Bowser Budget Scants Needs of Homeless and Others at High Risk

April 20, 2017

Picking up where I left off, some major parts of Mayor Bowser’s proposed budget don’t link as obviously to the inclusive prosperity road its title promises as, for example, adult education and available, affordable child care.

Yet two other parts we care about do because both are virtual preconditions to earning income and having enough left over after basic needs to invest in boosting one’s marketable knowledge and skills.

But I don’t want to leave impression that I equate “prosperity” with income or wealth, as I think Bowser’s budget title does because it seems an indirect way of referring to the extraordinarily high level of income inequality in the District.

The Latin root of “prosperity” means made successful, but also made happy, according to one’s hopes. One can surely make a homeless family happy by providing it with decent, stable housing it can afford without—or before — doing whatever necessary to boost its income so that it can pay full rent.

So we need to look at the following from multiple perspectives.

Affordable Housing

No one, I suppose, needs anything further said about the acute shortage of housing in the District that its lowest-income residents can afford.

Such prosperity as they might achieve — through taking college courses, for example — is beyond their means because, if they’re not homeless, most are paying more than half their income for rent and more than half of those at least 80%.

The Mayor, to her credit, would again commit $100 million to the Housing Production Trust Fund, plus $10 million to a new fund dedicated solely to preserving existing affordable housing.

But helping developers finance new affordable housing construction and/or renovations isn’t enough to produce units affordable for the lowest-income residents.

Those units need housing vouchers attached to cover the difference between what tenants must pay — no more than 30% of their income — and ongoing operating costs, e.g., maintenance, utilities, staff wages. The Mayor fails to propose funding to increase the number of these so-called project-based vouchers.

And as I earlier said, additional funding could be needed merely to sustain vouchers now in use because if Congress extends the current funding level for federal Housing Choice vouchers, the DC Housing Authority won’t have the money to issue any.

If the Republican majorities in Congress accede to anything like Trump’s budget plan, a larger loss, as yet unestimated at the state/District level.

Homelessness

Want of affordable housing obviously causes homelessness. But it does more than that. It’s hard to get and keep a job when you’re living in a shelter.

That’s especially true if the shelter’s for adults only because they generally have to get in line in mid-afternoon to get back in. And those who make it may not be able to wash themselves and are highly vulnerable to theft.

There goes the cell phone that’s the only way to contact them — and the photo ID they’ll need, if they have one.

All but impossible to get a job if they’re among the chronically homeless without the safety, stability and appropriate services they’d get in permanent supportive housing.

The Mayor does increase PSH funding by $2.7 million. But that would meet only 30% of what’s needed to end chronic homelessness, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports. (The target year set by the strategic plan the Mayor’s embraced obviously won’t be met,)

Other single homeless people get shorted in several different ways. No additional rapid re-housing for them, though some temporarily down on their luck could pick up the full rent when their short-term subsidies end.

About 46% for less for families as in the current fiscal year. But its success in ending homelessness — or as the program’s formally titled achieving “stabilization” — is at the very least debatable.

And the District’s youngest homeless people — those under 25 who’re on their own in the city — will continue to suffer from neglect, in addition to the egregious neglect (or abuse) that caused some to leave home to begin with.

Others became homeless when they became legally adults. Various reasons for this. For example, they were either kicked out by their parents (something that can happen earlier) or reached the maximum age for foster care and didn’t have foster parents who’d foster them for free — or any one else who’d take them in.

These young people need safe, stable housing, but also education and/or training and mentoring because, as the National Network for Youth puts it, many are in a state of “extreme disconnection.”

In other words, they’re worst cases of youth commonly referred to as “disconnected” — or more hopefully, “opportunity.” They’re not only neither in school or working. They lack basic life skills, e.g., how to keep themselves healthy, look for a job, manage such money as they make.

The DC Interagency Council on Homelessness developed a five-year plan specifically for homeless youth, based on census (no link available) that’s surely an undercount. It nevertheless captured 545 youth who were either homeless or insecurely housed, e.g. couch-surfing.

The ICH developed a five-year homeless youth plan, as an amendment to the District’s basic homeless services plan requires. The Mayor’s budget invests $2.4 million — less than half what the upcoming (and first) year requires.

Homeless now — others to become so. How then will the District make not only youth, but former youth homelessness brief, rare, brief and non-recurring  — let alone enable these potential contributors to our economy and our civic life share in the prosperity the Mayor dangles before us?

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New York City Grapples With Housing Voucher Crisis

April 21, 2010

Seems as if New York City has an affordable housing crisis writ large. The local housing authority is short $45 million and may have to revoke as many as 10,500 already-issued Section 8 housing choice vouchers. Alternatively, it may reduce the value of existing vouchers, leaving landlords, tenants or both to cover the costs.

