A Slice of the Trump Budget’s Shrunken Pie for the Needs of Low-Income People

May 26, 2017

Well, we finally have the full version of Trump’s proposed budget for upcoming fiscal year. And we’ve all seen and/or heard news reports, op-eds, social media takes and the like.

They generally have one of two focuses — new cuts, both total and by cabinet-level department or cuts to certain specific programs.

These tacks are basically the same as when the administration released its skinny budget preview, except that we now have a shift prompted by a range of cuts to safety net programs that don’t depend on annual appropriations.

I expect to deal with some of both, but for the time being, I’ll stick with a large perspective on a subset of programs intended to serve human needs — the non-defense discretionary programs, i.e., those annually funded as Congress chooses and the President approves, as Presidents generally do.

We have a broad range of these, of course. They include, bur aren’t limited to programs that support:

  • Some healthcare services, mainly for veterans.
  • Sufficient, healthful diets for mothers and their young children, plus food for nonprofits to give low-income people and/or serve as meals.
  • Public education, mainly for low-income children and those with disabilities.
  • Other opportunities to achieve financial self-sufficiency and security.
  • Child care so that parents can participate in such programs and afford paying jobs.
  • Safe, stable housing that leaves enough income to help pay for other needs.

The Coalition on Human Needs chose 185 such programs and tracked their funding from 2010, the year before Congress passed the Budget Control Act, through the budget the federal government’s operating under now.

All but 32 had been cut, either directly or for want of adjustments to keep pace with inflation, it found. Nearly a third had lost at least 25%, even though the Obama administration and wise heads in Congress agreed to temporarily modify the spending caps the BCA imposed.

Seems that Republicans over on the Senate side aim for another bipartisan agreement to suspend or at least modify the caps, lest they have to ax spending below the too-low levels already in force.

What’s sure as dammit, as the Washington Post reports, is that they’ll not try to push through the extraordinarily harsh cuts the Trump administration proposes as-is.

Most of the new news rightly focuses on the billions of cuts to so-called mandatory spending programs — also sometimes called entitlements.

They’re mandatory because the laws that authorize them require the federal government to spend as much as necessary to cover the costs or its share of costs for the benefits of everyone eligible to receive and enrolled to get them.

Truth to tell, I’m torn between delving into these unprecedentedly sweeping proposals to gut the safety net and giving them short shrift because they’re DOA. So I’ll end here with just a few examples of the proposed NDD cuts and consequences.

The Trump budget would deny affordable housing to more than 250,000 of the country’s lowest-income individuals and families who could otherwise have vouchers to cover all but 30% of their income for rent.

At the same time, it would reportedly increase tenants’ rent responsibility to 35% of adjusted income and impose a $50 minimum on those who had no or virtually no countable income at all. Income regardless, tenants would have to pay for their household utilities, which current law folds in with rent.

Public housing, which subsidizes rents at the same rate, would lose another $18 billion — nearly 29% more than it’s lost through this fiscal year. The stock available has been steadily shrinking due to lack of funds for repairs and renovations.

For these, as well as other reasons, we have and foreseeably will have some 550,000 people who’ve become officially homeless or very soon will unless they get some one-time or temporary help with rent.

Some have been homeless for a long time or repeatedly because they need not only an affordable place to live, but services to help them with physical and/or mental disabilities.

The Trump budget, however, would cut the grants local communities receive for shelters, permanent supportive housing for the chronically homeless I’ve just cited and homelessness prevention or when that’s not possible swift support so people can leave shelters for affordable housing.

The budget would terminate the Low Income Housing Energy Assistance Program, another homelessness prevention program — and a lifesaver too, since people, especially the frail and elderly can freeze to death in their homes or die because they depend on medical equipment that uses electricity, as 26% did when the last survey was conducted.

Roughly 6.7 million families would lose the subsidies they need to keep their homes warm if Congress moves from under-funding LIHEAP to excising it from the safety net altogether.

Turning then to those job opportunities. The Trump budget would cut a range of programs that help people prepare for gainful work — adult basic education, including preparation for GED exams, career and technical education programs in high schools and colleges and the diverse programs funded by the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.

