Another Take on the Proposed DC Sales Tax Increase

April 16, 2015

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute makes a case for the proposed increase in the District of Columbia’s sales tax. It’s persuasive. And the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’m persuaded that the increase will serve the interests of some of the District’s poorest residents better than a campaign to replace it.

So, in a semi-retraction of my earlier post, here’s what DCFPI says, fleshed out for those who haven’t been immersed in the issues and punctuated with remarks of my own.

The increase is very small. It would add a quarter of a penny per dollar to the purchase price of anything subject to the sales tax. DCFPI has figured that poor families would probably have to pay at most $25 more a year.

The District needs additional revenues for homeless services. The Mayor has said that the additional tax revenues would fund the first steps in making reforms laid out in the new strategic plan adopted by the Interagency Council on Homelessness.

Her budget would, among other things, provide more permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless individuals and families with a chronically homeless adult member.

It would convert a pilot rapid re-housing program for individuals into a regular program and expand it so that more of them who don’t need PSH could move from shelter into housing they’ll be able to afford — at least, till their short-term subsidy expires.

It would create some new, specially-targeted housing vouchers for individuals and families who no longer need the intensive services PSH provides, but can’t afford market-rate rents. Individuals and families who come to the end of their term in rapid re-housing, but still can’t afford those rents would also be eligible for the vouchers.

The budget would also dedicate funds to begin the process of closing the over-large, decrepit DC General family shelter. About $4.9 million would pay rent to landlords who’ve offered up units — thus moving 84 families into more habitable living quarters swiftly.

All worthwhile investments, I think you’ll agree.

Other recent changes in the District’s tax code would more than offset the increased sales tax burden on lower-income residents. The DC Council enacted a higher standard deduction for income taxes last year. It expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit for childless adults, enabling them to get the same credit as from the federal EITC.

And it raised the income threshold for Schedule H property tax relief, which benefits renters, as well as homeowners. Elderly residents get a higher tax credit too.

Now, of course, residents with no earned income and not enough income from any other source to owe income taxes or pay rent won’t benefit from these changes. But “a large share of lower-income households” would come out ahead, even with the sales tax increase, according to DCFPI.

The Tax Revision Commission recommended the increase. Now, the Commission need hardly be the last word on the District’s tax policies. In fact, at least one of its recommendations made me cringe — a five-fold, plus increase in the dollar value of estates exempt from our local estate tax. (DCFPI didn’t like this either.)

At the same time, the Commission’s recommendations have credibility where it counts. The income tax and EITC changes I mentioned above originated with the Commission. So from a political perspective, the sales tax increase stands a better chance in the Council than some more progressive revenue raisers coming out of left field (pun intended). And we already have some evidence that any increase is likely to encounter headwinds.

The increase would make the sales tax rate the same as Maryland’s and Virginia’s. The point, I think, is not that the District should model its tax policies on its neighbors’. It’s rather that the new sales tax rate wouldn’t be higher than theirs — and thus tend to shift retail purchases across the borders.

Perhaps DCFPI is also giving preemptive reassurance to Councilmembers who’ve used Maryland and/or Virginia tax rates as arguments against tax increases here. Whether this strategy will work remains to be seen. It doesn’t seem to have gotten Finance and Revenue Committee Chairman Jack Evans on board. Nor will it, I suspect. But he’s only one Councilmember out of what will soon be twelve.

Bottom line: I doubt the Council will adopt an alternative, more progressive revenue raiser to support reforms in our homeless services system. And I’m quite sure it won’t shift nearly $19 million from other programs to support them while leaving revenues alone.

If we want those homeless service reforms, then we’ve seemingly got to settle for a less than ideal way of getting money for them. And this won’t be the end of the story anyway because the sales tax revenues won’t cover the costs of putting all those needed reforms in place.

 


Gray Administration’s Responses to Call for More Permanent Supportive Housing Misstate Facts

October 14, 2013

Reasonable people can differ over how much the District of Columbia should spend on Housing First, its permanent supportive housing program.