It’s hard not to see mismanagement here. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reportedly warned the authority last May that it was in danger of exceeding its annual voucher allotment. But the authority went on issuing vouchers anyway, though at a lower rate.

That said, it’s hard, at least for me, to put all the blame on the housing authority. First off, consider the conditions that led to the crisis. Under the Section 8 program, voucher recipients are generally responsible for paying 30% of their income for rent. The voucher makes up the difference. As recipients lost their jobs or had their hours cut, the authority’s rent liabilities increased. At the same time, rental costs increased, again driving up per voucher costs.

Notwithstanding rising demands for vouchers, Congress provided less voucher funding in 2009 than what agencies would have received under the formula it used for the 2008 appropriation. The New York City housing authority got $58 million less. And, as I wrote before, it didn’t learn of the cut until May because Congress didn’t finished the HUD budget on time. The authority could hardly put its whole voucher program on hold while waiting for its final mark.

And what was the authority to do when it learned of the cut? Good fiscal management would say it should have immediately reduced its voucher commitments to what its budget would cover.

Consider the hardships that would have exacerbated. Blogger Harry Moroz reports that the average income of Section 8 housing vouchers in New York City is $14,706. Last year, the annualized fair market rent on a one-bedroom apartment in the city was only $42 less than that. Balancing the budget would thus obviously have put more people out on the streets or into the city’s emergency shelters.

Ultimately, the authority did act on its voucher crisis. In December, it notified voucher holders who hadn’t yet found an apartment that they wouldn’t receive housing assistance after all. Before that, it apparently restricted new vouchers to victims of domestic violence, families referred by the child welfare agency and certain other emergency cases. As of December, no new housing vouchers for them either.

The New York City voucher crisis is big in part because the city is big and has some of the highest rental costs in the country. But it’s unfortunately not unique. As the New York Times reports, some other housing authorities have terminated vouchers, and some of cut their contributions to rents. Who knows how many have enormous waiting lists–or don’t only because they’ve closed them?

It’s from this perspective that I look at President Obama’s proposed housing assistance budget for Fiscal Year 2011.

For Section 8 vouchers, he’s proposed a modest $875 million (0.5%) increase. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates this would be just about enough to renew all vouchers in use this year. An additional $85 million would provide about 10,000 new vouchers for individuals and families who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. That’s 10,000 nationwide.

So much for the 124,760 households on New York City’s voucher waiting list–and the emergency cases in the days ahead. So much for the 8.5 million or more U.S. households who are paying more than half their income for rent and utilities.


Housing Crisis Voucher On the Horizon

September 25, 2009

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that tens of thousands of low-income households stand to lose their housing vouchers, pay higher rent or remain on the growing waiting lists for rental assistance unless Congress acts PDQ.

An estimated 400 local housing authorities face shortfalls in their housing voucher budgets. Every state has at least one agency in trouble. In 15 states, it’s 10 or more. CBPP estimates they’ll need a total of $130 million to get through the rest of the year without making further cutbacks.

The shortfalls are caused in part by the fact that Congress didn’t complete work on appropriations for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development until March. Housing agencies, therefore, didn’t learn what their 2009 funding would be until May–five months into the program year. This left them little time to adjust their budgets in ways that would minimize impacts on low-income families who had–or expected to get–housing vouchers.

And they certainly did have to adjust their budgets because the funding Congress provided to renew vouchers was considerably less than what the agencies would have been eligible to receive, based on the funding formula Congress used for the 2008 HUD budget.

The recession is another big factor in the crisis. Families with vouchers generally have to pay 30% of their income for rent. The housing agency pays the rest. As tenants have lost their jobs or had their hours cut back, their 30% has become a smaller part of the rent costs. This, of course, means the agencies have to pay more.

Unless they do something about it. Under certain circumstances, agencies can reduce the portion they pay. This leaves voucher holders with higher–sometimes very considerably higher–rental costs. According to CBPP, at least a few agencies have already exercised this option.

Agencies can also stop issuing new vouchers and/or terminate existing vouchers, leaving families responsible for the totality of their rent. Some agencies have already done both. CBPP warns that many more will have to do so unless Congress authorizes HUD to use already-approved renewal funding to help them cope with their shortfalls.

According to CBPP estimates, more than 28,200 vouchers in use are currently unfunded due to the shortfalls. That’s a lot of families who could be left homeless or with rental costs they can meet only by cutting back on food, medications and other essential needs.

In the likely event that Congress doesn’t pass a Fiscal Year 2010 budget for HUD by October 1, it could put the needed authorization into the continuing resolution. Just a sentence or two is all it would take to avert the impending crisis.


What’s In the President’s Budget for Affordable Housing?

May 11, 2009

A couple of months ago, I noted that affordable housing wasn’t on President Obama’s reform agenda. His just-released budget for the Department of Housing and Urban Development confirms this in dollars and cents.

