DC Coalition Launches Comprehensive Affordable Housing Campaign

July 29, 2010

The key to a better city is an affordable continuum of housing. That’s the core message of an ambitious, well-thought-out campaign launched by the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development.

Its vision and the policies and processes to get us from where we are to a city that offers affordable housing to all residents are spelled out in a lengthy, fact-packed report. It could mark the beginning of a new day in the District’s faltering efforts to create the housing choices that were part of the former administration’s “vision for growing an inclusive city.”

For one thing, the report represents a consensus among 125 local organizations that play a variety of roles in developing and operating diverse types of affordable housing in the District. It’s the first time that so many have come together in support of such a substantive, comprehensive framework.

For another, the report offers a compelling vision centered in two related concepts. One is a continuum of affordable housing options — from emergency shelters all the way to conventional home ownership. Within this continuum it focuses on three options that are subsidized by federal and local funding — housing with supportive services, other rental housing and assisted home ownership.

The second concept is what CNHED calls “neighborhoods of opportunity.” These are neighborhoods that offer residents “a strong sense of place, pride and connectedness.” The coalition views a continuum of housing choices suited to their needs and incomes as the “defining,” though far from the only element of these neighborhoods.

This concept of neighborhood is, to me, one of the most attractive things about the CNHED framework because it recognizes and, in a manner of speaking, celebrates the physical, social and economic diversity of our community. It envisions transformational changes that preserve the unique neighborhoods we’ve got.

The affordable housing continuum CNHED advocates thus stands in direct contrast to “the dehumanized investment commodity that dominates much of the contemporary conversation about the local housing market.” The report repeatedly emphasizes the need to recognize that current residents are “the predominant stakeholders” in revitalization projects and warns against their displacement.

The District has some innovative programs for financing the development and operation of affordable housing. Funding for these programs increased after 2006, when the multi-stakeholder Comprehensive Housing Task Force issued its report. But, as the DC Fiscal Policy Institute has tells us, funding for these programs has been cut nearly 50% in the last two years.

The current budget, says CNHED, commits only $80 million in local funds to affordable housing — $1.33 out of every $100. If the District were implementing the recommendations produced by the Comprehensive Housing Task Force, it would be spending more than three times as much — $255 million a year or $4.26 out of every $100.

True, the recession has brought a sharp decline in tax revenues. Spending cuts were inevitable. Yet affordable housing took a bigger hit than many other areas — 34% since Fiscal Year 2008, as compared to 5% in total spending authority.

So we’re looking here at priority choices, both in spending and in tax policy. Jenny Reed, the housing guru at DCFPI, participated in the briefing to launch the campaign. When someone asked what should be cut to free up funds for affordable housing, she suggested the District “grow the pie” instead.

Options she mentioned (not mutually exclusive) include new and/or expanded revenue raisers, reforms in tax preferences and a more disciplined approach to tax abatements. CNHED has some additional recommendations.

But the first and most important thing is for the District to make a meaningful commitment to addressing our affordable housing crisis — and in a way that will preserve and strengthen the values of community.

CNHED’s report aims to provide a foundation for this commitment, as well as a host of ideas for implementing it. A pretty hefty piece for our elected officials, but I hope they (0r their staff) will tackle it. For the rest of you, highly recommended.

I also recommend that you consider signing on as a campaign supporter. Because as CNHED recognizes, we’re not going to get anything approaching an affordable housing continuum without strong, grassroots support.

Homeless DC Families Just Have To Wait For Shelter

June 23, 2010

I recently got a blast e-mail from an attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. He wanted to know if anyone could help a homeless mother with two young children who had no place to spend the night. The Department of Human Services had told the Clinic it couldn’t help because there was no room at DC General. All other family shelters have been full for many months now.

Happily, SAFE stepped up to the plate with arrangements for a hotel room. Why, I wonder, did the family’s safety have to depend on the generosity of a fairly small nonprofit. Is this what the funding constraints on homeless services have brought us to?

Apparently so.

