Subsidized Housing Cuts Poverty Rate More Than Census Measure Shows

October 13, 2015

My post on the dismal status of the Housing Choice voucher program led off with a call for larger investments in anti-poverty measures that have proved effective. But I didn’t wrap back around to how the vouchers fit in. Just too much, I felt, to cram into a single post.

So here’s the missing piece.

The Coalition on Human Needs, the source of my jumping-off point, draws on the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure for proofs of effectiveness. Many other progressive analysts and advocates do so as well.

As I’ve said before, the Bureau shows the impacts of major social insurance and safety net programs by recalculating poverty rates without their cash value.

The impacts of federally-funded housing subsidies — vouchers and public housing rolled together — seem relatively small, though not negligible when analyzed this way.

Without them, the SPM poverty rate would have been 0.9% higher in 2014. So it would seem they lifted roughly 2.8 million people over the poverty threshold — about 7 million fewer than the refundable tax credits, the top-ranked program one might classify as safety net.

The impact of the housing subsidy programs on the poverty rate has remained about the same ever since the Bureau began issuing its SPM reports in 2010. Small variations, but within the statistical margin of error.

The under-funding I’ve been going on about is one reason the impacts aren’t greater. But it’s not the only reason. Eligibility for housing assistance is another.

An individual or family doesn’t have to be hovering near the poverty threshold to qualify. The cut-off instead is 30% of the median income for the area they live in. That’s often, if not always considerably higher than the applicable poverty threshold.

In the District of Columbia, for example, the cut-off for a couple with with two children last year was about $9,000 higher than the maximum the family could have and still be counted as poor, if renters.

True, the DC Housing Authority exercises preferences when awarding new housing vouchers and public housing units, including one for homeless people, who are likely to be poor. But how many people in poverty actually benefited from such assistance last year is an open question.

More to the point, we can’t assume that what DCHA does reflects housing authority policies generally — except probably its current focus on veterans.

The impact figure is relatively small for a third, important reason. The dollar value of a housing subsidy doesn’t capture its full anti-poverty impact.

The value the SPM attributes to it is the different between the market-rate rent for an apartment, including basic utilities and what the household actually paid. But safe, stable housing is a platform of sorts for rising out of poverty. Or looked at another way, not having it makes rising more difficult.

Shifting around from place to place — or even worse, living in a shelter — makes finding and keeping a job unusually challenging. No permanent address. In some cases, no ready, regular access to a shower or a washing machine and dryer. Limited, if any access to a computer. Negative effects on both physical and mental health.

And if nothing else, time and energy that must be diverted to negotiating yet another temporary housing arrangement, packing and unpacking, figuring out new transit routes to work or training, other services, school and daycare for the kids, if any, etc.

For children, housing instability often has long-term consequences that make poverty in adulthood more likely — these better documented by research than consequences for adults.

Children whose families move around a lot, even if not in and out of a shelter, face higher risks of mental health problems — some manifesting themselves as what experts refer to as behavioral problems.

These help account for academic difficulties, as measured by standardized test scores and grades. So do frequent shifts from one school to another.

The end result is a relatively high dropout rate. And we know what employment and earnings prospects are for folks without at least a high school diploma.

Such effects are hard to convert to dollars that adults, both current and future, would have if stably housed, thanks to vouchers or apartments in public housing.

But I’m sure as can be that enabling low-income people to live in decent housing they can afford reduces poverty more than the SPM shows.


What Lies Behind the Plan to Close DC’s Housing Assistance Waiting List?

October 9, 2012

A small piece of news buried deep in the avalanche of last week’s debate commentary: The DC Housing Authority says it may close its waiting list.

In other words, it will stop adding names to its registry of low-income people who’ve asked for, but haven’t gotten admission to public housing or a voucher that subsidizes the costs of market-based rents.

DCHA has more than 8,000 public housing units and some 12,000* vouchers — most, though not all of them issued.

More than 67,000 households are on the waiting list. So it’s pretty clear that most of them will stay there until DCHA decides they’re not eligible any more, takes them off the list because they don’t communicate otherwise — or die of old age.

I’m not kidding about this last. A local homeless woman interviewed a few years ago said she knew people who’d signed up for housing assistance when they were young and were grandparents now, still waiting.

