Two Thumbs Up for New Plan to End Homelessness in DC

March 30, 2015

The District’s Interagency Council on Homelessness recently released its draft strategic plan for the next five years. This isn’t just another of those plans that officially-established entities produce, when required. It’s truly impressive — and in a number of ways.

The plan has many pieces. And the pieces have pieces. I may have more to say about some of them. For now, I’ll confine myself to a few general observations.

Ambitious Goals, Realistically Defined

The plan establishes three major goals — one for homeless veterans, one for chronically homeless individuals and families and a third for everyone else who is or will become homeless. They differ by deadline, but the basic goal itself is the same — an end to homelessness.

This doesn’t mean, as the plan makes clear, that no District resident will ever again experience “a housing crisis,” i.e., the crisis of not having housing. The plan instead envisions an end to long-term homelessness. By 2020, it says, “homelessness in the District of Columbia will be rare, brief, and non-recurring.”

Whether the District can get there in only five years is far from certain. Much hinges, as the plan also makes clear, on the availability of more housing that’s affordable for the lowest-income residents and the success of efforts to increase their income.

This, as it says, is especially important for households that have the time-limited subsidies provided by rapid re-housing, but it’s critical for all — both for their own well-being and for the funds it would free up to meet the needs of others.

Enlightened View of Homeless People

Actually, this headline runs afoul of what seems to me an important change in thinking, both within the administration and among some service providers. “There are no ‘homeless people,'” the plan says, “but rather people who have lost their homes.”

They “deserve to be treated with dignity and respect,” which we know isn’t always the way they feel they’re treated now. Nor the way they’ve been viewed by past administration spokespersons, who’ve contended that families seeking shelter just want to live in a hotel room, for free.

The redefinition of homeless people has further implications. One is that they’re all ready for housing immediately, rather than only after they’ve successfully completed programs designed to fix them, e.g., by enabling them to kick drug and/or alcohol addictions.

In short, the plan unequivocally embraces the Housing First model — and quite clearly, in several places, addresses the fact that funding, through the Housing Production Trust Fund and other sources, has supported projects inconsistent with the model.

More generally, the plan stresses economic, rather than behavioral causes of homelessness. It doesn’t by any means ignore needs for services, including those that address behavioral health problems.

But key factors it identifies — and recurs to in its strategies — are the egregious shortage of affordable housing, wages that won’t cover housing costs and public benefits that are even more inadequate.

Anyone who thinks this is just common sense should look at some of the mainstream conservative explanations of poverty — this recent piece by New York Times columnist David Brooks, for example.

Another implication of the drafters’ view of homeless people is that programming must meet their needs, rather than expecting them to adapt to what currently exists. This is one of many indications that the drafters envision a system that will continue to evolve.

It’s why they call the plan a roadmap, rather than a blueprint. They set goals. They outline “pathways” from homelessness to housing. They use these, together with data on differing homeless groups to estimate “inventory” needs over time, e.g., the number of permanent supportive housing units required, the number of rapid re-housing subsidies.

But they also stress ongoing data collection and assessments “to understand what is working and where changes are needed.”

A Collaborative Venture

The District government alone can’t end homelessness, as the plan rightly says. Service providers have to make sure their programs mesh with the revamped — and evolving — system. Donors have to align their support with the system and help fill gaps. Developers, landlords and employers obviously all have roles. Churches and other community groups likewise.

To all these, I’d add advocates, of course, and those who belong the the community just by virtue of living in D.C. We who can must be willing to pay higher taxes. The envisioned end to homelessness should save money in the long run, but achieving it won’t be cheap.

And we’ve got to willingly accept homeless shelters in our own neighborhoods, since the plan includes contracting for and actually constructing smaller, scattered shelters to replace not only the DC General family shelter, but several over-large and decrepit shelters for individuals.

We see collaboration in the plan itself. To some extent, it could hardly be otherwise, since ICH members include not only government agency heads, but representatives from service provider and advocacy organizations and homeless or formerly homeless people.

This at least partly accounts for some innovations tucked into the plan, but the public “conversation” sessions the ICH conducted may have played a role too.

The style and format of the plan invite further collaboration. The pathways, inventories and the like reflect a lot of serious number-crunching. And the plan has a lot of numbers in it. But it’s a remarkably readable document — and remarkably transparent about the data sources, the assumptions, the known unknowns, the magnitude of the challenges and the tentativeness of the specifics.