As of June 20, there were still (or again) no vacant units at DC General. The Legal Clinic tells me there are now at least eight and maybe as many as 25 families who urgently need shelter because they’ve got no place else to stay. In recent weeks, the attorneys have spoken with families who’ve spent nights in the open air, on the subway and at Union Station.

Jason Cherkis at Washington City Paper reports that Fred Swan, head of the Family Services Administration at DHS, admits that the agency can’t provide any timetable for moving families out of DC General so that other families can get in. It’s got no intention of exceeding capacity again — understandable, given the bad publicity and threat of litigation that got it moving on the problem in March.

So homeless families just have to wait while the agency makes case-by-case placements contingent on available units in transitional or other subsidized housing. Where are they supposed to wait? In the home of a family or friend? That’s where the homeless mother and her children were until the friend’s landlord told her she was violating the terms of the lease? In a car, if they have one? Under a bridge or in a park?

And what will happen as these dog-days of hang on? The District, after all, has a legal obligation to ensure that all homeless residents have shelter in extreme weather conditions — heat as well as cold.

DHS has no solution. And it’s not the agency’s fault. It’s got to operate its homeless services program at the same funding level as in Fiscal Year 2009.

What will happen when the new fiscal year opens and winter sets in? Mayor Fenty proposed no increase for homeless services, despite the large spike in family homelessness and the egregious over-crowding at DC General. The DC Council went along with this, though it did find funds to share up some other under-funded safety net programs.

It’s not as if the Council had no choice but to let homeless families fend for themselves. It just put a higher priority on keeping high-income residents and businesses like health clubs and yoga studios happy.

The Council’s Committee on Human Services will hold a hearing on shelters and other housing for homeless people this Friday, June 25 at 10:00.

Maybe some of the questions here will get answered. I hope they at least get asked.

Proposed DC Budget Cuts Funding For Child Care (Again)

May 1, 2010

Mayor Fenty’s proposed Fiscal Year 2011 budget for programs for our youngest residents has me scratching my head.

As the DC Fiscal Policy Institute’s analysis shows, the proposed budget would increase funding for early childhood education programs operated by the public school system and preserve funding for the Pre-K for All Initiative–or nearly so.

No head-scratching here. Lots of research indicates that good preschool education helps children develop cognitive and social skills that improve their subsequent academic performance. Positive long-term returns in crime reduction and economic productivity too.

But subsidized child care is also a smart investment. How else can low-income parents with very young children hold down a job–or, for that matter, get the education and training they need to land one? Parents with older children need child care too, since the school day ends well before the conventional work day.

Yet the mayor’s proposed budget would cut funding for child care by a total of somewhat over $8 million–$4 million out of the budget approved for this fiscal year, plus $4 million more for next fiscal year. On top of prior cuts, this would leave total inflation-adjusted support for child care at $27 million less than in Fiscal Year 2007.

At a recent briefing, Clarence Carter, head of the DC Department of Human Services, said that DHS would be reducing the amount of TANF funds it transfers to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education for the child care program. The department based this decision on information from OSSE which indicated that past funds had not been used.

The OSSE budget chapter confirms this. Funding for child care subsidies, it says, has been reduced to “align with current year spending trends and detailed historical utilization data.”

This seems to mean that fewer parents are using subsidized child care. How can that be?

Part of the answer may be that appropriate child care slots aren’t available for parents to use. A 2008 study for OSSE by the UDC Center for Applied Research and Urban Policy found that 13,196 children were on child care providers’ waiting lists, most of them children under age three. Only 8.9% of family home child care providers and 28.3% of child care centers enrolled children with disabilities.

A big reason for this “mismatch between slots needed and current supply” is probably the large gap between market rates for child care and the reimbursements OSSE provides. For family home day care providers, the 2008 gap for infants was $17 per day and, for one year olds, $15 per day. The gaps were slightly less but still substantial for child care centers.

