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.

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What DC Taxpayer Dollars Could Buy for Poor Residents

February 29, 2016

I note here, somewhat belatedly, that the Fair Budget Coalition has published its recommendations for the District of Columbia’s next budget.

It settled on nineteen of them — a heterogeneous collection, reflecting the primary interests and priorities of the working groups that initiated them.

I’ve blogged on some already — shelter for newly homeless families year round, for example, and the automatic tax cuts, along with the seemingly, though not technically automatic tax abatements.

As followers know, I’ve also blogged — some might say flogged — the need to the replace rigid time limit for families in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, e.g., here, here and here.

I may delve into others. At this point, however, I want to say a few words about the preface that’s intended to give readers a way to view the recommendations as a coherent whole.

We — and perhaps more importantly, the Mayor and DC Councilmembers — are invited to think of them as measures to increase public safety.

This, of course cleverly pings a concern that recent episodes of violence have fueled — and not only in poor neighborhoods, where residents have long-standing, well-founded fears of bodily harm (or worse) to themselves and their children.

It also pings the Mayor’s response — not approvingly, I hasten to add. The authors apparently view the ramped-up police presence in troubled neighborhoods and get-tough measures as “punitive” — particularly against blacks.

They do, however, build their framework on Police Chief Lanier’s own vision for public safety. “The goal,” she said, “should be to put us [the police force] out of business. The goal should be having investments before someone gets into the system” — specifically, “more investments in social services.”

Lanier calls for these investments because they’d prevent crime and thus help ensure public safety as we ordinarily understand it. The frame broadens the concept.

Safety may nevertheless seem a somewhat limited vision for our public policies — budgets included, of course. The recommendations themselves reach beyond safety from hunger, homelessness, lack of affordable health care and of money for other basic needs.

We see, for example, an understandably somewhat fuzzy recommendation for a “strong plan” to comply with the new federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, including provisions for adult education.

Becoming proficient in a skill set employers seek and will pay decent wages for does, of course, help keep residents and their families safe from the everyday deprivations of poverty.

And it offers a modicum of safety from the related stresses — scrambling to stretch SNAP (food stamp) benefits for a month, find a friend or family member to stay with, someone who’ll watch the kids because the work schedule has suddenly changed.

Relief from such stresses provides more safety from mental and physical health problems — and as we know, from spillover damages to children that last even if stress in the home later subsides.

But a well-structured program, like what WIOA envisions, puts participants on a pathway to jobs that involve increasingly higher skills, responsibilities and pay.

There’s some safety from financial insecurity here, though no one can feel altogether secure in a job, of course. But employment that calls forth strengths joined with those of others and to some productive end fosters a sense of inclusion — both in the workplace and in our society as a whole.

Providing for one’s self and one’s family this way fosters a healthful self-esteem and sense of well-being too — and hope, if one foresees better opportunities ahead. That’s what a realistic, well-mapped pathway provides.

Other programs FBC expressly supports would also afford some security, as well as safety. Funding to repair public housing, for example, would not only keep occupants safe from mold, mouse bites, blasts of freezing air through broken windows, etc.

It would also give them some assurance they’d have a place to live with neighbors they know and have formed bonds with. And if their housing were then truly decent, it would preserve or restore their sense of dignity and inclusion in the community, as the DC Legal Aid Society says.

One could say something of the same for more locally-funded housing vouchers — the kind that individuals and families can have unless and until their income rises to the point they can afford to pay rent on their own. Likewise the kind that enables developers to afford the costs of operating housing that’s affordable for the District’s lowest-income residents.

What I’m trying to get at here is that investments like those FBC recommends do more than provide a safety net of some specific sort. They extend to poor and near-poor residents intangibles we value in our own lives.

“We are talking about people,” as one comfortably-housed resident said at a heated meeting on the Mayor’s family shelter plan. There’s a message here that’s deeper and far broader than the intended rebuke to unneighborly neighbors.

Something to do with cost-benefit calculations beyond what any budget analyst could produce.


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.

 


Reading the Fair Budget Coalition’s New Report

March 14, 2013

The Fair Budget Coalition released its eighth annual report last week. As in the past, the Coalition recommends specific funding and other policy priorities for the District of Columbia’s next annual budget.

There are 33 recommendations in all — nearly half of them related to housing. The remainder address jobs, health, safety and revenues.

No way I can cover so many and diverse recommendations in a post. And at this point, I don’t want to pick and choose.

So let me instead share some thoughts I had as a read the report.

Growing income inequality is one of the District’s biggest challenges.

The District’s poverty rate remains considerably higher than the rate before the recession set in. And that was pretty high.

