More and Less Money for Affordable Housing in DC

February 11, 2013

Well, Mayor Gray finally said what a majority of District of Columbia residents at his One City Summit implicitly called for a year ago. He’ll invest in affordable housing.

Local advocates have long been beating the drum for a bigger commitment, most recently at the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development’s Housing for All rally.

Now it seems the Mayor has enough confidence in the upward revenue trajectory — and enough confidence that the Chief Financial Officer will acknowledge it — to propose a $100 million investment in preserving and creating more affordable housing.

Affordable for whom is an unanswered question. The Mayor cited seniors, District employees (specifically police officers, firefighters and teachers) and “the most vulnerable residents, like people who are homeless and those with disabilities.”

Needless to say, what’s affordable for a teacher is far from affordable for a homeless family. And we’ve got seniors at all income levels — up to and above the $69,530 that would qualify a couple for housing that could be officially designated as affordable here.

Also unanswered is what the promised investment will achieve. The Mayor cited 10,000 affordable units. A little back of the envelope math shows that would mean, on average, $10,000 per unit.

You can’t produce housing for that, says Bob Pohlman, CNHED’s Executive Director.

Nor would any units created be affordable for the District’s lowest income residents if the investment the Mayor talked about weren’t paired with housing vouchers.

These, notes the DC Fiscal Policy Institute’s housing expert Jenny Reed, require annual funding. And, as she tactfully doesn’t note, it shouldn’t be taken out of another affordable housing program, as the last two budgets have done.

The Mayor’s recognition that a city so flush with cash shouldn’t keep hoarding it all is welcome, however, as is his recognition of those “most vulnerable residents.”

DC General — the District’s main shelter for homeless families — had no vacant units, as of early last month, according to a new, profoundly disturbing report by the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.

The Department of Human Services won’t provide any family with a safe place to stay unless freezing temperatures give it no legal option or there’s room at DC General

And when the winter season officially ends, families with no place to stay will again be on their own, unless some of the units DHS originally planned to use this winter are vacant.

They would be, of course, if families now occupying them could afford to move into housing.

Ironically, both the Mayor’s announcement and the Legal Clinic’s report come at a time when the federal government — long a weak housing partner — is poised to further reduce funding.

The across-the-board cuts I’ve gloomily forecast will include housing assistance programs. Also homeless assistance grants, though it seems reasonable to expect an uptick in homelessness as housing agencies retrench.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities gives us specifics for the nation as a whole and for the District, as well as each state. Briefly:

  • The Housing Choice vouchers cut will leave an estimated 111,233 families without this form of housing assistance. Here in the District, 530 fewer families will have these vouchers, according to CBPP’s estimate.*
  • Public housing funding will be cut by $298 million, leaving less for both ongoing operations and expenditures to keep — or in some cases, make — facilities livable. The District will lose more than $2.9 million.
  • Funding for HOPWA (Housing Opportunities for Persons With AIDS) will be cut by $15 million. For the District, this will mean about $694,800 less to house and serve one of our highly vulnerable populations.
  • Homeless assistance grants will be cut by a total $100 million. The District’s share will be $1.1 million — this on top of original $7 million shortfall that DHS is trying to make up for.

These are far from the only federal fund losses the District will sustain unless Republicans and Democrats in Congress come together on a plan to halt sequestration — or rather, a plan that doesn’t make even larger cuts on the non-defense side of the budget.

Even the sample here, however, shows that the Mayor and DC Council will have challenges barely hinted at in the State of the District address.

Will they view them as occasions to tap the reserves the Mayor is so proud of building, even at the expense of vulnerable residents’ urgent needs?

Or will our rip roaring economy yield enough revenues to close the gaps — and still leave enough for the Mayor’s new affordable housing commitment?

Or will he seek to fulfill that commitment no matter what happens to the homeless individuals and families who need long-term affordable housing right now?

As with the impacts of the commitment itself, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

* The Director of the DC Housing Authority told me several weeks ago that she thought sequestration would require DCHA to hold back about 200 vouchers rather than reissue them when households no longer needed or were eligible for them. I sent her the CBPP report, with a request for her views. She has thus far not responded.

UPDATE: CBPP has just slightly revised its estimates of the total spending cuts for programs subject to annual appropriations, as the various kinds of housing assistance and homeless assistance grants are. This means that the dollar figures above may be somewhat too low.