So we everyday interested residents can understand what’s really a very complex system overhaul — and over time, participate. In short, a lot to like, even at this draft stage.

 


DC Labor Laws on the Books, But Weak or No Enforcement

March 23, 2015

“The law is on the books. Enforce it.” I heard my then-boss, U.S. Civil Rights Commission Chairman Arthur Flemming, say this over and over again when the Reagan administration was insisting that Congress had to change major federal civil rights laws if it wanted them enforced as they’d always been.

Even with the best will in the world, however, an agency can’t ensure laws achieve what they’re supposed to if it doesn’t have enough money for staff. This seems to be in the case in the District of Columbia, judging from several Fair Budget Coalition recommendations.

FBC is again recommending additional funds to “implement and enforce” the District’s existing worker protection laws — a total of $3 million for the upcoming fiscal year.

Somewhat over half would pay for more staff and administrative law judges to enforce compliance with the District’s minimum wage increase and expanded paid sick leave laws, plus some others intended to prevent wage theft, e.g., denying earned overtime pay.

But a modest $292,000 would support steps that must be taken before enforcement can kick in. As things stand now, two laws — the Protecting Pregnant Workers Fairness Act and the Unemployed Workers Anti-Discrimination Act — are basically still just words in electronic files.

The former requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for workers whose ability to perform their assigned tasks is limited by pregnancy, childbirth, related medical conditions or breastfeeding. No more denying pregnant workers enough bathroom breaks, demanding that they continue lifting heavy packages when their doctors have cautioned against that, etc.

The latter seeks to prevent jobless workers from remaining jobless just because that’s what they are.

The pregnant workers’ legislation is quite new. The timeframe for our Congressional overlords to disapprove it, which they didn’t, expired long about last Thanksgiving Day. But the prohibition against refusing to hire — or consider hiring — someone because s/he’s unemployed cleared the Congressional review period at the end of May 2012.

Yet the Office of Human Rights, which has responsibility for enforcing it, hasn’t proposed rules — let alone published final rules — to spell out what employers can and can’t do and how workers can seek remedies when they believe employers have done what they shouldn’t.

Its website doesn’t even acknowledge the law. Yet only OHR can enforce it because it denies workers the right to seek remedies through lawsuits.

Not the agency’s fault that it’s done nothing. The law conditioned implementation on “the inclusion of its fiscal effect in an approved budget and financial plan.” The Chief Financial Officer determined that the budget couldn’t cover it. That, however, was three years ago. So there’s been plenty of time to fill the gap.

This isn’t the first time the DC Council has passed progressive legislation and then neglected to make sure it was achieving its intent.

Back in 2010, the District’s auditor found that the Department of Employment Services hadn’t monitored publicly-financed projects to ensure that contractors filled at least 51% of new jobs created with District residents, as the First Source Act requires. Left to their own devices, most didn’t.

More to the point perhaps, DOES hadn’t issued final rules for the District’s Living Wage Act, which the Council passed in 2006. Nor did it get around to proposing rules for the amended law until after the auditor reported such findings as she’d been able to make — a time lag of at least a year, maybe more.

The Fenty administration told the auditor that it hadn’t moved forward because a provision in the original living wage law conditioned implementation and enforcement on annual appropriations. No appropriations forthcoming. So it’s likely that some unknown number of D.C. workers were underpaid.

Perhaps still are. The final rules provide for no enforcement unless workers or their representatives file formal complaints of violations. The burden is apparently on them, not DOES to monitor, investigate, document and so forth.

We everyday District residents read of laws the Council has passed to increase employment of our fellow residents, boost their wages and protect them from egregiously unfair treatment.

So it’s distressing that we have to learn from FBC — and ultimately from the Employment Justice Center, which proposed the labor law recommendations — that the responsible agencies aren’t fully and effectively enforcing the laws on the books.

Well, we know now. And so do the Mayor and DC Councilmembers. We have fine advocates here in the District, but I still wish we had Flemming pounding the table now.

 


Not Nearly Enough Housing Affordable for Lowest-Income Renters, Nationwide and in DC

March 16, 2015

Nearly a quarter of renter households nationwide fell into the extremely low-income category in 2013, i.e., had incomes at or below 30% of the median for the area they lived in, according to a new National Low Income Housing Coalition report.

