the District also expects a small increase in homeless assistance funding from HUD.

The House Appropriations Committee would, in fact, provide a small, increase for the grants — $50 million more than approved for this fiscal year. For all intents and purposes, however, the grants would, at best, preserve the status quo.

No additional money to help communities achieve the goals set by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness — a source for the District’s own ICH goals.

And lest I haven’t rained on this parade enough, the Mayor’s plan to expand permanent supportive housing includes an as-yet unreported number of Housing Choice vouchers supplied by DCHA. So we could be looking here at a robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Not the District’s fault. It’s what the Republican Congressional majority chose when it decided not to lift the caps imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act, but instead to boost defense spending through another bit of budgetary legerdemain.

None of this is yet a cause for hand-wringing, though teeth-gnashing seems appropriate. A bill passed by one appropriations committee is a long way from becoming an agency’s budget.

But we’re a long, long way from a HUD budget that would meaningfully support the District’s commitments to more affordable housing and a lot less homelessness.





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