But the overall rate — 18.7% — is an inadequate measure of the challenges our policymakers face if, as Fair Budget proposes, they choose to “advance dignity and equity for all.”

For one thing, the poverty rate masks huge disparities. The poverty rate for black residents, for example, is more than four times the rate for those classified as white/non-Hispanic.

Not coincidentally, the poverty rate for the Census Bureau’s “micro area” that’s mostly Wards 7 and 8 is 34.3%, as compared to 9.6% in the area that’s mostly upper Northwest.

As I’ve written before — probably too many times — the official poverty rates are based on an outdated, over-simple measure. So they egregiously fail to reflect the hardships low-income people struggle with, especially in a high-cost city like D.C.

Consider, for example, that the median income for all the District’s black households was only $39,302 last year — about $19, 140 less than what would make a modest two-bedroom apartment affordable.

Meanwhile, the wealthiest households were doing very well indeed. In 2009, the top 5% had incomes averaging $436,900 — 25.7 times greater than the average for households in the bottom fifth.

The District has done more to address the hardships of low-income people than most jurisdictions.

We see this very clearly in the recommendations themselves.

One set, for example, calls for targeted expansions of the Local Rent Supplement Program — a housing voucher program the District established to supplement the woefully under-funded federal equivalent. Only four states have voucher programs like this.

Another recommendation asks for continuing adequate investments in the DC Healthcare Alliance — a program the District created to provide affordable health care to residents barred from Medicaid under federal rules.

For perspective on this, look at the states that won’t expand their Medicaid programs now, even though the federal government would pick up all the initial costs — and all but 10% for the long term.

Recent budgets have short-changed programs that serve low-income residents’ needs.

Like state and local governments across the country, the District had to cope with revenue losses due to the recession. And, like most, it decided to cope mainly by cutting spending rather than raising more money through tax policy changes.

So some safety net programs, e.g., homeless services, didn’t expand as they should have to meet increased recession-related needs. Others that could have helped low-income residents support themselves and their families were actually cut.

As I’ve written (and written), the District decided to start phasing out benefits for families who’d participated in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program for a lifetime total of more than five years — even though officials knew the program had failed them.

Also knew that even well-trained people with substantial work experience were having a hard time finding employment unless they had at least a bachelor’s degree.

Meanwhile, the budget for child care subsidies was cut by a total of $30 million, making it difficult for low-income parents, especially those with infants and toddlers, to manage full-time jobs.

Funding for adult education was also cut, significantly limiting opportunities for the very large number of working-age residents who are functionally illiterate and others who aren’t, but lack a high school diploma or the equivalent.

The District now has an opportunity to rebuild and expand.

The District weathered the recession much better than many jurisdictions. And its economy has bounced back nicely.

Even the super-conservative Chief Financial Officer now projects $190 million more in revenues for the current fiscal year and nearly $178 million more for the upcoming fiscal year, when he (and everyone else) expects the District to experience greater impacts from the across-the-board cuts in federal spending.

The Mayor and the DC Council will still have to make choices. That’s what budgeting is about.

But they can, if they choose, invest more in programs that will alleviate the hardships of the have-nots and support their aspirations to share the opportunities and decent standard of living that many of us take for granted.

And I believe a large majority of the community would support this.

Those who do need to let the Mayor know ASAP. Fair Budget has an editable e-mail we can use.


Panel to Address Poverty in DC and What to Do About It

March 3, 2013

On Tuesday, March 5, the Fair Budget Coalition will host a panel discussion on poverty in the District of Columbia — “The State of the District’s Poverty: What’s the Story Behind the 600 Kids at DC General?”.

As the online invitation suggests, the Coalition is linking the record-high number of children in DC General — the District’s main shelter for families — to funding cuts in both safety net programs and others that benefit low-income residents.

A look at the District’s poverty rates is surely worthwhile. As I’ve written before, both the overall rate and the child poverty rate are well above the national rates — and considerably higher than the rates in 2007, just before the recession set in.

But, as I’ve also written, the Census Bureau’s poverty thresholds are unrealistically low. For a single mother with two children, for example, the 2011 threshold was just $18,123.

The Wider Opportunities for Women’s Basic Economic Security Tables for the District show that the family would need about $85,680 for basic necessities, child care and taxes, plus some extra for rainy day and retirement savings — if the mother had employer-sponsored health insurance and retirement benefits.

This is higher than the 2011 median income for District households as a whole, but nearly $22,000 lower than the median for households classified as white/non-Hispanic.

