Bowser Budget Scants Needs of Homeless and Others at High Risk

April 20, 2017

Picking up where I left off, some major parts of Mayor Bowser’s proposed budget don’t link as obviously to the inclusive prosperity road its title promises as, for example, adult education and available, affordable child care.

Yet two other parts we care about do because both are virtual preconditions to earning income and having enough left over after basic needs to invest in boosting one’s marketable knowledge and skills.

But I don’t want to leave impression that I equate “prosperity” with income or wealth, as I think Bowser’s budget title does because it seems an indirect way of referring to the extraordinarily high level of income inequality in the District.

The Latin root of “prosperity” means made successful, but also made happy, according to one’s hopes. One can surely make a homeless family happy by providing it with decent, stable housing it can afford without—or before — doing whatever necessary to boost its income so that it can pay full rent.

So we need to look at the following from multiple perspectives.

Affordable Housing

No one, I suppose, needs anything further said about the acute shortage of housing in the District that its lowest-income residents can afford.

Such prosperity as they might achieve — through taking college courses, for example — is beyond their means because, if they’re not homeless, most are paying more than half their income for rent and more than half of those at least 80%.

The Mayor, to her credit, would again commit $100 million to the Housing Production Trust Fund, plus $10 million to a new fund dedicated solely to preserving existing affordable housing.

But helping developers finance new affordable housing construction and/or renovations isn’t enough to produce units affordable for the lowest-income residents.

Those units need housing vouchers attached to cover the difference between what tenants must pay — no more than 30% of their income — and ongoing operating costs, e.g., maintenance, utilities, staff wages. The Mayor fails to propose funding to increase the number of these so-called project-based vouchers.

And as I earlier said, additional funding could be needed merely to sustain vouchers now in use because if Congress extends the current funding level for federal Housing Choice vouchers, the DC Housing Authority won’t have the money to issue any.

If the Republican majorities in Congress accede to anything like Trump’s budget plan, a larger loss, as yet unestimated at the state/District level.

Homelessness

Want of affordable housing obviously causes homelessness. But it does more than that. It’s hard to get and keep a job when you’re living in a shelter.

That’s especially true if the shelter’s for adults only because they generally have to get in line in mid-afternoon to get back in. And those who make it may not be able to wash themselves and are highly vulnerable to theft.

There goes the cell phone that’s the only way to contact them — and the photo ID they’ll need, if they have one.

All but impossible to get a job if they’re among the chronically homeless without the safety, stability and appropriate services they’d get in permanent supportive housing.

The Mayor does increase PSH funding by $2.7 million. But that would meet only 30% of what’s needed to end chronic homelessness, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports. (The target year set by the strategic plan the Mayor’s embraced obviously won’t be met,)

Other single homeless people get shorted in several different ways. No additional rapid re-housing for them, though some temporarily down on their luck could pick up the full rent when their short-term subsidies end.

About 46% for less for families as in the current fiscal year. But its success in ending homelessness — or as the program’s formally titled achieving “stabilization” — is at the very least debatable.

And the District’s youngest homeless people — those under 25 who’re on their own in the city — will continue to suffer from neglect, in addition to the egregious neglect (or abuse) that caused some to leave home to begin with.

Others became homeless when they became legally adults. Various reasons for this. For example, they were either kicked out by their parents (something that can happen earlier) or reached the maximum age for foster care and didn’t have foster parents who’d foster them for free — or any one else who’d take them in.

These young people need safe, stable housing, but also education and/or training and mentoring because, as the National Network for Youth puts it, many are in a state of “extreme disconnection.”

In other words, they’re worst cases of youth commonly referred to as “disconnected” — or more hopefully, “opportunity.” They’re not only neither in school or working. They lack basic life skills, e.g., how to keep themselves healthy, look for a job, manage such money as they make.

The DC Interagency Council on Homelessness developed a five-year plan specifically for homeless youth, based on census (no link available) that’s surely an undercount. It nevertheless captured 545 youth who were either homeless or insecurely housed, e.g. couch-surfing.

The ICH developed a five-year homeless youth plan, as an amendment to the District’s basic homeless services plan requires. The Mayor’s budget invests $2.4 million — less than half what the upcoming (and first) year requires.

Homeless now — others to become so. How then will the District make not only youth, but former youth homelessness brief, rare, brief and non-recurring  — let alone enable these potential contributors to our economy and our civic life share in the prosperity the Mayor dangles before us?


DC Paid Family Leave Law Back on the Drafting Table

February 23, 2017

Last week, workers in the District of Columbia seemingly gained the opportunity to take off time from work for compelling family reasons without forfeiting their entire pay.

This, of course, is especially important for low-wage workers, who are least likely to have any sort of paid family leave benefit and least likely to have enough saved to carry them and their families through times with no wage income.