The Trump budget would cut WIOA funding by 43%, as compared to 2015 funding, the Center for American Progress reports. Nearly 571,000 workers nationwide — close to half of the total then served — could be left to muddle through with only what has failed to net them a decent paying job or any at all.

Pretty ironic — or one might say hypocritical — for a President who’s made such a big deal about job opportunities and, more recently, about how he’ll change safety net programs so they no longer discourage work.

More as the dust clears or perhaps as I find angles you’re unlikely to see highlighted in the plethora of conventional and social media stories, analyses and overt budget-bashing.

Meanwhile, we do have ways we can support the defensive campaigns that will give Congressional Republican pause.

CAP and fifteen partners, including CHN have launched an initiative called Hands Off—and #HandsOff as a hashtag for those who want to tweet about programs they want protected.

They’ve got a website where we can contribute stories about how the programs have helped us and what would happen to us, our families or others we know if they’re cut. With our permission, they’ll share our stories.

Reporters, as you know, are always looking for the personal lead-in or thread.

The coalition, CAP says, will also ensure that members of Congress learn from the stories how their own constituents would be affected. How then they may vote, as it doesn’t say, but needn’t.

Some members lean toward — or out-and-out support — less federal spending, especially on so-called welfare programs. But getting reelected and preserving their majority will trump the Trump proposals handily.

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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.


Policy Changes Could Shrink the Affordable Housing Gap, But Trump Budget Likely to Worsen It

March 15, 2017

Picking up where I left off on the acute shortage of housing for the lowest-income renters. As I said, we’ve got policy remedies, but also threats. Those seem more imminent since the Washington Post reported a leaked preview of Trump’s proposed budget.

A Range of Policy Remedies

More Financing for Affordable Housing. The National Low Income Housing, as you might expect, focuses on the housing, rather than the income side of the equation. Within this broad spectrum, it’s zeroed in, though not exclusively on building the National Housing Trust Fund.

First, it calls for legislative changes that would significantly increase revenues that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac could transfer to the Fund, which at long last got some money last year — a down payment, of sorts, on its promise.

Second, NLICH would have the mortgage interest deduction cut in half, to $500,000 and the additional tax revenues shifted into the Fund.

These two measures — if swiftly enacted and gradually phased in — would generate an estimated $21.3 billion over the first 10 years, NLIHC says, using in part a study by the Tax Policy Center. Millions more then to states and the District of Columbia.

They can use their Trust Fund shares to help finance a range of activities that preserve, create, upgrade and otherwise make available more affordable housing.

All but 10% must go to rental housing and at least 75% of that for the benefit of extremely low income households, i.e., those with incomes no more than 30% of the median for the area they live in.

More Opportunity to Increase Housing Assistance. Even with a beefed-up Trust Fund, we’d still need more funding for Housing Choice vouchers — both project-based, i.e., those that subsidize rents for specific units, and tenant-based, i.e., those that enable recipients to rent at market-based rates, while still paying only 30% of their income.

Funding for these vouchers got whacked by the 2013 across-the-board cuts. The annual caps on appropriations now leave a lot of discretion to the top-level decision-makers in Congress — and even to majorities in the subcommittees.

The caps have nevertheless surely played a role in severely limiting the reach of not only Housing Choice vouchers, but available public housing units and those funded by several programs that are smaller and more specifically targeted, e.g., for the elderly, for people with disabilities.

The Campaign for Housing and Community Development — a substantial, broad-based coalition — has just called on Congress to lift the originally-mandated caps, which will otherwise again become effective for the next fiscal year’s budget.

Very importantly, it calls for parity, unlike the lopsided defense increase/non-defense decrease we’re likely to see in Trump’s proposed budget, of which more below.

New Renters Credit. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has floated a proposal that would get around the caps — a renters credit. Not, you note, technically federal spending, because spending through the tax code doesn’t count.

The credit would work somewhat like the Low Income Housing Tax Credit in that states would get a certain number of the credits and then parcel them out to expand housing affordable for low-income people.

The new credit could go to both developers and owners and would subsidize rents like the Housing Choice vouchers, limiting what tenants pay to 30% of their income.