DCHA says it’s a waste of resources to maintain a waiting list that’s so unrealistically long. Also that it has to “increase transparency, … manage expectations, … and increase choice.” Choice apparently of something it can’t provide.

The Director of Bread for the City’s legal clinic says it should keep the list open to demonstrate “the crushing need for affordable housing in this city.”

It’s certainly true that the waiting list has often been cited by advocates for more local affordable housing funding. Problem is that demonstrating need doesn’t seem to be getting us anywhere close to where we need to be.

On the contrary. The Gray administration seems to want to get out of the affordable housing business.

I’ve thought this ever since the Mayor’s first budget covered the costs of locally-funded housing vouchers in current use by shifting money out of the Housing Production Trust Fund — the District’s main source of public funding for affordable housing construction, renovation and preservation.

Thought it again this year, when he tried to make a further cut in the Production Trust Fund and to let the Local Rent Supplement Program, i.e., the source of locally-funded vouchers, wither away — just as he had in 2011.

An unnamed affordable housing advocate has arrived at a similar conclusion.

The Gray administration, s/he told Washington City Paper reporter Aaron Wiener, “doesn’t believe it should fund long-term affordable housing.” It’s decided to tackle the affordable housing shortage by increasing income instead.

It’s absurd to think — and I doubt the Mayor does — that his strategies for growing the economy and preparing residents to fill the jobs it creates can boost the incomes of most of those on the waiting list so much that they can afford the very high costs of housing here.

He nevertheless has injected a “demand side” component into the deliberations of his Comprehensive Housing Strategy Task Force and appointed members who will shape its recommendations accordingly.

In other words, he’s looking for solutions that will reduce need at least as much as increase supply — preferably more.

Perhaps also, in some manner, redefine need. The Housing Authority’s executive director, for example, says she’s working on initiatives that will persuade low-income people to give up their subsidies, notwithstanding their fears of illness, job losses, etc.

Surely no one would quarrel with strategies to improve the financial circumstances of the District’s low-income population.

And no one, I hope, would underestimate the affordable housing problems the Gray administration faces — some inherited, some of its own making and most magnified by the cumulative impacts of inadequate federal support.

But it’s hard not to feel that the Mayor’s much more interested in building a high-tech, green economy — and making the city a congenial living place for the high-earning taxpayers it will employ — than in addressing the struggles of the folks on the waiting list.

His policies didn’t create the inordinately long housing assistance waiting list. But they will contribute to its growth — if DCHA doesn’t close it.

* This number represents only vouchers households can take into the rental market. DCHA also issues vouchers to developers, nonprofit housing operators and other landlords, which they then attach to specific housing units.

DC Winter Plan Meeting Exposes Affordable Housing Problems

August 21, 2012

I thought a second public meeting to discuss the District’s Winter Plan would be a calm, even dull affair.

Not so. David Berns, Director of the Department of Human Services, got an earful of anger and anguish. More of the same at the meeting of the Interagency Council on Homelessness that followed.

Nothing much he could do — even if DHS had a reasonably ample budget for homeless services.

Because the frustration, outrage, tears even had nothing to do with shelter or related services the agency funds.

Nor with the short-shot homelessness prevention and temporary housing solutions the department still claims will significantly reduce pressures on DC General — the main shelter for homeless families.

They were mostly about the egregious shortage of affordable housing and/or long-term housing assistance here — and a perceived lack of concern on the part of the Gray administration and administrations that preceded it.

Delores, for example, told us that she’s 63 years old, disabled and receiving about $11,000 a year in Social Security benefits.

She’s visited one apartment complex after another and been told she’d need to prove an income of at least $19,000. “All these lists,” she said, waving them, “and nothin’.”

Several other participants remarked on all the multi-family housing construction they were seeing. Why didn’t the District require developers to make some portion of the units affordable for low-income people?

And why didn’t the District rehabilitate some vacant buildings as housing for homeless people instead of putting them into shelters?

“We’re just kicking the bucket down the road,” one homeless advocate said. And that’s surely true.

As I earlier remarked, the prevention and temporary housing solutions DHS plans to rely on won’t help families who can’t pay market-rate rents at the end of a year.

