DC Coalition Urges Major Investments in Affordable Housing

March 20, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Housing Security in the FBC Report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bottom Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DC Coalition Calls for Some Spending Increases, But They Could Save Money … and Lives

January 29, 2015

A new mayor in the District of Columbia. New appointments to senior administrative positions. Three new Councilmembers — and two more to come.

Unexpected challenges for them all because the current fiscal year’s budget seems likely to be short about $83.3 million. It could be considerably more if the District decides to, at along last, settle its overtime dispute with the firefighters.

And there’s a bigger potential budget gap for next fiscal year — perhaps $161.3 million, according to the Chief Financial Officer’s latest estimate of the costs of District agency operations.

Into this still-fluid environment comes the Fair Budget Coalition, with its annual recommendations for (what else?) a budget and related policies that are fair to all District residents. “Fair,” as its mission statement says, means policies, including budgets, that “address poverty and human needs.”

As I’ve remarked before, FBC’s recommendations, worthy as they all may be, tend to be difficult to wrap up in a blog post because they’re a compendium of top priorities identified by working groups that focus on diverse issue areas — housing and homelessness, workforce development and income supports, etc.

So, at least for now, just a few observations.

Everything Is Connected To Everything Else

Though FBC offers diverse recommendations, they fit together, as all speakers on the panel the coalition hosted on report release day emphasized.

For example, if you’re homeless, free health care — and prescription drugs — won’t keep you from suffering life-threatening emergencies because it’s hard to follow a doctor’s recommendations when you’re out on the streets. And impossible, of course, to keep medications refrigerated, though you know some won’t be effective if you don’t.

Thus, said panelist Maria Gomez, the founder and CEO of Mary’s Center, “Health care will not help without other investments” — in the immediate case, obviously affordable housing. Perhaps other public benefits also, e.g., nutrition assistance, transportation subsidies.

A Budget Gap Doesn’t Make Spending Recommendations Moot

FBC’s recommendations seem to involve about $45.2 million in additional spending, plus some unspecified amounts, at least one of which would add to the tab. Some of the total could be offset by a pair of tax recommendations, however.

One would make the local income tax system “more progressive,” i.e., shift more of the tax burden to high-earners. The other would raise the property tax rate on “high value” homes and homes that the owners don’t live in for most of the year.

No revenue estimates for these, however — at least, not yet. More importantly, I’m inclined to doubt that the Bowser administration and the Council would revisit tax reform at this point, since the current budget adopts key recommendations that emerged from the Tax Revision Commission’s studies, debates and ultimate compromises.

This doesn’t mean that the District simply can’t afford the spending FBC recommends, budget gap notwithstanding. For one thing, the gap, large as it may seem, is only 2.3% of the projected FY 2016 budget.

For another, it’s far from certain that everything the District now spends money on is the best investment of our taxpayer dollars.

Take, for example, the Film Incentive Fund, beloved by Councilmember Vincent Orange. We’ve got research showing that the tax subsidies and other incentives used to entice TV and movie companies to film in the District don’t even pay for themselves, let alone generate additional revenues.

Nor, according to studies elsewhere, do they create steady, full-time work for residents. Not much work at all, in fact.

Just an example of where one might look for funds to, say, actually improve employment prospects for low-income residents. The modest investment FBC recommends to create career pathways for D.C. adults without basic literacy and math skills probably would.

Connections Have Budget Implications

The Mayor and Council don’t need to short worthwhile programs in order to shore up others because investing more in some yields high returns in savings and/or revenue increases. Here’s a pair of related examples — often cited.

FBC recommends an additional $12 million to expand permanent supportive housing for people with disabilities who’ve been homeless for a long time or recurrently. Studies in other communities have found that PSH not only prolongs and improves lives, but usually costs less than leaving chronically homeless people on the streets or sheltering them overnight.

Likewise, vouchers that enable homeless and at-risk families to afford market-rate housing and other vouchers that help cover the operating costs of affordable housing not only provide families with a safe, stable place to live — and thus a healthier environment and a secure platform for working or preparing for work.

These indefinite-term vouchers also cost less than a third of what the District spends, per family, on shelter at the notoriously awful DC General — or the hotels that it’s again constrained to use as shelter because there’s no room left at DCG.

No room left because the Department of Human Services can’t move enough families out fast enough to make room for all the newly-homeless families entitled to shelter. While DHS had reportedly achieved a so-called exit rate of 64 families per month, only 37 families exited the emergency shelter system during the last four weeks we’ve got (unpublished) reports on.

More locally-funded housing vouchers, especially the kind families can use in the private market as long as they have to would swiftly free up shelter space and/or keep families from needing it.

Cost-savings include not only shelter, but the collateral costs of harms associated with homelessness, especially for children. These include, but are not limited to health, behavioral and academic problems that can ultimately diminish earning power — and thus tax revenues. More immediate costs — some justified, some perhaps not — include interventions by the child welfare agency.

By these lights, FBC’s recommendation for an additional $10 million in locally-funded housing vouchers, split evenly between the first and second type, makes sense from a fiscal, as well as a moral — or if you prefer, humanitarian — perspective.


Mayor Gray’s Budget Would Mean No More Money for Many Critical Needs

April 16, 2013

As I said yesterday, Mayor Gray’s proposed Fiscal Year 2014 budget provides more money for some, but little more — in some cases, no more — for programs that address low-income residents’ critical needs.

For example …

There will be $700,000 more for permanent supportive housing — reportedly enough to accommodate 45 more chronically homeless individuals and/or families than the program is serving now.

But there probably won’t be money to ensure that homeless families with no place to stay can sleep safely indoors unless it’s freezing cold outside.

Nor will there be money to increase the number of locally-funded housing vouchers they could use to help pay market-rate rents until they can afford the full rent on their own.