The difference here is that the developers and/or owners would get the difference as a tax reduction, rather than a direct payment from a public housing authority. And the big difference from the LIHT is that it would make units available for only the lowest-income households.

Like the NILHC mortgage tax interest reduction, the renters credit would shift the balance in current federal policies from housing assistance for high-income homeowners to the lowest-income renters and prospective renters.

The mortgage interest deduction, the related property tax deduction and some other tax preferences recently saved the highest-income households a total of more than $130 billion, according to the Center’s estimates.

All rental assistance was somewhere around $55 billion — less than the mortgage interest deduction alone.

Threats on the Horizon

We don’t know yet exactly what Trump will propose for next fiscal year’s budget, but he’s said it will increase defense spending by $54 billion. Not, however, so as to increase the deficit. He seems intent on doing that in other ways.

His forthcoming budget will offset the significant breach in the defense spending cap by reducing spending for non-defense programs that depend on annual appropriations. How he’ll apportion the cuts remains to be seen.

But the Washington Post reports that “preliminary budget documents,” probably the marks that the Office of Management of Budget passes down to federal agencies, call for more than $6 billion in cuts to Housing and Urban Development programs — roughly 14% of the insufficient amount they get now.

The work-in-progress budget would level-fund rental assistance programs, the Post says. This would not preserve the number of vouchers in current use because they cost more annually to plug gaps between what renters pay and landlords’ permissible rental charges, which HUD bases on the costs of  modest units on the open market.

Both the Center and NLIHC say that about 200,000 vouchers would effectively vanish, leaving more low-income renters with the huge cost burdens many already bear — or homeless.

Public housing would take big hits. The capital fund would lose about $1.3 billion or more than 31%* — this when public housing has major repair/rehabilitation needs that now total nearly $40 billion, NLIHC says.

The cut, on top of years of under-funding would mean the loss of even more public housing units — more than half of which provide affordable units, presumably with accommodations hard to find on the open market, for seniors and younger people with disabilities.

The budget document also cuts funding for operating public housing by $600 million. This funding stream subsidizes not only administrative activities like overseeing buildings and renting vacating units, but routine maintenance. Neglect that and you’ve got a capital need, as all of us housed people know

The prospective budget would also blow away a flexible block grant that densely-populated communities can use to provide affordable housing and cuts two others, including one helps fund improvements in rundown subsidized housing and surrounding neighborhoods.

A fourth — the Native American Housing Block Grant—would be cut by more than 20%, leaving housing on some reservations severely over-crowded and without such basics as hot and cold running water and/or toilets.

In not-so-short, billions more for defense, billions less for poor and near-poor people who urgently need affordable housing — like, for example, what the First Lady’s living in, rent-free.

* The Center, which links to the Post report, says the capital fund cut is about $2 billion.


Affordable Housing Crunch for Lowest-Income Renters

March 9, 2017

Another year, another report on how extraordinarily unaffordable housing is for low-income people nationwide and in every state, as well as the would-be state of the District of Columbia.

Affordability Basics

The National Low Income Housing Coalition’s overview of the “housing gap” focuses on rental units that the lowest tier in the official housing policy lexicon could afford and actually move into.

These are extremely low-income households — those whose incomes are at or below 30% of the median for the area they live in. NLIHC includes a sub-tier it introduced several years ago — deeply low-income households, whose incomes are half that.

Housing affordability for both, as generally means costing no more than 30% of income. So, for example, a family with one full-time, year round worker paid the federal minimum wage would have a gross income of $15,080 and thus could afford, at most, $377 a month for rent.

Acute Affordable Rental Shortage

As of 2014, the survey year NLIHC has used, there were roughly 10.4 million ELI households in the country — 24% of all renters. They could hope to rent, at an affordable rate only 3.2 million units. Virtually no affordable units for the DLIs — just about 700,000.

The shortage is surely greater than what NLIHC could report because the Census Bureau survey it uses doesn’t reach homeless people. So what we have instead are households that did rent, but mainly way above what they could afford.

Nearly three-quarters of the ELIs were severely cost-burdened, i.e. spent more than half their income for rent, plus basic utilities. A mere 7% of the DLIs weren’t so cost-burdened — not to say they weren’t cost-burdened at all, however.