One of many indications that the growing economic prosperity Mayor Gray’s recent State of the District address celebrated hasn’t done much for the “have-nots” in the city.

The challenge Fair Budget faces is that no panel can specifically address all the programs that could alleviate hardship — and narrow the huge income gaps here — if the Mayor and the DC Council invested more money in them.

The event can provide a framework for the programs, however, and draw some links among them. Also identify priorities for addressing critical weaknesses.

We know, for example, that the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program aims to prepare parents for work that will, at the very least, reduce their need for safety net benefits.

The District has invested resources in making TANF job training more effective. It’s also launched several initiatives to match job seekers with employers that might hire them.

But many parents won’t be able to work unless they have child care — and a subsidy to make it affordable. Consider, for example, that the average annual market rate local centers charge for infants is $2,400 more than a full-time minimum wage worker earns.

Yet the District’s subsidy program reimburses providers at such low rates that many have gone out of business. The remainder perforce generally limit the number of subsidized children they’ll take.

So there are more than 9,000 infants and toddlers on center waiting lists, according to the Fair Budget invite.

We’ve thus got one program that’s doing more to address barriers to work and another that should, but isn’t because it’s egregiously under-funded.

Similarly, the employment prospects of more than 36% of D.C. adults are extremely limited because they’re functionally illiterate.

Yet local funding for adult education programs was cut in Fiscal Year 2011 and again in Fiscal Year 2012. It’s at its twice-reduced level in the current budget, I’m told. (The budget for the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, where adult ed. is housed, is notoriously opaque.)

Well, I could go on, but point is made, I hope. As with any complex problem, poverty has a lot of inter-related parts. And the District government has a lot of parts that affect it, for good or ill.

If the Mayor truly wants to “improve the quality of life for all,” as his One City Action Plan says, then he should fashion a budget that reflects a comprehensive commitment to both the safety net and poverty reduction.

Like all elected officials, he’ll tend to want what he believes his constituents want seriously enough to consider when election time rolls round.

So a good turnout at the Fair Budget Coalition’s event would send a helpful message. And I expect it to be both informative and a launching pad for this year’s grassroots budget advocacy.

And who wouldn’t be inspired to launch after listening to panelists who know poverty first-hand — and while sitting among some of the families from DC General who’ll be there too?

The hour-long event begins at 3:30 p.m. in Room 412 of the Wilson Building, 1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW. You’ll need a photo ID to get past the guards.

And Fair Budget asks that you RSVP to Janelle Treibitz, 202-328-5513 or janelle@fairbudget.org.

UPDATE: The event will be in Room 123 instead of Room 412, as originally planned.


Bits on Uphill Battles — and Downward Falls

August 13, 2012

Another scrapbook of fragments that didn’t get into posts I’ve written, plus some thoughts I had along the way.

Winning Battles, But Not the War

As I wrote about amendments that didn’t get into the Senate’s Farm Bill, I realized, again, what hard times we progressive advocates face.

Basically, we’re reduced to giving thanks — even to legislators themselves — because bills that affect low-income people aren’t as bad as they could have been.

We see this not only nationally, but here in the District of Columbia.

The Fair Budget Coalition, for example, proclaimed victories when high priorities, e.g., homeless services, a delay in further TANF benefits cuts, got into the list of things that will get funding if the Chief Financial Officer predicts more revenues — lots more — than the estimate the budget was built on.

Not faulting FBC  here, especially when the coalition — and others — averted some truly harmful cuts and got some money back in the Housing Production Trust Fund as well.

But I long for victories that actually move us forward.

Upward Mobility in Black and White

My recent post on the Pew Center’s economic mobility report alluded to its findings on blacks born to low-income parents. I’d wanted to include them, but the draft was already pushing against my somewhat indulgent word-count limit.

So here they are, plus some additional race gap facts.

  • The percent of blacks who grew up in the bottom fifth of the income scale is nearly six times greater than the percent of whites — 65% as compared to 11%.
  • More than half (53%) of blacks stay there, while only a third of whites do.
  • Well over half (56%) of blacks raised in the middle fifth fell down to the second or bottom fifth as adults. Less than a third (32%) of whites raised in the middle fell.

What about blacks in the top two fifths? The Pew analysts say the percent — even for both together — is too small to calculate mobility “with statistical certainty.”

Not, I think, surprising. What is to me is how much more slippery the middle rung on the ladder is for blacks.

Disparities in parental income, education and employment opportunities — all in part reflecting persistent race discrimination — can explain why it’s harder for blacks born at the bottom to climb the ladder.

But what accounts for the greater downward mobility — the reverse, if you will, of the American Dream?

