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.


Perilous Time for DC to Trigger More Tax Giveaways

January 30, 2017

We’re into the budget season here in the District of Columbia. The Bowser administration is busy preparing its proposal, aiming to send it to the Council in early April. That will trigger hearings, then votes — first by the committees responsible for the major budget areas and then by the Council as a whole.

Budgets are always somewhat of a crap shoot because officials don’t know how exactly how much the District will collect in taxes and fees.

More importantly, they don’t how much the District will receive from the federal government and for what. But they have to factor some figure in for roughly a quarter of what the District will have to spend.

That figure is much more iffy this year for several related reasons. First, we’ve got a new President — and one that’s set on making major changes that would have both direct and indirect effects on the District’s budget.

Second, it’s doubtful anyone, except maybe insiders will know what’s in his final proposed budget before the Mayor finishes hers. The problem here is that District agencies base their budget input in part on the prospective budgets of the agencies from which they regularly receive grants.

The estimates are always just ballparks, of course. Congress can — and often does — change proposed spending levels. Or makes no changes in what it’s currently approved — something it often does, though rarely for all federal budget areas and the entire fiscal year.

But uncertainty this year will be extraordinarily high. Would be even without Trump’s threat to withhold grants from cities that don’t participate in the federal government’s immigrant deportation efforts.

The Hill reports that the administration aims to send “an initial budget proposal” to Congress long about the second week in March, but that it’s likely to run into big-time flak from some Congressional Republicans, especially in the Senate.

Can’t count on easy sailing through the House either, especially if it reflects, as rumored, either or both the Heritage Foundation’s radical downsizing blueprint and Trump’s promise to invest $1 trillion in infrastructure over the next 10 years.

Well, Congress has to do something by the end of April to prevent a government shutdown. But what that bill will look like is anybody’s guess.

What’s lots more certain are cuts to a range of non-defense programs — not only those that depend on annual spending decisions, but like as not Medicaid. But nobody can know for certain which, how much and when they’ll set in.

And nobody knows how the economy will fare. Dire warnings of a recession — in part, just because it’s time for one, though some economists also cite policies Trump has promised, e.g., new trade barriers.

As always, a recession will drive down local tax revenues, while increasing needs (and eligibility) for safety net programs that the District funds in whole or in part.

One would think that District policymakers would want to make extra sure that the ongoing revenue stream, plus money in savings accounts will cover the community’s critical needs — or at the very least, minimize the need for cuts.

Yet District law requires specified tax cuts whenever projected revenues exceed those projected for the prior fiscal year — this no matter what a longer-term forecast might indicate or what seems likely on Capitol Hill.

As a practical matter, this means that the District could give away millions of dollars — and not just for a single year, but for good, unless the law is changed.

As I’ve said before, Councilmembers didn’t carefully consider the automatically triggered tax cuts before agreeing to approve them.

The Chairman tucked them into the Fiscal Year 2015 Budget Support Act, the package of legislation needed to make existing laws consistent with the budget proper, shortly before the first required vote.

How Councilmembers would have voted after public hearings, written testimony and committee discussions of the triggers is an open question. But that was then, and this now — a very different now from several years ago.

Different not only in ominous prospects for federal funding, but in pressing needs that call for more local funds. They’re mostly not brand new, but more urgent, for various reasons.

They include a remedy for the also hastily-passed rigid time limit on participation in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

Also high on the list are increased investments in affordable housing for the lowest-income residents, both those who are homeless now and those at high risk because they’re paying at least half their income for rent.

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute has cited some others, e.g., more for public schools due to increased enrollment and rising costs, improvements in our aged, hazardous Metro system.

DCFPI and other local advocacy organizations earlier recommended a pause in the triggered tax cuts. It’s surely high time the Mayor and Council do that and set the revenues saved aside to help offset federal spending cuts the upcoming budget didn’t account for.

Didn’t, as I said, because it couldn’t. And sadly, neither the District nor any state can fully offset what they could lose in federal funds.

The DC auditor reports that just the “rollback” of the Medicaid expansion piece of the Affordable Care Act, i.e., the enhanced federal match for newly-eligible beneficiaries, would cost the District $563 million next fiscal year alone.