Far From Enough Money Left Over for Other Needs

We can readily fathom what the cost burdens mean. Our minimum wage worker family would have, after payroll taxes, no more than $590 a month and change for all other expenses.

Low-income households with, at most, 50% of their income left spent, on average, 38% less for food and 55% less for health care than comparable households without cost burdens, the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies reports. Those most likely to face such trade-offs are households with children and seniors well past retirement age.

Not hard to see the long-term health consequences —  and others for those children, e.g., reluctance to form trusting relationships, lags in learning the basic skills schools measure.

These and others put them at higher risk for poverty as adults, perpetuating the cycle of severe cost burdens — or worse.

Many Shortage Drivers

Both NLIHC and the Joint Center cite diverse reasons for the affordable housing shortage, e.g., foreclosures during the recession, a broader preference for renting, developers’ understandable preference for units they can charge much more for.

At the same time, rental units subsidized by Housing Choice (formerly Section 8) project-based vouchers, i.e., those that cover all but 30% of rent, plus basic utilities for specific units, are disappearing far faster than they’re being replaced.

NLIHC cites a nationwide loss of 46,000 such units over the last decade — some demolished, others no longer affordable because the contracts that bound the owners to keep their rents within the limits HUD set expired.

Add to these roughly 150,000 public housing units lost — most, though not all for ELI households. The Joint Center estimates the loss at 10,000 every year.

This should come as no surprise to anyone who’s followed federal funding for major repairs and renovations. A study for HUD estimated the total funding need for such capital investments at more than $25.6 billion in 2010.

The total grows annually at roughly $3.4 billion, as costs rise, more units deteriorate and deteriorated units get worse, leading ultimately housing losses, but perhaps in the meantime units egregiously below any reasonable standard.

Since the 2013 across-the board budget cuts, funding for capital investments has remained virtually flat at about $1.9 billion. This isn’t the only reason so many units became so unlivable that public housing authorities closed them. NLIHC cites others, but the bottom line is lost units affordable for ELI and DLI households.

The supply-demand dynamic includes another factor. Higher-income households live in nearly half the units the ELIs could afford. If the ELIs could actually move into those units, the gap would shrink by about 2.6 million.

Now this is only one side of the story, of course. If you’ve got more income, you can afford more for housing. But incomes generally aren’t keeping pace with rent increases — quite the contrary. While rents rose, on average 7% between 2001 and 2014, incomes dropped 9%.

This average includes households that had plenty of money. Those in the bottom fifth, where we’d find the ELIs and DLIs had to cope with losses through at least 2015. Sparse federal housing assistance for them. Only about a quarter of low-income households get any at all.

This is perhaps especially notable because Congress has restored and supplemented the funding needed to offset the cut that caused public housing authorities to withhold or cancel nearly 60,000 unused tenant-based vouchers, i.e., the kind recipients can use to rent at market rates and still pay only 30% of their income.

We’ve got policy remedies, as well as reasons for the gap. But at this point, we can foresee threats to even sustaining current funding levels. More than I can do any justice to here.

But since this is supposed to be a policy-focused blog, I’ll return to them shortly.


How Many More Families Will Have No Affordable Housing?

February 9, 2017

We all, I think, know at least a few things about affordable housing. First, there isn’t enough of it. Second, not everyone who talks about affordable housing means the same thing. Nor do all affordable housing policies aim to help the same type(s) of people.

Third, an effective strategy requires multiple programs, some potentially funded by multiple sources. Which brings us to what we don’t know — impending budget decisions at federal, state and local levels.

Uncertainty at the Source

So far as federal funding’s concerned, we don’t know yet what Congress will do — only that it must do something to avert a government shutdown in late April and that there’s no consensus on what it should do, even among the Republican majority.

Nor, one must always add, what the President will ask it to do. He campaigned on a promise to actively support a repeal of the current ceiling on defense spending — currently $32.5 billion higher than the ceiling on non-defense spending that depends on annual appropriations..

Both the White House and Congress have already done a workaround for defense, but not so as to force a larger cut in non-defense. Trump, however, said he planned to reduce non-defense spending by a penny on the dollar each year, while holding Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid harmless.