Part of the answer apparently is that the median family income for blacks is lower than for whites in every fifth that can be reliability estimated. So even a relatively small income loss can drop them into the next fifth down.

But the plummet to the bottom fifth calls for more explanation than I can ferret out of the report.

Life Is Unfair, in Economese

Found this in a very wonky paper by economists Flavio Cunha and James Heckman: “The best documented market failure in the life cycle of skill formation … is the inability of children to buy their parents and the lifetime resources they provide.”

In other words, children born to parents who’ve got the education, temperament, time and money to invest in developing their cognitive and noncognitive skills, e.g., perseverance, self-control, aversion to risky behaviors, are more likely to become economically and socially successful than children who by “accident of birth” have parents who don’t.

We knew this, of course. And the Pew report indirectly confirms it. But whoever knew it was a defect in our free market system?


Fair Budget Coalition to Host Its Own One City Summit, Says DC in Crisis

March 10, 2012

Monday morning, March 12, the Fair Budget Coalition will host its own One City Summit. One City (In Crisis) they call it.

No Convention Center space for this one. No slick participants’ guides. No digital keypads to vote on preferences. FBC doesn’t have half a million to blow on such things.

What it does have are some pretty alarming figures to justify its claim that the District is in crisis. For example:

  • One out of every three D.C. children is living in poverty.
  • One out of every five residents is on the waiting list for public housing or a voucher to help pay the rent.
  • One out of every ten residents is unemployed — and that’s just those who are actively looking for work.

The crisis doesn’t directly affect high-income residents, of course. Councilmember Jack Evans’s Georgetown constituents, for example, aren’t likely to be on that waiting list for subsidized housing.

It does, however, affect all of us who want to live in a city that’s not so radically divided between the haves and the have-nots. And all of us who want a secure, sustaining safety net for the latter.

Prospects for that don’t look so good — hence the FBC Summit.

At a recent briefing, Eric Goulet, Mayor Gray’s budget director, explained to us why the District couldn’t tap its reserve fund accounts — even the excess revenue surplus the Mayor chose to put there.

Also why the District couldn’t possibly cut funding for education or public safety.

And why it couldn’t, as the DC Fiscal Policy Institute suggested, borrow for some capital projects, at current very low interest rates, rather than immediately pay for them out of operating revenues.

Capped all this by saying that the Mayor wouldn’t propose any significant revenue raisers to help close the budget gap — now reportedly $115 million. Last year’s flap over the modest income tax increase for high earners was enough for him.

So notwithstanding the usual claim that everything’s on the table, it seems that the only big thing left there is spending for human services programs.

These and other programs for low-income residents have been hit hard by successive budget-balancing feats.

Cuts to them last year accounted for 61% of the total — even after the DC Council restored about $23 million. Chalk this up, in large part, to the raid on affordable housing.

Taking the programs off the table would restore some balance to the budget, but still leave them far short of the resources they need.

We’re told that the DC Housing Authority needs an additional $6 million just to pay its share of the rent for people who have locally-funded housing vouchers.

Homeless services is running up hotel bills — and running through its budget — because it doesn’t have shelter space or other housing for nearly all the families who’ve become homeless.

This isn’t a shelter problem, Department of Human Services Director David Berns rightly says. It’s “inadequate affordable housing.” Closing the gap in the Local Rent Supplement Program won’t do a thing about this, though it could keep some now-housed families from becoming homeless.

The Mayor apparently wants to go at the housing problem from “the demand side,” i.e., to get more people into good-paying jobs so they can afford to pay market-rate rents. Well, that’s going to require some additional spending too.

The Fair Budget Coalition flags the need to increase funding for adult education and literacy programs — an obvious priority given the high functional illiteracy rate and the demands of our local job market.

Also advocates more money for child care subsidies so that parents who find jobs can go to work — and, I’d add, to pay for rent, food, clothing and other basic needs. Hard for low-income parents without subsidies to do when child care costs in the District can eat up two-thirds of full-time minimum wage.

The District’s redesigned Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program would fit in well with the demand-side focus — if DHS has the funds to do what it plans.

DCFPI rather doubts it does.

And, as the Institute notes, parents who’ve had no opportunity to benefit from the improvements will nevertheless lose more and more of the meager cash assistance that’s keeping some, though not all of them from homelessness.

Well, I could go on this way, but I think the point is clear. A Fiscal Year 2013 budget that’s balanced by spending cuts alone will not only cause greater hardships. It will undermine what the Mayor himself says he wants to achieve.

He couldn’t learn this at his One City Summit. Maybe FBC’s will get the message through.