The bill the Council passed — the Universal Paid Family Leave Amendment Act — has gone over to Congress, which can block it. But the responsible House Committee probably won’t even try before the time limit expires, what with its focus on other interventions and members now back in their homes bases.

The Mayor, who’d never liked the bill, refused to sign it. Wouldn’t veto it either, knowing the required majority of Councilmembers would override. But the law’s still not a finished piece of business.

In fact, the Mayor and heavy-hitters in the business community have succeeded in opening up the whole scheme again — always what opponents of a law aim for, since they have new opportunities to carve out exceptions, preferences and the like.

The Council Chairman, a strong supporter of the original bill, has said he’ll propose an alternative, hoping to quell the adamant opposition expressed by spokespersons for the business community.

But, he adds, the benefits won’t change. Doubtful then that the alternative will satisfy the Mayor, whose letter explaining why she wouldn’t sign the bill doesn’t accurately reflect what she said before.

Specially, she now says she’s gravely concerned because residents who work for the federal government or outside the city won’t get the benefit. She earlier, however, objected instead to coverage of people who worked for non-government employers in the District, but lived outside the city limits.

This, one notes, echoes the DC Chamber of Commerce, which also, of course, strenuously objects to the miniscule 0.62% payroll tax that would create the fund for paying the benefits.

One can surely understand the Chairman’s concern that the Chamber, the local Restaurant Association and other business groups will encourage members to resist what they must do to make the law work well — if not overtly, then by doing as little as they can possibly get away with.

One can also understand the Chairman’s concern about the Mayor’s response to the law — specifically her refusal to do the first necessary thing to make it work.

That would be including funds in her proposed budget to establish and then sustain the administrative apparatus needed to collect the required payroll taxes and then start using the funds to compensate eligible workers for their pay losses.

Lacking funding in the Mayor’s proposed budget, the Council would have to find the money — in other words, to shift funds from other programs, raise more revenues or some combination thereof. The District’s not truly short on money, but it’s already got pressing needs for more.

And as I’ve said, several times now — and as the Mayor said too — it faces likely, though as yet uncertain losses of federal revenues. Yet she’s responsible — or ought to be — for ensuring District laws have funds for administration, including enforcement.

Now here’s the thing that’s most striking to me. She had ample time to propose her own bill or, perhaps more politically savvy, changes in what the Council was crafting. Nada.

And we’ve nothing more now. Just the non-veto objections to what a substantial majority of the Council passed and her virtual charge to “revisit” it. Where’s the leadership here?

In any event, the Chairman seems inclined to consider the vocal business community’s preference for a mandate, rather than a payroll tax.

A bill reportedly just introduced by Councilmembers Jack Evans and Mary Cheh moves in this direction, but without relieving larger businesses and other comparable organizations, e.g. hospitals, universities, of any tax at all.

Specifically, it would reduce the payroll tax to 0.2% for larger employers (those with more than 50 employees) and to 0.4% for small employers. The larger would then have to fund the same paid leave benefits the current law requires however they saw fit.

The payroll tax would, as the current law envisions, create a funding pool to pay the benefits covered workers would receive when taking time off for certain personal and family needs.

Funds would apparently still be collected, managed and distributed by a District agency. But payouts would go only to workers for small businesses and other small-staffed organizations in the District, e.g., nonprofit service providers, research and advocacy organizations.

This, at first glance, would seem like a reasonable compromise. Whether it would satisfy the local Chamber of Commerce, Restaurant Association and other employers that fretted remains to be seen.

Likewise the Mayor, who’s understandably deferred a substantive response until her staff have delved into the bill itself. Worth noting, however, that she wouldn’t say whether she supports the benefits it preserves.

Nor whether it allays any of her other concerns, including the administrative costs District budgets would have to cover.

Councilmember Elissa Silverman — a champion of the original bill and now one of the advocates who’s outspokenly distressed by the move to change it — reportedly views the new bill as problematic because it would require a new agency or the equivalent to ensure that larger employers complied with their payroll tax obligations.

But we’d have needed provisions for enforcement anyway. And only the District can enforce its laws, though it could contract out the routine administrative functions. An earlier report on Councilmembers’ predilections suggested Evans might argue for this.

More to the point, Silverman questions whether the lower payroll taxes will suffice to cover the benefits workers for small employers will still be entitled to. One would hope that the Council would seek a disinterested, reliable projection.

Needless to say, some other ardent backers of the paid leave law are, like Silverman, distressed (to put it mildly) by the Council Chairman’s decision to even tamper with the paid leave law — “delaying and sabotaging” it, says a local union official on behalf of the DC Paid Family Leave Campaign.

I wouldn’t go there at this point. We need, I think, to have a strong paid family leave law that has as many affected and other actively interested forces on board as possible.

A lot of work to do before — and after — covered workers can actually start taking leave without forfeiting all their pay. And it won’t get done effectively unless the Mayor exercises the leadership that only she can.


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.


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.