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.


DC Affordable Housing Program Needs Funding Guarantee

May 22, 2014

So Mayor Gray kept his promise to invest $100 million a year in affordable housing — or so it seems. The DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports that his proposed Fiscal Year 2015 budget includes a total of $145 million for affordable housing programs.

This includes some that I personally wouldn’t put in the bucket, e.g., funding to help homeowners deal with lead hazards and other housing code violations, grants to support storefront improvements in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

And as the eagle-eyed DCFPI analysts note, $5 million of the total (for the Department of Behavioral Health’s subsidized housing program) is merely money that used to be in the District’s capital budget, rather than proposed additional spending.

A lot of money nevertheless. How much of it will provide housing that’s affordable for the District’s very lowest-income residents remains to be seen. Some we know won’t.

In addition to the programs I’ve cited, there’s funding for the Home Purchase Assistance Program, a similar smaller program for D.C. government employees and a bit of money to promote homeownership in the east end of the city.

Needless to say (I hope), a couple whose annual income is less than 30% of the area median — currently $25,752 — can’t conceivably afford a house (or a condo) here.

It’s also the case, as I’ve said before, that the Housing Production Trust Fund doesn’t support only development and preservation of housing affordable for the very lowest-income residents, i.e., those with incomes no higher than 30% of the AMI.

It is, however, supposed to spend at least 40% of its money each year on housing for them. And it’s generally viewed as the District’s single most important affordable housing tool.

It not only helps finance construction and renovation, but has helped tenants buy their buildings when the owners put them put for sale — even tenants at the lower end of the income scale. This typically ensures that the housing will remain affordable for 40 years, as DCFPI explains.

So the Fund’s capacity is worrisome — and has been for a long time. We see the problem in the Mayor’s proposed budget, especially as compared to District budgets over the past several years.

In 2002, the DC Council gave the Fund an ongoing revenue stream — 15% of certain taxes collected in connection with real property transactions.

That was fine until the housing bubble burst and the ensuing recession put a damper on the commercial property market.

Then, adding injury to injury, Mayor Gray, with the Council’s concurrence, shifted money from the Fund to the Local Rent Supplement Program, i.e., the District’s locally-funded equivalent to the federal Housing Choice voucher program.

Then the city was flush with cash again. And the Mayor had gotten an earful from nonprofit developers and advocates — and from residents convened for his highly-orchestrated One City Summit.

Some months later, he committed $100 million to affordable housing. Most of it went to the Trust Fund, more than doubling what it would have had from only its share of property transaction taxes.

He now wants the Council’s concurrence to put another $30.1 million into the Fund, using part of the large projected surplus for this fiscal year. It would still have only about two-thirds of what it had last fiscal year, however.

And next fiscal year, only its dedicated tax revenues, estimated at $40 million. Or at least, that’s all anyone can count on.

The Mayor has borrowed an idea from a bill pending in the Council and put it into his Budget Support Act, i.e., the package of legislation paired with the budget proper. In his version, half of any end-of-year money left over after the District has fully funded all four of its reserve accounts would go to the Trust Fund.

Better than nothing, but no substitute for funding that’s both sufficient and reliable.

Mayor-hopeful Muriel Bowser has proposed a bill that could meet both needs. It would establish a baseline for the Trust Fund, i.e., a guaranteed annual minimum, of $100 million. The Fund would still get money from the sources the current law specifies, but also from an appropriation of general revenues if needed to maintain the baseline.

This was one of the options that the executive directors of DCFPI and the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development teed up in 2008, when Trust Fund revenues had dwindled.

And my heavens, they cited a bill introduced by Councilmember Marion Barry that sounds rather like the Bowser bill.  Reportedly overwhelming support from advocates and low-income residents.

I suppose we’ll see something similar at the hearing on the Bowser bill late this month. Perhaps a better outcome this time round.





Not Much in DC Affordable Housing “Pipeline” for Lowest-Income Renters

December 30, 2013

As I recently wrote, I asked the DC Department of Housing and Community Development for some specifics about the “nearly 3,200” additional units of affordable housing that the Gray administration recently announced.

Marcus Williams, the Public Information Officer there, responded with just what I asked for. Here’s what I learned.

But first, a few prefatory remarks. As I said in my prior post, the area median income for the District this year is $107,500. Affordability is calculated for both percent of AMI and household size.

So there are lots of income ranges — and by the same token, lots of maximum monthly rents. The AMI itself is based on a four-person household. For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to use that here. Other household sizes are in this table.

As I also said, “nearly 3,200” is actually 3,137. This is the number of units in the “pipeline” for the current and next fiscal years. In other words, they’re at some stage of development — anywhere from still getting underwriting to actually under construction or renovation.

DCHCD doesn’t yet know for what tier (or tiers) of low-income households 710 of the units will be affordable. These belong to a TOPA (Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act) project that’s due for some financial assistance from the Housing Production Trust Fund.

At this point then, DCHD can account for the affordability tiers of 2,427 units. And so, without further ado …

SixtyFifty-six percent will be for the highest of the low-income tiers, i.e., for households with incomes between 51% and 80% of the AMI. The current range for a four-person household is $54,825 to $70,900.

But the allocation tilts toward the lower end of the tier. All but 114 (5%) of the 1,358 units in this category will be for households with incomes topping out at 60% of the AMI — $64,500 for our four-person household. This is $580 less than last year’s median income for D.C. families with children.