The Gray administration contends that it’s spending as much as it can. A coalition of local service providers and advocates thinks it should spend more, as the Washington Post recently reported.

It’s often said that everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Which doesn’t mean all opinions are equal, of course. But everyone isn’t entitled to their own facts. Gray administration spokespeople, however, seem to think they are — or simply don’t know what they’re talking about.

I’m referring to their claims that the District isn’t getting federal funding for homeless services any more. Also where they say it once got funds for PSH, though that’s perhaps less germane to the current issue.

Pedro Ribiero, a spokesperson for the Mayor, told the Post reporter that “[t]he federal government is not handing out money any more,” though he apparently also acknowledged that it was.

Then BB Otero, the Mayor’s Deputy for Health and Human Services, wrote the Post to expand on Ribiero’s points. She maintains that “federal funding is completely dried up.”

And, like Riberio, she also asserts that the District got one-time funding for PSH from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

“Most jurisdictions,” she says, ended “similar programs” when their ARRA funding ran out, while the Gray administration not only replaced the lost funds, but expanded the PSH investment.

Here, as best I’ve been able to determine, are the facts.

The District did get “one-time” funding for Housing First, but it wasn’t through ARRA. Recovery Act funds for homeless services were specifically for homelessness prevention and rapid re-housing.

Thus, the Fenty administration’s announcement of how the District would use its $7.5 million grant refers only to support for residents struggling to retain their existing housing and several forms of financial assistance to help those who needed to move into a more affordable place.

The District did, however, get what was initially one-time funding for PSH. The Fiscal Year 2010 federal appropriation for the District included $17 million for the program, available for spending through September 2011.

The District got another $10 million for Fiscal Year 2011. So the one-time funding was actually two-time. As I recall, the administration was given to understand that these unique infusions wouldn’t be ongoing — that, in fact, it would be expected to pick up the tab for the units created.

And it has, which accounts for most of the local funding increase the Mayor’s people tout.

Federal funding has not completely dried up. Federal funding for the District’s homelessness programs has certainly shrunk. Congress didn’t renew the special earmark for the PSH program. The ARRA money truly was one-time.

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funds that support homelessness programs were indeed subject to sequestration, as Ribiero said. Department of Veterans Affairs funds were exempt, however — and thus the money the District (and other jurisdictions) received to provide the service components of PSH for homeless vets.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimated the District’s homeless assistance loss at slightly less than $1.1 million. Not chump change, but far from a total wipe-out.

So the District has received federal funding for its homeless services programs, apart from and since the unusual one/two-time grants. And it’s not planning for a drought. The Department of Human Services told its oversight committee that it expected just under $13.7 million for this fiscal year.

This includes about $7 million specifically for PSH — over $1.1 million more than the District received last year (sorry, no link).

It apparently does not include all the funds HUD awards to nonprofits that provide homeless people with housing and services as part of the District’s continuum of care. The most recent total for the COC was $20.4 million.

Most communities have not ended their PSH programs. Where Otero (or whoever wrote for her) came up with this way to boost the Gray administration is a mystery.

A national expert I consulted isn’t aware of any communities that have abandoned PSH. Surely she would know if most jurisdictions had done so.

We deserve straight talk. None of this is to say that Congress hasn’t put the District — and other jurisdictions across the country — in a bind, since they must either make up for the ill-timed, arbitrary spending cuts or reduce assistance to people in need.

Yet the District’s finances are in much better shape than most. The Chief Financial Officer now expects $6.31 billion in tax revenues this fiscal year — nearly $173 million more than the projection the budget was based on.

So the Gray administration is understandably defensive — even though, as it says, it’s putting more money into PSH.

It will serve an estimated 133 more households this fiscal year — or perhaps as many as 233 more, according to the DC Fiscal Policy Institute’s budget analysis. The higher number would still be more than 900 of the units that the District’s strategy for ending homelessness by 2014 called for.