Three quarters of these 10.3 million or so households paid at least half their income for rent and basic utilities. This is one measure of the shortage of affordable rental housing in our country — only 31 units affordable and available to rent for every 100 ELI households.

The gap was much greater for the subset of households NLIHC classifies as deeply low-income, i.e. those with incomes no greater than 15% of their area’s median. Only 17 affordable, available units for every 100 of them, making for a shortage of 3.4 million units.

All but 5% of the DLI households paid more than half their income for rent, plus utilities. These, recall, are households that somehow scraped up the money. We don’t have a reliable figure for those who were homeless because they couldn’t.

Surprisingly, at least to me, the figures for the District are somewhat better. But they still confirm the need for more affordable housing, especially for the very lowest-income residents.

And perhaps the figures are overly rosy because, as I’ve written before, the area the District belongs to for affordability calculations includes some very well-off nearby communities.

With that caveat, here’s what NLIHC reports. In 2013:

  • The District had 40 affordable, available units for every 100 ELI households, making for a total shortage 32,752.
  • For every 100 DLI households, only 34 units were affordable and available — a shortage of 21,038.
  • All but 35% of ELI households and 26% of DLI households paid at least half their income for rent, plus utilities.

These figures, recall, are more than a year old. We’ve had condo conversions, out-in-out apartment house demolitions and subsidized housing losses since. Rents have risen, sometimes quite a lot, even for tenants supposedly protected by the District’s rent control laws.

The figures are nevertheless timely because the Mayor and her people are deep into developing the proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year. As the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports, they’ve got to close a $200 million gap between projected revenues and the funds needed to sustain existing programs and services.

Any significantly larger investment to create and preserve affordable housing would widen the gap the Mayor would have to close because the District’s budget must, by law, balance every year.

A wider gap likewise if she — or alternatively, the DC Council — opts for greater investments in housing vouchers — either those that subsidize affordable housing operations or those that enable ELI/DLI households to rent at market rates or both, as the Fair Budget Coalition has recommended.

And again a wider gap if our policymakers boost funding for short-shot assistance that would enable some of those households to catch up on overdue rent or move to a cheaper place, if they can find it.

DCFPI recommends that the Mayor use some of the funds left over from last fiscal year, but they can’t be used for investments that involve multi-year commitments. So it also recommends that she “find ways to raise revenues.” This, I take it, is a tactful way to broach the subject of tax increases.

It’s hard to see how the District will significantly reduce homelessness without them. Because, however complex and diverse the root causes, homelessness for each individual and family reflects their inability to pay for rent, plus the bills for lighting, heating and the like.

Every one of the ELI and DLI households that’s paying over half its income for rent, plus utilities is at high risk of homelessness. Investments in affordable housing for them will pay off in lower costs in other areas — including, but not limited to shelter.

That’s not the only reason the Mayor and Council should make affordable housing a priority — preservation, first and foremost, but creation to replace lost units too.

We have the diversity of our community to consider. We’ve got the well-being and future prospects of children who suffer not only from homelessness, but from unstable housing — and from the stresses their parents experience as they try to earn enough and juggle the bills to keep them somehow housed.

If tax increases are needed, I’ll willingly pay my share. I’d like to think that others whose incomes are well above the ELI/DLI maximums will do so too.

NOTE: As I put the finishing touches on this post, DCFPI issued its own meaty report on “DC’s vanishing affordable housing.” The report includes a number of recommendations for policies to reverse the trends it documents. Highly recommended.


Homeless Single Adults in DC Speak Out

March 9, 2015

We’ve had ample opportunity to learn about homeless families here in the District. We’ve read about the increasing number, about the District’s struggles to shelter them when it must, about its struggles to move them out of shelter into housing they may not be able to pay for when their short-term subsidies expire.

We know — and have known for some time — that conditions at DC General, the main family shelter, are awful.

But as of the latest official count, there were somewhat more homeless single men and women, i.e., those who had no children with them, than adults and children together as families. And there have been considerably more in years past. What about the singles?

A briefing last Monday provided some answers. Nothing definitive, but more than I knew before. You too perhaps.

Here then, briefly, is what we learn from the experts — the homeless men and women who spend (or formerly spent) their nights in shelters and from a social worker for Catholic Charities, which operates five shelters for singles under contract to the District.

Also, briefly, the conclusion I reached and a brand-new development that should point the way forward.