True, the budget proposes $1 billion to put the Housing Trust Fund in business. This first-time infusion of funds would help finance the development, rehabilitation and preservation of affordable housing for low-income families.

Proponents have estimated that the proposed appropriation would support the construction of about 10,000 units or the rehabilitation of a somewhat larger number. The initial goal of the Trust Fund was 1.5 million units over 10 years.

The HOME Investment Partnerships Program also supports activities that increase the stock of affordable housing. It provides grants to state and local governments that they can use to help fund the purchase, construction or rehabilitation of affordable housing and/or direct rental assistance.

The proposed HOME appropriation for Fiscal Year 2010 is $1.8 billion. This apparently would allow HUD to spend an estimated $684,000 more than in the current fiscal year.

The HUD budget says that the FY 2010 funding for HOME “is estimated to result over time in the production of almost 78,000 units of affordable housing,” plus an expected 17,000 plus units made affordable by tenant-based rental assistance.

If you crunch the numbers, it’s pretty clear that most of the funding for these units would have to come from other sources. And, of course, “over time” implies that the units won’t be available next year or maybe even the year after. No guarantee that any will be affordable for the neediest families.

So let’s look at programs that could deliver immediate relief to low-income people. The biggest is Housing Choice. This is the program that funds tenant-based vouchers–the kind that enables low-income individuals and families to rent apartments at market rates.

For FY 2010, the administration proposes $17.8 billion for Housing Choice. This, it says, will support all the vouchers effective as of the end of FY 2009. Apparently no funding here for more tenant-based vouchers in FY 2010.

Steady state is also the word for project-based rental assistance–contracts between HUD and private owners to provide affordable housing for low-income families. The proposed FY 2010 would cover the renewal of all existing contracts. Period.

There are two big reasons why more rental assistance is needed.

  • Large numbers of households are paying far more for rent than they can afford. As I recently wrote, figures from the National Low Income Housing Coalition show that this was a major problem even before the economy went into a free fall.
  • Many more households need–or will soon need–housing assistance. A jobs update from the Economic Policy Institute presents a dire picture of the unemployment situation. EPI doesn’t foresee a return to the pre-recession level any time soon. And look at the prospects for unemployed people who do find jobs. Even before the recession began, only 45% of those who’d been in their previous jobs for at least three years were earning as much as they did before.

“Over time” investments in affordable housing development will make a difference–even, I suppose, a modest $1 billion or so from the fed. But low-income households that have been paying 80% or more for rent can’t wait. Households that have plunged into the low (or no)-income category can’t wait.

HUD’s summary says that the FY 2010 budget “will restore federal leadership on promoting affordable rental housing.” I say, show me the money.


Economic Recovery Package Should Include Housing Vouchers

January 13, 2009

A new report by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities forecasts a further increase in homeless families with children. Indeed, communities across the country are already reporting significant increases.

CBPP cites data from two recent reports I’ve already written about–the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ 2008 Status Report on Hunger and Homelessness and the survey of school districts by the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth and Focus First.

To these, CBPP adds alarming new figures. For example, compared to the same periods in 2007:

  • The number of families entering homeless shelters in New York City increased by 40%.
  • In Massachusetts, the number of families in state-supported emergency shelters increased by 32%.
  • Family homeless shelters in Connecticut turned away 30% more families due to lack of bed space.

The problem is not only rising unemployment. As CBPP explains, the housing market crisis is an important factor. Foreclosures are displacing not only homeowners, but renters. They are all seeking to get into a relative few vacant rental units, unintentionally driving up rates beyond what many families can afford.

A third factor is the frayed safety net. As CBPP says, the unemployment insurance program hasn’t been updated to reflect changes in the labor market. So many laid-off low-income and part-time workers aren’t receiving UI benefits. Add to this the facts that:

  • The TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) program is serving only 40% of eligible families–a far lower percent than were assisted under the “welfare” program it replaced.
  • Most states have eliminated general assistance programs, except for severely disabled people.

A previous CBPP report recommended, among other things, expansions of the UI and TANF programs as part of the pending economic recovery package. This report focuses on another earlier CBPP recommendation–a significant increase in housing vouchers.

CBPP calls for 200,000 new vouchers, without restrictions that would disqualify most poor families, as the scant number of new 2008 vouchers do. The additional vouchers, it says, would enable state and local agencies to serve 10% more families and could be crafted to avert long-term pressures on the federal budget.

In addition, CBPP recommends an increase in the Emergency Shelter Program–something also recommended by NAEHCY and First Focus. This would fund short-term assistance to prevent families from becoming homeless.

These two measures would cost about 0.005% of the projected total economic recovery package–a very small investment with a large return for homeless families and our communities.

There’s a ton of news about the economic recovery package, little or nothing about help for homeless families. But then who is lobbying for them with anything like the clout of those who will profit most from funding for construction projects and corporate tax cuts?