The Mayor has chosen not to ask the DC Council for approval of the funds needed to achieve this goal — or for that matter, for the money to resume providing shelter or housing for homeless families year round, rather than leaving them to fend for themselves in Metro stations and the like.

We shouldn’t expect the Mayor’s spokespeople to say that ending homelessness just isn’t a top priority — nowhere near so important as subsidizing a new home for the soccer team.

But we should expect them to stick to facts — and get those straight — when they talk about federal funding.


What Do Hate Crimes Against Homeless People Show … and Not?

January 10, 2013

“Our society has learned to hate the homeless.” So tweeted Eric Sheptock, a leading “homeless homeless advocate” in the District of Columbia.

It’s easy to see why. But I don’t believe it, though we’ve got good evidence that some people do indeed harbor a virulent animus against homeless people.

Sheptock had just read a news release about a homeless woman who was set on fire as she slept on a bus bench in Los Angeles. This was the second such attack on a person sleeping outdoors in the area.

These certainly seem to be hate crimes against the homeless — the subject of a long series of annual reports by the National Coalition for the Homeless.

I say “seem to” because Neil Donovan, Executive Director of NCH, himself acknowledges that “only a disturbed mind” acts out “such an intense passion of dislike.” Disturbed enough, I think, so that we sometimes can’t fathom a motive.

In its latest report, NCH documents 105 new attacks on homeless people by people who weren’t themselves homeless — 32 of them fatal. This brings the reported 13-year total to 1,289.

As in the past, most of the attackers were young men — some of them very young indeed. We’re told, for example, of a 14-year-old and a 15-year-old who shot a homeless man in order to steal his bicycle.

And some of the attacks were shocking in their wantonness — for example, a fatal bludgeoning with a tire iron committed “just for fun.”

NCH argues that such crimes are encouraged by laws that “criminalize” homelessness. It’s referring here mainly to local laws that prohibit actions more or less necessitated by life on the streets, e.g., sitting on the sidewalk, camping in a public space.

I’ve no doubt that such laws reflect an egregious lack of sympathy — in the literal sense, i.e., feeling together with.

Perhaps codifying the otherness of homeless people does somehow affect the mindsets of youth who surely can’t (can they?) perceive their victims as human beings like themselves.

Yet our society doesn’t condone violence against homeless people. When the perps are caught, they’re prosecuted, just as they would be if they attacked model exemplars of the middle class.

And in some of the reported cases, community members intervened — or when that was too late, attended memorial services, even raised money to cover funeral costs for homeless victims.

More generally, I don’t think our communities foster an environment that breeds hate-motivated crimes against homeless people — as, for example, legally and socially-sanctioned racial prejudice in the South led to lynchings, church bombings and the like.

This isn’t to say that our popular culture doesn’t glorify violence — and more generally, macho behaviors. Or that our mental health system doesn’t let highly-disturbed people fall through the cracks.

Or that our social services fail — for want of knowledge, funds and who knows what else — to prevent young people from seeking respect and release for the energies in criminal acts.

But in communities across this country, faith-based organizations and other nonprofits have made a mission of caring for homeless people.

They feed, clothe and shelter them, provide or help them get free medical care and other services, offer them supportive and skill-building programs, advocate on their behalf and more.

We, as a society, express our support for these services. Large numbers of us donate our unpaid labor and professional expertise. Larger numbers of us donate some portion of our earnings.

And large enough numbers of us support public funding for the services to have kept them an item in government budgets.

Here in the District, where Sheptock and I live, we, through our local government, have gone further.

We guarantee homeless people shelter from “severe weather conditions” that could cause them to freeze to death or collapse from heat prostration if left to fend for themselves on the streets.

We put local taxpayer dollars behind this right to shelter and related services, e.g., outreach, transportation to a shelter, blankets and a warm drink for those who refuse to go.

Is any of this enough? Of course not.

Do we care enough to adequately fund homeless services — and other programs that could ultimately end the need for them? Not apparently if the money would come out of our very own wallets.