Awful physical conditions. Like DC General, most of the shelters for singles are “aged buildings,” as a former shelter resident called them. Sometimes the electricity works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes there’s heat and hot water. Sometimes not.

And, as at DC General, the singles’ shelters are reportedly infested with vermin — bed bugs in the mattresses, rats and roaches scuttling about, etc.

Bad food. Shelter residents complain of spoiled food, just as they do at DC General. There seems to be something to this. The social worker reported that staff examine the food delivered by the District’s contractor to decide whether it can be served. Sometimes not, one infers, since he spoke of going to other sources.

Not enough help getting out. Singles in the shelters say they can’t see the caseworkers who are supposed to help them develop and carry out plans to become job-ready and/or find paying work.

Some back-and-forth at the briefing about whether the caseworkers are on duty when the shelter is open — and allegations that they won’t always see clients when they are. What seems beyond dispute is that there aren’t enough of them.

Catholic Charities has one caseworker for every 100 clients. And the ratio would be higher if it didn’t use donor money to supplement the staff covered under its contract. No way that a caseworker, however diligent, could effectively assess, refer and guide that many clients.

Uncaring treatment. For the homeless and formerly homeless singles who spoke, both on the panel and from the audience, none of the above triggered as much outrage as the way shelter staff treated them.

There’s a “disconnect” about weather, one said. Shelter residents are turned out onto the streets when it’s raining. If they try to remain, someone calls the police. If it’s raining — or even snowing — when they’re lined up waiting to get in, staff still keep the doors shut until official opening time.

When it’s bitter cold, residents have a right to remain in shelter during the day — and apparently are allowed to. But they may have to sit in some sort of outer room, on uncomfortable chairs, for many hours because their regular rest areas don’t get promptly clean.

One resident spoke of waiting for eight hours — not only he, but people in wheelchairs. Desperate offers to clean their own rest areas were curtly dismissed.

It’s not only such particulars that make sheltered singles feel they’re treated like lesser beings. Staff  have a “drill sergeant mentality,” one woman said. They “bark.” She further objected to their assumption that every resident — obviously herself included — is a drug addict, an alcoholic or mentally ill.

“They need to put humanity behind what they are doing,” she concluded. “We are individuals.” One hears a plea for recognition that homeless people are as different from one another as shelter staff members know they themselves are.

Beyond that, however, a recognition of common humanity. Panelist Carol Doster, formerly homeless and now a poignant advocate, put it well. “In practice, we do not consistently afford our homeless neighbors with the level of respect, dignity … or human rights that we Americans and D.C. residents indicate we stand for.”

Or, I would add, that we would expect — and be shocked not to find — if we became homeless and had no friends or family to turn to.

Management issues. Several of the speakers called for better staff training. The remedy, I think, must be broader. The District has contracted out responsibility for the single adult shelters — ultimately to the Community Partnership to End Homelessness, which lets and manages contracts with the nonprofits that operate them, as well as with the food service providers.

Manifold problems at DC General have prompted some advocates to say that the Partnership should be replaced — at least, in its capacity as the shelter manager. Seems to me someone needs to look carefully at how it’s managing the rest of the homeless services system it’s responsible for too.

We now have the results of an audit, thanks to an inquiry from Councilmember Mary Cheh. These, at the very least, cast doubts on the Partnership’s financial practices — and controls over at the Department of Human Services.

But the issues our homeless singles experts raised call for another sort of investigation. Who, if anybody, is visiting the shelters (unannounced), examining the meals delivered, finding out how staff are trained and supervised, etc.? And who, with clout, is raising holy hell about the building systems and maintenance?

“I had an instinct that no one was minding the store sufficiently,” Cheh says. She was referring to the money matters, but we’ve got more than instinct to tell us it’s true for shelter operations as well.

 


When the Safety Net’s Ripped, the Babies Will Fall … and the Rest of the Family Too

February 17, 2015

In less than eight months, some 6,000 families in the District of Columbia will have no cash income whatever, unless the parents can land jobs PDQ. Most probably won’t because they would have if they could have.

The families I’m referring to have participated in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program for a lifetime total of 60 or more months. The benefits they’ve received have been, at best, extremely low — $428 a month for a parent with two children.

But their benefits have already been slashed. Our three-person TANF family facing a cut-off now receives $152 a month. Is this what a parent would choose over paying work of any legal kind, assuming s/he’s got someone to care for the kids?