The casework improvements DHS promises are, as Berns admits, a longer-term solution. And I seriously doubt they’ll lead to jobs that pay enough to make housing affordable for more than a fraction of homeless adults.

A modest one-bedroom apartment, for example, would be affordable only for those earning more than three times the local minimum wage.

And what about people like Delores who can’t work and have only Social Security benefits, based on years of low-wage work, to cover all their daily living expenses?

Or the many hundreds of homeless individual men and women who’ll be out on the streets in April unless a future revenue forecast comes in at least $7 million more than the last — or Mayor Gray decides to make up for the shortfall?

Say the money materializes. That will only mean shelter on a night-to-night, first-come-first-served basis for men and women who want — and need — a secure, stable, reasonably decent place to live.

DHS does have some permanent supportive housing units now — enough for nearly 1,130 people, including children. I infer it’s planning to open more, though not until some time after October 2014.

But there will never be enough of these units to move everyone out of the shelters. And there won’t be vacancies unless people who’ve resolved the problems the supportive services are supposed to address can find another affordable place to live.

DHS may advocate behind closed doors, but there’s really nothing else it can do about this.

Our local government has allowed the stock of housing that’s affordable for low-income people to dwindle — arguably even facilitated its replacement with those high-end developments that meeting participants understandably resent.

It’s kept funding for the Local Rent Supplement Program — the District’s solution to the long-standing shortage of federal housing vouchers — below the level that would be needed to provide more residents with this sort of housing assistance.

True, the DC Council put funding for 250 or so new LRSP vouchers into the Fiscal Year 2013 budget. But they’ll all go to homeless families DHS is already housing, plus some who are — or will soon be — at DC General.

Good for them, but no help for the families that will fill in behind them. Or those who won’t because the doors will be closed to newly-homeless families when the winter season ends.

Delores went to the ICH meeting hoping someone would help her. She ultimately stormed out, shouting, “This is asinine.”

And, in a way, it was.

Because the District has failed to come to grips with the reasons there are so many homeless people here — and an ever-increasing number of homeless parents with children.

But both she and many other community members there wanted the ICH to deliver what only the Mayor and Council can.

As we were repeatedly reminded, the Winter Plan is supposed to help ensure that the District meets an important, but narrow legal obligation, i.e., to protect people from literally freezing to death.

Presumably the District will. What it won’t do, barring some radical priority changes, is meet the basic human need for a home.

But What About Affordable Housing?

March 3, 2009

President Obama has laid out a visionary agenda to address three of our nation’s most critical problems–energy, health care and education.

Developing effective initiatives for any of them–let alone all three–will involve significant intellectual, fiscal and political investments. But if the Administration can deliver even reasonable progress toward solutions, we’ll indeed be, as the President said, “stronger than before.”

So I may seem like the proverbial skunk at the picnic when I note that the reform agenda says nothing about affordable housing. Yet it’s certainly a critical problem in communities across the nation and one that affects the health, educational achievements and job opportunities of a vast number of low-income people.

Obama’s must-do agenda is hardly the first to omit affordable housing. The issue has suffered from federal neglect for more than 10 years.

A new report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities details the consequences.

  • In 2007, nearly 8 million low-income households paid more than half their income for rent and basic utilities–at least 20% more than the Department of Housing and Urban Development defines as affordable.
  • About two-thirds of these households had incomes at or below the federal poverty level.
  • Between 2002 and 2007, the number of low-income households paying more than half their income for housing increased by 32%.

Federal funding to assist these households has been recurrently cut. According to CBPP, it fell by $4 billion between 2002 and 2008. This brought its share of all non-defense discretionary spending down to 20% less than in 1995.

The budget the Administration has outlined promises more support for affordable housing. Proposed FY 2010 funding for HUD is $7.4 billion more than for the current fiscal year. An unspecified portion of this would be allocated to affordable housing programs.

The increase would halt the downward trend, but funding would still be less than in FY 2006–before the recession significantly increased the need for both housing vouchers and affordable housing units.

So what I think we have here is a half-full/half-empty glass. The Administration recognizes that the federal government has to do more to help people afford “safe, decent housing,” but it’s proposing only a modest down payment on getting the job done.