Just one of many signs that the District needs every penny it now collects in fees and taxes.


First We Kill All the Lawyers for Poor People (Or As Many As We Can)

January 26, 2017

Old story, new chapter. We don’t have enough lawyers to give low-income people an even playing field in non-criminal cases that will have major consequences for their lives. (Not enough for criminal cases either, but that’s a separate story.)

Now we’ve reasons to expect that our newly-elected President will move to deny millions of low-income people free professional legal advice and representation by wiping out the Legal Services Corporation—the single largest source of funding for them.

How the Legal Services Corporation Fits Into the Anti-Poverty Effort

LCS has its roots in the War on Poverty, as one of many initiatives to afford poor people economic opportunities by delivering funds to local organizations. It became an independent, nonprofit corporation during the Nixon administration.

Its purpose, the law says, is to “provide legal assistance to those who face an economic barrier to adequate legal counsel” because that “will serve best the ends of justice and assist in improving opportunities for low-income persons.”

The Corporation ran into trouble when President Reagan took office, bringing with him hostilities from his time as California’s governor. But it survived and recovered lost funding.

During the Clinton administration, however, Congressional Republicans took out after it. And Clinton agreed to new limits on what it could do and for whom as part of the bargain that ended welfare as we knew it.

For this reason, plus funding limits LSC-funded organizations are properly part of a more comprehensive and diverse informal system that helps poor and near-poor people when they need, but can’t afford legal advice and/or representation.

But they’re an essential part. LSC provides financial support to 134 grantees. Collectively, they have somewhat over 800 offices throughout the country. That meant nearly 4,600 lawyers available to help people with incomes no greater than 125% of the federal poverty line in 2015.

Lawyers in LSC-funded organizations handle a range of matters. The two most common types are family matters, e.g., custody cases, domestic violence, and housing issues, e.g., foreclosures, threatened evictions. They also, among other things, help clients secure the benefits they’re entitled to.

Yet they can’t help nearly as many people as seek their aid. They turn away half or more, the Corporation says. And these are only people who come to them and ask—not those who’ve heard it’s probably futile.

These facts and figures all argue, as the Corporation did, for a larger appropriation. What it’s received in the last two years is less in real-dollars than it had before the recession set in, though the number of people whose incomes make them eligible has significantly increased.

A funding increase could help reduce homelessness—and with it, poverty, as Matthew Desmond’s justly-celebrated Evicted shows.

An increase might be even a life-or-death matter, since LSC-funded attorneys represent clients in domestic violence cases. (Lest you think that grants awarded under the Violence Against Women Act would suffice, they too reportedly could be zeroed out.)

Why the Concern for the Corporation

Last week, The Hill reported that Trump transition team staff had been meeting with career White House staff to develop a plan for reducing the federal budget. And by a whole lot — $10.5 trillion in the first 10 years.

This is even larger than what the House Republican Study Committee came up with, but couldn’t get a vote on.

The Trump team reportedly is relying on a budget blueprint the far-right Heritage Foundation published last year. It would have balanced this year’s budget within seven years, while cutting taxes by $1.3 trillion over ten—this without touching the core of defense.

To get there, it would eliminate a host of programs—not only the LCS and VAWA grants, but others that “assist in improving opportunities for low-income persons,” e.g., the job training programs funded under the Work Innovations and Opportunity Act.

It would phase out Head Start. And it would cut the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division by a third because it’s sought to protect voting rights and has “filed abusive lawsuits intended to enforce progressive social ideology in areas ranging from public hiring to public education.”

It would also ensure that we couldn’t measure the impacts so well because it would eliminate funding for the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure — a long-standing target of the Heritage Foundation.

Now, The Hill report may prove nothing but a gift to other news media, which need a constant supply of new angles for Trump stories—and for bloggers of the policy sort. Who knows what Trump will do? He himself often seems not to know.

But the Legal Services Corporation has proved vulnerable in the past — most of all when the lawyers it funds effectively champion the interests of the constituency they’re supposed to serve.

So this inkling of an attack on yet another program to further economic and social justice should, I think, serve as an early warning.