Of course not. The parents who’ve perforce depended on TANF for a long time or recurrently often have what are euphemistically called severe barriers to work, e.g., debilitating physical and/or mental health problems, domestic violence trauma, functional illiteracy.

The District’s TANF program will count time spent receiving services to help overcome such barriers as compliance with its work activity requirements. But it won’t stop the clock ticking toward the cut-off date, except for the relatively few  parents who’ve been shifted out of TANF into a locally-funded program.

Most parents used to be placed in programs designed to get them into the workforce quickly, regardless of their needs and skills. No real attention to whether they could stay in the workforce. Most didn’t, as even the District’s short-term tracking showed.

Then the Department of Human Services revamped the TANF program, providing for individualized assessments and a range of services, including more diverse education and job training options. But time spent in the flawed program still counts toward the 60 months.

And parents who were deemed work-ready, either initially or after some “barrier-removal” services, had to wait for job training because the budget didn’t fund enough slots. Again, the clock kept ticking.

Now Mayor Bowser and the DC Council can let these very poor parents and their children fall into utter destitution or decide that the 60-month limit is, at the very least, too rigid, if not a bad idea altogether.

When they consider the options, as one hopes they will, they should recall that the Council hastily adopted the time limit as part of a budget-gap closing package that then-Chairman Vincent Gray pushed through shortly before he became mayor.

At least some Councilmembers — and we the public — were sold a bill of goods when a less draconian version of the benefits cut-off surfaced in the original gap-closing bill. DHS called it a measure “to more closely align with federal policy.”

But, as I said at the time, nothing in federal policy compels states or the District to cut — let alone end — TANF benefits at the end of five years. The rules only prohibit the use of federal funds to help pay for them.

And not altogether. States and the District may use federal funds to extend benefits for up to 20% of their average monthly caseload based on “hardship or domestic violence.” About 20 states do, in one form or another. The District has taken a pass. It exempts parents from their regular work requirements, but it keeps the clock running. And, as I already said, it set the clock to start when TANF families first enrolled.

So more than 6,100 families lost a portion of their benefits with virtually no warning — and little or no chance to first improve their employment prospects through the new, improved assessment and referral process.

Many would still have faced high barriers — not only those I’ve mentioned, but others that some states count as “hardship,” e.g., the need to care for a chronically ill or severely disabled child.

And then there’s that barrier confronting all local job seekers who don’t have a college degree. Last year, 19% of District residents without a high school diploma couldn’t find work, even part-time. The unemployment rate for those with, but no more was only 1% lower.

So we’ve undoubtedly got TANF parents who’ve been putting in their required work activity hours searching for a job, but to no avail. Yet we’re about to punish them — and their children — further by cutting off their benefits.

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute’s recommendations to the Mayor and Council include a temporary, renewable benefits extension for parents up against the time limit when they can’t find a job that offers enough hours for them to make ends meet.

Some other parents should get extensions too, it says — those who aren’t yet work-ready, for example, and those with the kinds of significant barriers I cited above. It also recommends extensions when families will otherwise suffer “serious hardship,” e.g., homelessness.

One can make lots of arguments, moral and pragmatic, for protecting families from the benefits reductions and cut-offs they face under the current law.

Among the most pressing of both sorts is what’s providing to be an unprecedented homeless family crisis. Stingy TANF benefits help explain it — as, of course, do the even stingier benefits the 60-month families are getting.

But there are still families who’ve managed to stay housed, at least for awhile — by doubling-up (or tripling-up) with other low-income families, for example, or by contributing to the household expenses of a hospitable friend of relative.

These arrangements are by no means ideal for the children, since housing instability of any sort tends to harm them — and in ways that have lasting effects. But they’re better for them than living in the DC General shelter — or on the streets when it’s not cold enough for them to get in.

And they’re better than the cut-offs for the District’s budget too, though I’d like to think our policymakers will take a broader view of their responsibilities when they decide whether to extend a lifeline to at-risk TANF families.

 

 

 

 


Some College Education Not Enough in DC’s Economy

February 5, 2015

As you may have noticed, this recovery that’s suppose to be more than five years old now hasn’t been one of those rising tides that lifts all boats. We’ve had scads of reports, media features and the like showing how more and more income is flowing to the already-rich, leaving the rest with a shrinking share.