That would slash funding for the already shrunken non-defense, discretionary part of the budget by roughly 26% in real dollars over the next nine years. No hint yet how he would parcel out the cuts — or even whether he will now go ahead and try.

Spillover to the States

All but three states must have budgets for the upcoming fiscal year by July 1. So they may or may not have a good fix on what to expect for affordable housing programs. All but one must balance its budget, though laws differ on what that means.

A large majority must end the year with no more spent than received in tax revenues, fees and federal funds, including grants like those for affordable housing programs.

So what may have seemed to balance when a governor signs a budget may turn out not to be — even if some of Trump’s recent and promised actions don’t throw the economy into a recession. As in the past, shortfalls will force unplanned, disruptive cuts.

Impacts at Community Level

Some affordable housing funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development go to states, which then parcel them out. But others that make housing affordable for the lowest-income people go instead directly to local housing authorities or to a designated organization within a network HUD calls a continuum of care.

The latter, however, is only to house particular groups of the lowest-income people — those who’ve been homeless for a long time or recurrently and have at least one disability and others chosen for time-limited subsidized housing.

These funds are iffy, as all HUD’s affordable housing funds are. So we’ve got, at best, a funding range for housing vouchers — the heftiest tool to make housing affordable for the lowest-income people.

These vouchers come in two flavors. One enables people to rent units at market rate by limiting their share to 30% of their income. The other subsidizes rents on certain units in housing projects — a needed support for operating expenses, since tenants are paying only the same limited share of their income.

The voucher programs got whacked by the across-the-board cuts required by the same law that gave us the spending ceilings. Housing authorities held onto vouchers freed up when tenants no longer qualified for them. Some also yanked vouchers from people who’d finally made it to the top of the waiting list.

Additional funds have enabled the agencies to put the withheld vouchers back in use. But merely sustaining them will require more funding because, as we all know, rental rates are rising — in some communities, soaring. Utility rates are rising too, and they’re included in covered costs.

Meanwhile, incomes for the lowest fifths of the scale have, on average, actually shrunk. This is due partly to real-dollar wage losses for the lowest-paid workers and partly to the absent or miniscule cost-of-living adjustments in the social insurance benefits that nearly half the households with vouchers depend on.

So vouchers must pick up a greater share. This means that level-funding won’t cover all vouchers in use. A year-long continuing resolution would cause a nationwide loss of roughly 108,500 vouchers, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates.

The bill that the Senate has already passed would bump up funding for both the so-called tenant-based vouchers and those attached to units in housing projects. The House bill, which still awaits an all-member vote, would also increase both, but give give less to the former.

If both chambers agree to go with the Senate bill (big if), housing authorities would still be shy about 26,575 vouchers. No way that state and local investments in affordable housing development can produce that many more units within six or so months.

Nor can the states and cities that use their own revenues to fund vouchers plow that much more into their programs. In fact, some of the affordable units they now have may disappear because the contracts with project owners are time-limited.

But the people who need those vouchers will still be homeless or potentially so because they’re paying at least half their income for rent. So what state and local budgets lose in federal funding for vouchers, will drive up needs for other resources.

These include, obviously, homeless services, including shelters. Don’t look to the federal government to supply what’s needed. Neither the House nor Senate bill would provide even a quarter of a million more for homeless assistance grants.

Other budget pressures are many and various. For example, more children will come within the purview of child welfare agencies because they’ll be living in homes unsafe for them due to domestic violence, unintended, but still harmful neglect and/or egregiously unhealthful physical conditions.

Healthcare costs themselves will rise. Schools will face needs for more remedial education and other services to compensate for the effects of hunger, parental stress and just plain moving around from place to place because their parents or other caregivers can’t afford rent.

So that’s a bird’s-eye view of the uncertainties — and partial certainties — that state and local policymakers and the people they were elected to serve face now. Members of Congress were elected to serve them too. But you’d be hard put to see that in the agendas the majority leaders have put front and center.


No Government Shutdown (Now), But Congress May Shut Out More From Affordable Housing

October 5, 2015

If the official poverty rate ticks down at the same pace it did last year, we won’t see it cut in half until 2040, the Coalition on Human Needs reports. Not even then if we have another recession, which, of course, we will.