This could actually mean fewer of these so-called tenant-based housing vouchers because the DC Housing Authority will get less money for Housing Choice (formerly Section 8) vouchers due to sequestration.

There will be no more money for child care subsidies, though the unreasonably low reimbursement rates providers get account, at least in part, for the fact that parents of some 9,000 infants and toddlers can’t get affordable child care.

In this case, what looks like level-funding — perhaps a small increase even — will mean somewhat over $1.5 million less because sequestration will cut a portion of the District’s federal child care funding.

There will be no more money for adult literacy services — in fact, apparently $734,000 less, though I’m told the budget document may be misleading.

Even without the cut, the District will be investing considerably less than it once did to address a problem that affects not only the job prospects and daily lives of more than a third of adult residents, but the children they’re raising.

Adult literacy programs need more money not only for these “functionally illiterate” residents, but for more proficient high school dropouts, who can get the equivalent of a high school diploma by passing the GED tests.

These tests will get harder next year — and require computer proficiency. Adult literacy programs thus need to invest more in teacher training and equipment to get their students up to speed (literally and figuratively).

One would think that the District’s abysmal 59% GED pass rate would have led the Mayor, who’s so concerned about employment here, to put more money into these programs.

Ditto for adult job training, which the Mayor’s budget would cut by $624,000 — considerably more if measured against what the program will have this year if the DC Council approves his proposed supplement.

There will be no money to protect families in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program from running up against the five-year time limit in cases where the parents have been excused from regular work activity requirements for compelling reasons, e.g., needs to care for a sick or disabled family member, domestic violence trauma.

There will, however, be money to protect long-term TANF families from further benefits cuts for another year.

This is a further indication that the Department of Human Services doesn’t have the resources it needs for its program revamp. Nor will it in the Mayor’s proposed budget, according to the DC Fiscal Policy Institute’s analysis.

Because even if it completes the remaining 9,000 or so assessments that are supposed to produce suitable work preparation plans for TANF parents, there won’t be enough training slots for them.

For a family of three, the reprieve will mean a continuing cash income of $257 a month, instead of the regular $428 — 23.9% less in real dollars than the year TANF was created.

The Mayor might have considered increasing TANF benefits, as a few states have recently done. All he chose to do was replace “lost” federal dollars, which weren’t really lost, but merely funds the District didn’t have left over, as it did the year before.

I understand that the Mayor has competing interests to balance. He wants to make the city an appealing place for higher-income people to live — good for the local economy, essential adequate revenues.

He’s got to worry about the stability and quality of the District’s own workforce.

And he understands that the city’s future hinges in part on how well it educates the next generation — though apparently not that all the early learning opportunities, libraries, modernized schools and the like can’t compensate for resources parents lack to provide for their kids’ basic needs.

Yet his budget truly is, in many respects, what its title says. It’s investing in tomorrow while ignoring investments needed today.

Needed, at any rate, if the District’s prosperity is going to benefit everyone, as the Mayor rightly says it should.

Mayor Gray Proposes More Money for Some, But Not Enough for the Neediest

April 15, 2013

Washington City Paper‘s headline after Mayor Gray released his proposed Fiscal Year 2014 budget proclaimed “Money for Everyone!” Not altogether so.

There will be money for most, but not quite everyone. There will be more money for some — both businesses and individuals, including some of the District’s lowest-income residents.

But their needs still get shorted, even now that the District is looking forward to $79.7 million more in revenues than the windfall expected for this fiscal year.

So here’s a selective look at who will get more, focused mainly, as you might expect, on spending that will — or at least, could — help low-income residents. Next post will deal with help they won’t get, but could have.

There will certainly be more money for construction companies. The proposed budget bulges with projects for them — public school buildings (new and modernized), infrastructure, recreational facilities, libraries.

If the companies comply with the District’s First Source law, there could be more jobs — hence money — for unemployed and underemployed D.C. residents too.

There will be more money for affordable housing developers, since the Mayor decided to invest the bulk of his promised $100 million in the Housing Production Trust Fund.

This should ultimately mean more money for food, clothing and other necessities for some of the nearly two-thirds of extremely low-income District households who are now paying more than half their income for rent because 40% of Trust Fund dollars are supposed to help finance housing for them.

An additional $5 million will go for housing vouchers that help pay for the operating costs of units designated for the District’s lowest-income residents — an essential complement to the Trust Fund money.

Another $3.1 million will provide more housing for victims of domestic violence.

And there will be a total of $2 million more for one-time and limited-term assistance to families for whom the rent has been so unaffordable that they’ve been evicted — or are about to be.

But — getting ahead of myself here, I know — not a penny more for regular vouchers that homeless and other very low-income residents could use to help pay market-rate rents.

There will be more money for all District employees, who’ll get their first pay increases in at least four years — not only fair, but perhaps job-creating if the employees spend some of their extra cash locally.

There will be more money for some nonprofits because the Mayor’s budget would create a $15 million competitive grant fund for them.

And there will be more money for lots of District residents who’ve got municipal bonds in their investment portfolios.

Current law would impose a tax on the interest these bonds earn, unless issued by the District.

But the Mayor wants to repeal it, giving us bondholders a total of nearly $13 million over the next five years — and the unique privilege of investing tax-free in bonds of no benefit to our community.

The tax giveaway and the values it reflects are among the reasons that there’s no more money for some of the urgent needs of the District’s low-income residents, though there will be more money for other “quality of life” investments like bike lanes.

Nothing against bike lanes, mind you. But I would have put a higher priority on improving the quality of life of homeless families, some of whom will probably again be spending their nights in Metro stations, hospital waiting rooms and the like.

And a higher priority on other programs and services that can advance not only the Mayor’s quality of life improvement goal, but his other goals too.