A new report from the DC Fiscal Policy Institute zeroes in on one angle of this nationwide story — employment and wages in the District of Columbia. It does so mainly by comparing Census data for 2007, just before the recession set in, to comparable data for 2013.

The report’s subtitle tells that “DC’s Economic Recovery Is Not Reaching All Residents.” That’s an understatement. For example:

  • Low-wage workers, i.e., those with earnings in the bottom fifth, actually got paid a bit less per hour in 2013 than in 2007.
  • The unemployment rate for black workers was 6% higher late last summer than in 2007, though the overall unemployment rate in the District was just 2.1% higher.
  • About two and a half times as many black workers were jobless for at least six months in 2013 as in 2007.
  • Higher percents of black and Hispanic workers, especially the former, were working part time, though they wanted full-time jobs.

The big message underlying many of the figures and related graphs is that residents without at least a four-year college degree are no better off than they were before the recession. In some respects, they’re worse off.

We’re used to seeing dismal wage figures and relatively high unemployment rates for workers without a high school diploma or the equivalent. And we’ve surely got them in DCFPI’s report.

But the figures for District residents with some college education, including those with an associate’s degree are an eye-opener. We learn, for example, that:

  • The median hourly wage for the some-college group fell more, in dollars, than the median for workers with no more than a high school diploma.
  • At the same time, the median for residents with at least a four-year college degree increased by $2.00 an hour — roughly the same as what the some-college workers lost.
  • The unemployment rate for the some-college group was close to 15% in 2013. This is nearly three times the rate in 2007 — and only about 4% higher than the rate for residents without a high school diploma.
  • About 22% of the some-college workers were involuntary part-timers, i.e., wanted full-time work, but couldn’t get it.

Yet when DCFPI turns to what needs to be done, it focuses largely on the District’s lowest-wage workers — and those who either can’t get jobs or could, but can’t afford the collateral costs.

Our some-college workers may benefit from most of the recommendations, but only to the extent they’re as disadvantaged in our labor market as workers and potential workers without their formal education credentials.

For example, DCFPI puts in another plug for career pathways that integrate basic literacy and job training programs — not, one hopes, an approach our some-college residents need.

It also recommends that the District take better advantage of federal funds available for job training and related supports, e.g., transportation subsidies, through SNAP  (the food stamp program). This, I take it, means invest more local dollars because the U.S. Department of Agriculture will reimburse half of what’s spent on an approved plan.

Two other recommendations would help ease conflicts between work and family obligations. One would enable a worker to take paid leave in order to care for a new baby or ill family member. Obviously preferable to quitting, getting fired or, in the best of cases, losing wages you and other family members need.

Another recommendation — oft made and still not fully funded — would increase the reimbursement rates the District pays providers that care for children with publicly-funded subsidies.

We know that some providers won’t accept such children and that others limit the number they’ll accept because, in at least some cases, the reimbursements don’t even cover the costs of care.

Some parents who don’t work could. Others could work more. Wouldn’t do a thing for their wage rates or job prospects. But there’d be more income to spend on other needs.

Still another oft-made recommendation could boost earnings for thousands of workers in the District’s growing “hospitality” sector, as well as some others, e.g., hairdressers, the folks who deliver our pizzas. These are workers whom employers can pay as little as $2.77 an hour because they regularly receive tips.

DCFPI suggests a 70% increase in the tip credit wage — borrowing, it seems, from the long-stalled minimum wage bill in Congress. But it also notes that seven states have no tip credit wage at all — a model the District could follow, if policymakers would stand up to the restaurant and hotel industry lobbyists.

Don’t look to me — or, I would guess, other progressives — to argue against any of these recommendations. But, so far as I can see, none of them gets to the heart of the problem DCFPI illuminates.

If you live in the District, you’ll have a tough time getting — and keeping — a job that will pay enough to support a reasonably secure, comfortable lifestyle unless you’ve got at least a four-year college degree.

What our local policymakers can do about this I’m hard put to say. And I’m certainly not faulting DCFPI for teeing up a handful of quite modest recommendations they could adopt right now — or as part of the budget the mayor’s people are already working on.

But I don’t think we should just shrug our shoulders either. An economy that works for only about half the adults in the city isn’t, to borrow from DCFPI, “enabling all residents to succeed.”

 

 

 


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.

 


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