What this tells us, CHN says, is that economic growth won’t reduce poverty fast enough. We need bigger investments in programs with a strong anti-poverty track record.

Doesn’t look as if bigger investments are in the cards. The Republican majorities in Congress insist that appropriations for non-defense programs total no more than the budget cap set by the 2011 Budget Control Act.

What we may forget is that the cap — and caps going forward — were set after Congress cut appropriations by about $38 billion, thus lowering the baseline the caps were based on. So even if the non-defense cap were lifted by $37 billion, as the President proposed, funding would still be lower than in 2010.

Hard to know whether we will have a genuine budget for the upcoming fiscal year. We’ll have a short-term continuing resolution instead.

But not an ordinary CR because it doesn’t maintain program-by-program spending at the same level it’s been. It instead makes cuts in non-defense programs — a total of about $7 billion — so as to bring spending below the FY 2016 cap.

And we might not have even this if House Speaker John Boehner hadn’t resigned, freeing himself, it seems, to let the House vote on the CR, even though so many of his Republican colleagues signaled they’d balk that it couldn’t pass without Democrats.

So we won’t have a government shutdown. We’ll instead have the stage set for a showdown in early December — or sooner.

A more complex situation then because Congress will have to somehow deal with not only the expiring CR, but the expiration of nominally temporary tax breaks and the fact that the Treasury Department will have exhausted measures it can take to avert a default on the federal debt.

Some predict another budget deal like the one that pulled us back from the so-called fiscal cliff at the tail end of 2012. Others a year-long CR.

Assume that becomes the solution. Well, we know (or should) that even level funding doesn’t mean as many people served as well as they’ve been served.

Take Housing Choice (formerly Section 8) vouchers, for example. Actually, you probably can’t if you don’t already have a voucher — perhaps not even if you do.

We all know that rents generally rise — and have been rising faster in recent years. Utility costs are rising also. And they’re folded into what housing vouchers help pay for.

Incomes of households in the bottom tier of the affordability scale generally haven’t kept pace. So their share of rent, plus basic utilities — 30% of income — covers less. Each voucher then usually costs the agency that issues it more.

What this means is that funding for Housing Choice would have to increase each year just to maintain a steady state. But it hasn’t. Quite the contrary.

The across-the-board cuts in 2013 left a large majority of local housing agencies without funds to cover their share of rent for all the vouchers they’d issued.

By and large, they coped by holding back vouchers they’d otherwise have reissued when households that had them not longer qualified, e.g., because they’d moved out of the area or gained enough income to boost them over the eligibility cut-off.

Some pulled back vouchers they’d issued to people who hadn’t yet found apartments. At least one changed its standards, requiring voucher holders to either move to smaller units or come up with the money for rooms that were now “extra.”

And some actually shifted funds from vouchers to cope with other shortfalls, exacerbated, but not originating in the cuts — mainly under-funding for the program that covers the costs of maintaining and renovating public housing.

They could do this because they were part of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Moving to Work pilot, which essentially converted their federal housing assistance funding to a block grant.

But for a seemingly over-flexible, under-monitored MTW, about 63,000 more households would have had vouchers last year, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates.

On the other hand, more probably had apartments in public housing than if the MTW agencies hadn’t shifted funds to keep units from becoming unlivable.

So the story’s a bit more complicated than direct cuts to the Housing Choice program. But choices Congress has made nevertheless account for the shrinking number of households that make rent affordable.

The across-the-board cuts ultimately denied about 100,000 households vouchers they’d otherwise have had. Congress later restored some of the lost funds — enough to renew all vouchers issued and put some back in circulation.

Yet the boosts in the last two budgets will still leave roughly 68,560 fewer households with vouchers than pre-sequestration, according to CBPP estimates (and my calculator). And there weren’t enough vouchers well before the Budget Control Act and aftermath.

Of course, the House and Senate might agree to an actual budget. So it’s worth a look at what could then arrive on the President’s desk. Will confine myself again to Housing Choice.

House funding for HUD would reverse the progress made toward restoring lost vouchers. The White House predicts a loss of 28,000 more.

