Affordable Housing Crunch for Lowest-Income Renters

March 9, 2017

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

Affordability Basics

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

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

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

Acute Affordable Rental Shortage

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

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

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

Far From Enough Money Left Over for Other Needs

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

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

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

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

Many Shortage Drivers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Congress Likely to Worsen DC’s Affordable Housing Crisis

February 16, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


More Homeless DC Families to Shelter, But Still Signs of Progress

September 22, 2016

I remarked last year that the DC Interagency Council on Homelessness produced a markedly better plan for how the District would full its obligation to shelter homeless families during the winter season.

This year’s plan is similar, though with different numbers. It’s interesting in a couple of ways that speak to progress in the District’s homeless services program — and to problems that it alone can’t solve.

More Homeless Families in Need of Shelter

The estimated number of families the District will have to shelter is considerably higher than last year’s. This might seem a no-brainer. Last January’s one-night count identified 1,491 of them, marking the latest high in a virtually unbroken trend.

The shelter plan doesn’t project that many for this coming January. Nor need it, since the annual counts include families in transitional housing.

It does, however, indicate a significant shortage of units at the DC General family shelter, plus the apartment-style units the Department of Human Services regularly contracts for to shelter families with special needs.

DHS, as the plan makes clear, has already acted on the expected shortage, knowing it would have a deuce of a time contracting for motel rooms in mid-winter, what with the influx of visitors drawn by the inauguration festivities.

I mention this mainly because it’s a refreshing contrast to plans issued during the former administration, especially the last, which merely assured us that DHS would use some combination of “resources” to comply with the law.

More Homeless Families in Shelter When Winter Begins

The explicit reference to motel rooms and the number already contracted for aren’t the only — or most significant — contrasts. We see, for example, more families in DC General when the winter season formally begins, in November.

This reflects the Bowser administration’s decision to let families with no safe place to stay into the shelter year round, rather than only on freezing-cold days, when it has no lawful choice.

That was the unwritten policy until the Gray administration whittled it back and then altogether abandoned it. Predictably, a crush of homeless families sought shelter when they first could, creating problems not of their making.

I’m reverting to history here because it shows that what one finds — and doesn’t — in the annual Winter Plan signals policy and other management decisions. We see two others in the monthly estimates of shelter units needed.

More Homeless Families Than Projected Units Needed

Though the new plan begins with more families in shelter, it estimates fewer total units needed than families likely to show up at the intake center. This is partly because it includes estimated exits, as the last several plans also did.

Some unspecified number are families expected to move from shelter to housing temporarily subsidized by the District’s rapid re-housing program.

DHS has had long-standing problems meeting its rapid re-housing targets for various reasons. One, which still applies, is the acute shortage of housing that homeless families could conceivably afford to rent when their subsidies expire.

Another, related, has been families’ understandable reluctance to accept rapid re-housing. That may be less common now because they know they can return to shelter whenever they must.

It’s nevertheless the case that the Winter Plan estimates considerably more monthly exits late in the season than the current rapid re-housing placement rate. That, I’m told, has improved to an average of 100 families per month.

The plan, however, projects 155 exits in March, when winter officially ends, making for a 667 total during the five months it covers. Where, one wonders, will DHS — or families themselves — find so many low-cost housing units available to rent in a city where they’re disappearing.

Such as remain are hardly all available or suitable for families that surely want to exit from DC General at least as much as DHS wants them out.

More than a third of the units that the lowest-income District households could afford are occupied by those with higher incomes, according to apparently updated figures from the Urban Institute.

Only 8% of all the units have more than three bedrooms. A special exit problem then for families with more than a couple of kids — just as it’s apparently a problem for well over 100 families who’re affordably housed now.

Families Saved (for Now) From Homelessness

There’s another reason for lower total unit estimates than families likely to ask intake center staff for help. Last year, the District launched a program to prevent family homelessness.

It’s somewhat like the long-standing (and always under-funded) Emergency Rental Assistance Program, but it’s for families only and can provide a wider range of resources, tailored to their needs.

The success rate is reportedly very high — 90% of families referred to the nonprofits the District has contracted with haven’t become homeless. Or so it seems. What we know is that they haven’t  asked for shelter.

These early results, combined with the additional $1 million the new budget will invest in the program led the working group that developed the plan to adjust last year’s monthly entrance figures down by 10%.

One can only hope that the lower estimates prove accurate — and more importantly, mean that families aided actually have safe, reasonably stable homes of their own.

 

 

 

 

 


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.