An analysis by Empower DC shows that the majority of providers, especially in Wards 7 and 8, are shy about $630 per infant per month and about $720 per month for every other preschooler. The typical center, I’m told, gets about $600,000 less a year than it would get if reimbursement rates were at the 2008 level recommended inĀ  federal Child Care and Development Block Grant guidance, i.e., at the 75th percentile of market rates.

So the demand for slots is there, but the supply isn’t keeping pace because expansion wouldn’t yield enough additional revenues. Worth noting here that about 95% of family home child care providers and 25% of child care centers are for-profit operations, thus solely dependent on what they receive in fees.

Expansion here doesn’t mean only new construction or renovation. The UDC Center found that only 78.6% of family home capacity and 86% of center capacity was being used. Lack of money for trained staff and equipment were apparently factors here.

Consider too that total capacity has decreased in the last two years because about 50 providers have closed their doors due to lack of sufficient funds.

In short, the reported “spending trends and historical utilization data” don’t justify the proposed funding cut. Far from it. If OSSE increased its reimbursement rates to reflect market trends, as the Center recommended, it might well find that many thousands more children were cared for by its subsidized providers.

This surely is what the large waiting list seems to tell us.

New York City Grapples With Housing Voucher Crisis

April 21, 2010

Seems as if New York City has an affordable housing crisis writ large. The local housing authority is short $45 million and may have to revoke as many as 10,500 already-issued Section 8 housing choice vouchers. Alternatively, it may reduce the value of existing vouchers, leaving landlords, tenants or both to cover the costs.

It’s hard not to see mismanagement here. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reportedly warned the authority last May that it was in danger of exceeding its annual voucher allotment. But the authority went on issuing vouchers anyway, though at a lower rate.

That said, it’s hard, at least for me, to put all the blame on the housing authority. First off, consider the conditions that led to the crisis. Under the Section 8 program, voucher recipients are generally responsible for paying 30% of their income for rent. The voucher makes up the difference. As recipients lost their jobs or had their hours cut, the authority’s rent liabilities increased. At the same time, rental costs increased, again driving up per voucher costs.

Notwithstanding rising demands for vouchers, Congress provided less voucher funding in 2009 than what agencies would have received under the formula it used for the 2008 appropriation. The New York City housing authority got $58 million less. And, as I wrote before, it didn’t learn of the cut until May because Congress didn’t finished the HUD budget on time. The authority could hardly put its whole voucher program on hold while waiting for its final mark.

And what was the authority to do when it learned of the cut? Good fiscal management would say it should have immediately reduced its voucher commitments to what its budget would cover.

Consider the hardships that would have exacerbated. Blogger Harry Moroz reports that the average income of Section 8 housing vouchers in New York City is $14,706. Last year, the annualized fair market rent on a one-bedroom apartment in the city was only $42 less than that. Balancing the budget would thus obviously have put more people out on the streets or into the city’s emergency shelters.

Ultimately, the authority did act on its voucher crisis. In December, it notified voucher holders who hadn’t yet found an apartment that they wouldn’t receive housing assistance after all. Before that, it apparently restricted new vouchers to victims of domestic violence, families referred by the child welfare agency and certain other emergency cases. As of December, no new housing vouchers for them either.

The New York City voucher crisis is big in part because the city is big and has some of the highest rental costs in the country. But it’s unfortunately not unique. As the New York Times reports, some other housing authorities have terminated vouchers, and some of cut their contributions to rents. Who knows how many have enormous waiting lists–or don’t only because they’ve closed them?

It’s from this perspective that I look at President Obama’s proposed housing assistance budget for Fiscal Year 2011.

For Section 8 vouchers, he’s proposed a modest $875 million (0.5%) increase. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates this would be just about enough to renew all vouchers in use this year. An additional $85 million would provide about 10,000 new vouchers for individuals and families who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. That’s 10,000 nationwide.

So much for the 124,760 households on New York City’s voucher waiting list–and the emergency cases in the days ahead. So much for the 8.5 million or more U.S. households who are paying more than half their income for rent and utilities.