Twenty-seven percent of the units will be for households in the lowest of the low-income tiers, i.e., those classified as extremely low-income. For our four-person household to qualify, its annual income would have to be no greater than $32,250.

Nearly two-thirds of these units (657) will be in housing that’s linked to supportive services, e.g., mental health and/or employment counseling, training in “life skills” like financial management.

Some will be in transitional housing, which is usually limited-term, and the rest in permanent supportive housing, which has no fixed time limit. Both are usually for individuals and families who’ve become homeless.

Only 227 units in the ELI group (about 9% of all the accounted-for units) are for households who are poor or nearly so, but have somehow managed to keep a roof over their heads.

Rounding out the list are 412 units for very low-income households, i.e., those with incomes between 31% and 50% of the AMI. The current maximum for our four-person household is $52,750.

I’m not sure what we should make of all this, but I’ll take a stab at it.

Insofar as the unit breakout reflects priorities, we see two. One is a preference for housing that will be affordable for what would generally be considered middle-class families, whose budgets can be stressed by rising housing costs here.

The other preference is for housing that will get homeless people out of shelters — or actually off the streets — and then try to move them to a point where they can pay for housing on their own.

All well and good. But we don’t see a priority for other extremely low-income people, including prospective graduates of transitional housing or PSH.

Nearly two-thirds of households in this category had “severe housing burdens” in 2010. This means they paid more than half their income for rent, putting them at high risk of homelessness.

Very low-income households don’t seem much of a priority either. Seventeen percent of the units are designated for them, but nearly a third had severe housing burdens.

Well, choices must be made. And no one, to my knowledge, believes that Mayor Gray’s one-time $100 million commitment to affordable housing will meet the needs of all the many residents for whom the influx of high-earners is creating an ever-greater crunch.

Nor, for that matter, would a steady stream of revenues from the property transaction taxes that are dedicated to the Housing Production Trust Fund — not, at this point, a certainty, as the latest housing market plunge showed.

We have a complex problem, rooted in a diversity of interests, needs, imperatives and constraints. I doubt that a budget boost for affordable housing construction and preservation would solve it. But it sure could help.

For Whom Is DC’s Affordable Housing Affordable?

December 23, 2013

The New York Times leads off an article on the squeeze rental costs are putting on the poor with the story of a middle-aged woman who lives in a one-bedroom apartment in one of the District’s gentrifying neighborhoods.

She pays $828 a month for rent, which she’s able to do only by collecting $400 from an acquaintance who sleeps on the living room floor. Even her share is unaffordable, by the customary 30% of income standard.

And her landlord demands more. They want to drive her and fellow tenants out, she thinks. Not unlikely, since they could get double the rent once they renovated the grungy place.

The article duly notes Mayor Gray’s $100 million commitment to increasing affordable housing in the city.

The commitment is actually an $80 million increase, mostly for the Housing Production Trust Fund, plus a $20 million repayment of money taken out of the Fund to shore up the District’s locally-funded housing voucher program.

Added to other revenues that have flowed into the Fund, there’s now $187 million available to both preserve existing affordable housing and support construction of more. And the Gray administration is making a big deal of it.

The Mayor and two of his deputies recently held a press conference to celebrate the “nearly 3,200 units” the Fund would create or preserve.

Generous rounding up here, since the actual number is 3,137, according to a project-by-project list produced by the Department of Housing and Community Development. A lot of units nonetheless.

How many would benefit residents whom most of us think of as low-income? And how many of the 5,291 units the administration claims have been completed or will be fairly soon?

These might seem niggling questions to those who aren’t familiar with the intricacies of affordable housing terms. In fact, I think it’s a question we should always ask. Here’s why.

Like the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the District and other communities use three tiers of affordability — all based on the median income for households in the area, i.e., the geographic area the federal government has defined for statistical purposes.

So we’ve got:

  • Extremely low-income households, whose earnings are no greater than 30% of AMI.
  • Very low-income households, whose earnings are between 31% and 50% of AMI.
  • Just plain low-income households, whose earnings are between 51% and 80% of AMI.

HUD sets the AMI, based on Census data. And for the District, it’s always inflated because the area includes very well-off nearby suburbs. This year, the District’s own median income is 23% lower than the AMI.

For the upcoming year, the AMI is $107,500.* Starting from that, we get the standard tiers for households. Then the maximum affordable housing cost for each is broken down by household size.

For public housing and Housing Choice (Section 8) vouchers, HUD makes a further adjustment for communities like the District where housing costs are unusually high relative to income. The District adopts HUD’s figures for its locally-funded vouchers. These, like Housing Choice vouchers, are only for extremely low-income households.

The District doesn’t make the adjustment for projects developed with Trust Fund support, however — or for the “affordable” units that developers are supposed to include in certain new and expanded residential housing projects, under the D.C. inclusionary zoning law.

So for IZ and the Fund, a unit for a low-income parent with two children would qualify if the rent were about $1,581 a month. That’s nearly $855 more than would be affordable if the family were in the bottom, extremely low-income tier.

Now, the District didn’t invent these standards or set the area for the median income calculations. And it’s got to use them when HUD funding is involved. But you can see why a mere announcement of some number of affordable units created and/or preserved doesn’t tell us what we need to know.

So I asked the Department and Housing and Community Development for some specifics — and got them. I’ll have something to share in the next week or so.

* This figure was provided by DCHCD. I’ve looked in vain for an online source to link to.