But, at the same time, enough of us donate our time and/or money to keep the community-based services flowing.

And I believe most of us don’t want homeless services and affordable housing short-changed to help balance public budgets — let alone to ensure that the Pentagon has more money than it needs and for weapons it doesn’t want.

I’m aware that we collectively have let our elected officials get away with the short-changing. But does this mean that we as a society hate homeless people? That, I think, short-changes us.


Homelessness, Child Poverty Not Emergencies, DC Mayor and Council Decide

November 5, 2012

Last Thursday, the DC Council hastily approved emergency legislation* Mayor Gray had requested to spend $23 million left over from last fiscal year.

As the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports, the funds went to the District’s charter and regular public schools, the Metro system, parks and recreation and the detention facility for youth who’ve gotten in trouble with the law.

At least some of the money may have been needed to cover agency budget overruns. These are prohibited by the Anti-Deficiency Act.

But it’s hard to see how technology upgrades for the public schools would qualify as an emergency. What we see here rather is a clear display of the Mayor’s priorities — and perhaps the Council majority’s as well.

The Fair Budget Coalition and allies had earlier asked the Mayor to propose a bill that would allocate some of the projected $140 million revenue surplus — another pot of found money — to three top priorities he and the Council had already agreed on.

These priorities would have served pressing needs of the District’s homeless residents and its families (many of them homeless) in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

They would also have restored some of the funds diverted from the Housing Production Trust  Fund, thus supporting efforts to address the acute shortage of affordable housing here.

Not only homeless families, but some of the 36,000 District households who are paying half or more of their income for rent would have been better off.

The FBC requests were carefully framed to be one-time spending because laws governing the District’s budget prohibit measures that could create deficits in future years.

The proposals the Council just approved instead were also for one-time funding.

So the Mayor clearly could have decided that it was more urgent to mend the safety net and/or shore up the Trust Fund than to give nearly $7 million more to the public school system, plus an equal amount to the charter schools — the latter nominally for facilities, but actually for whatever they want.

Or, as DCFPI suggested, the Council could have postponed final decisions on how best to spend as much of the new-found money as wasn’t needed to cover overruns.

Some Councilmembers reportedly were fussed that the Mayor waited until the eleventh hour to give them a plan for the extra $23 million. But only two fussed enough to dig in their heels.

Set aside what seems to be deliberate manipulation — “a gun to our head,” in Councilmember Catania’s words.

I’d have thought that Councilmembers would have had enough concern for the priorities they’d already identified to balk at a bill that totally ignored them.

Shouldn’t they, at the very least, have wanted to make sure that the emergency shelter and other services triggered by Hurricane Sandy didn’t leave the Department of Human Services even shorter on funds than it’s likely to be?

I know this sounds as if I don’t care about the quality of public education D.C. children receive. In fact, I care a lot.

I do think, however, that the Mayor and Council might have considered that homelessness puts children at high risk for academic failure — no matter how nifty a “learning environment” their schools provide.

Living in a home where there’s not enough money to keep the heat and lights on doesn’t help kids get a quality education either.

Nor shoes that pinch because a new pair isn’t affordable. Nor the stress of worrying whether your belongings will be all piled on the sidewalk when you get home.

All more likely for the nearly 14,000 children in families who’ll soon lose a hefty portion of their very low cash benefits from the District’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

DCFPI thanks the Mayor and Council for putting $11 million more into the TANF program.

But these are funds the Mayor had promised over two months ago. And they’ll delay the scheduled benefits cuts only until April.

Some 6,100 families will face dire emergencies then — as may hundreds of homeless men and women who could be out on the streets because DHS doesn’t have enough money to shelter them.

Not enough money to shelter newly homeless families either, though the benefits cuts will presumably create more of them.

All emergencies worth some of that $23 million, I think.

* The Council designates bills as emergency legislation to bypass requirements that ordinarily require two votes at successive meetings, plus 30 days for Congressional review (and potential disapproval).