Over on the Senate side, the Appropriations Committee says its bill would “continue assistance to all individuals and families served by both Section 8 and public housing.” The White House, however, contends that the funding level falls short of what would be needed to renew roughly 50,300 vouchers.

Distressing, to put it mildly, that folks who call the shots in Congress seem disposed to make a bad situation worse.


Housing Vouchers Best Solution for Family Homelessness

July 30, 2015

Here in the District of Columbia — and elsewhere — we’ve had a lot of back-and-forth on rapid re-housing as a tool for ending homelessness. No one doubts that it ends homelessness for awhile, since participants get a short-term subsidy to help cover rent.

The issue is rather whether they can get their act together to the point they can pay full rent when their subsidies expire — generally, at the end of a year, though in some communities up to 18 months.

A study for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development suggests families often can’t — at least, not for very long.

The study was one of those controlled experiments. Researchers gave homeless families in twelve communities one of three types of housing assistance that moved them out of shelters. A fourth group got only the “usual care” the community offered, e.g., more time in the shelter, some supportive services.

Which form of assistance families got, if any had nothing to do with their past history or other characteristics that could affect their near-term prospects, e.g., parental employment, health.

The researchers then looked at how they were faring a year and a half later. Forty-seven percent of the rapidly re-housed reported they’d recently been homeless or living doubled up with friends or family members because they couldn’t afford rent on their own.

This is statistically no different from what families who’d gotten no housing aid reported. By contrast, only 22% of families who’d gotten regular indefinite-term housing vouchers had again been without a home of their own.

So in the simplest sense, the study, which is still ongoing, confirms what most advocates have long said. The best solution for family homelessness is affordable housing. Most wouldn’t be homeless if they just had enough help to pay rent.

Families may also benefit from services, but they generally don’t need what the researchers term “specialized homeless-specific psychosocial services” — an underlying assumption of at least some “usual care” and transitional housing programs.

The study, however, tells us more than this. Families secure in their housing because their vouchers didn’t have fixed end dates fared better on a range of well-being measures.

For example:

  • Fewer children in the securely-housed families had been placed in foster care or sent to live with a relative.
  • Fewer parents reported psychological distress or showed measurable signs of substance abuse.
  • Half as many experienced violence by an “intimate partner,” presumably what most of us refer to as domestic violence.
  • Fewer families suffered from food insecurity, i.e., couldn’t always afford enough for everyone to eat enough (or perhaps anything).

Turning — as of course, one must — to cost issues, we learn that housing vouchers were cheaper than either rapid re-housing or transitional housing.

These are direct costs only. Families with housing vouchers cost, on average, a tad more than those in rapid re-housing once the services they received because they sought them out are factored in — roughly $136.50 more per month.

Emergency shelter, plus “usual care” services cost far more. And interestingly, the services accounted for 63% of the total. Not a great ROI on that investment, it seems.

The president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness says it’s misleading to compare voucher costs to those of “crisis interventions.” This seems reasonable on its face because voucher costs were — and will be — ongoing.

And it’s just the sort of thing one would expect from the head of an organization that’s heavily invested in promoting rapid re-housing. But rapid re-housing has been sold as an effective strategy for ending homelessness, not a short-term solution, as she now says.

Followers may recall questions I raised about the rapid re-housing success rate that the District’s prime homeless services contractor reported — and the former head of the Department of Human Services cited.

That rate reflected only the percent of rapidly re-housed families that hadn’t again sought shelter through the District’s intake system, as Marta Berensin and other attorneys at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless have noted.

Most other reported success rates have a similar limit.

Things look quite different when we factor in families who started couch-surfing when their short-term housing subsidies expired — and others who became homeless, but didn’t return to the “system” that had failed to solve their problem before.

The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and the District’s local equivalent envision a time when homelessness will be “rare, brief and non-recurring.” For some families, rapid re-housing may, by this definition, end homelessness.

But for most, subsidies that make housing affordable for the long term seem the answer — at least, among the options the HUD study assessed. Other measures to rebuild and preserve the dwindling stock of affordable housing belong in the mix too.

Because high housing costs, plus low wages and even lower publicly-funded benefits are the main problem, not personal “psychosocial” problems that need fixing.