On Tuesday, May 15, 2018, the DC Council took its first of two votes on the local DC budget for next year. On the housing front, there is good news and bad. The good news is twofold: 1) the Council devoted additional money to key affordable housing programs and 2) the Council took a bold step forward in right-sizing the Rapid Re-housing program so a greater percentage of families will get long-term affordable housing as opposed to time-limited assistance. The bad news is that the Council failed to dramatically increase spending on affordable housing, which means many DC residents will continue to struggle without help paying DC’s exorbitant rents—many forced to reside on the street or in emergency shelters, many whose health will worsen, some who will die because of the lack of housing.
How can the DC Council do better before the final vote on May 29, 2018?
The budget is a series of choices. Just like the budget you might make for your family, our elected leaders are responsible for making choices that ensure that everyone in the DC family can meet their basic needs, including having safe housing, before the family spends money on anything else. Here are three basic strategies to ensuring that the DC budget reflects these values:
Carve up the pie differently!
There are countless examples of expenditures, from small to big, in the DC budget that many of us would agree are less important than providing life-saving housing to someone who is homeless. At the smaller end, the Council just devoted $191,067 to establish the Mayor’s Office of Night Life and Culture. We’re sure that office has its boosters, but surely ending homelessness is more important than creating that office. At the larger end, Events DC failed to spend $70.7 million of their money in 2017 after receiving dedicated tax revenue of $138 million. It is too early to tell how much of their budget they will be able to spend this fiscal year, yet the budget for next year will give Events DC $17 million more in taxpayer dollars. Surely reducing our affordable housing crisis would be a better use of taxpayer dollars than letting millions sit unspent in an account.
If we carve up the pie differently and still find we are short of resources to end homelessness, DC should increase the size of the pie. For example, it is estimated that closing the carried interest loophole would bring in more than $150 million per year in revenue. The DC Fiscal Policy Institute recently laid out some other strategies to make more pie in a responsible way:
“…last year’s federal tax cut is increasing inequality in the District. Thanks to the new law, DC’s wealthiest tax filers – those making more than $500,000 a year– are going to reap a $254 million tax windfall this year, while DC businesses will see an additional $460 million federal tax cut… DC should use its tax code to recapture some of the revenue from federal tax cuts and put it to good use for District residents. DC Council took an important first step by moving to block a local estate tax cut caused by the federal law, but this is only a small piece of what is needed.”
Make sure any new pie goes towards affordable housing!
Interestingly, one of the most fiscally conservative members of the DC Council, Jack Evans, chair of the Committee on Tax and Revenue, spearheaded a revenue increase this year. Instead of devoting those funds to meet basic survival needs of DC residents, though, he fought for the $30 million a year to go to the Commission on the Arts and Humanities and the Creative Economy Enterprise Fund. Every year in recent memory Councilmember Evans has opposed any proposal by advocates to increase revenue to meet human needs. He usually retorts that our budget is bloated and the government spends too much money, particularly too much money on social services. Yet even Councilmember Evans notes: “…homelessness is the other big, and seemingly intractable, problem that D.C. faces. ‘I jog five miles every day, and I see [homelessness] everywhere,’ he said. ‘There are homeless encampments all over Foggy Bottom.’” He’s right and he’s wrong. Homelessness is a huge problem, but it isn’t intractable. Ending homelessness just takes resources spent on housing programs that everyone agrees work well. But DC will never end homelessness if it continues to divert the investments it takes to solve the problem to other priorities, even when the Council raises revenue.
We, as a community, can value art and still value ending homelessness more. We are sensitive to the need for art funding for communities who do not have access to the large endowments of more established institutions—but it’s unclear how much of this fund will be distributed to those who need it the most. (For example 40% of the fund must go to organizations “of demonstrated national repute.”) We are also wary of public funds supporting art that literally displaces people experiencing homelessness, not just by funding art instead of housing, but by prompting the destruction of encampments: this winter in NoMa, DC devoted $2 million in public funds to an art installation project that displaced people with no homes. $30 million would go a long way towards ending homelessness.
What is the unmet need now?
Housing for Families Experiencing Homelessness
We asked for funding to house 1195 homeless families with permanent housing subsidies, like permanent supportive housing and targeted affordable housing. After the Council’s first vote, there is enough funding for housing for 514 families (43% of the need), leaving a gap for 681 homeless families. (The charts below show funding broken out by program.) We also asked the Council to meet this need, in part, by moving money from Rapid Re-housing (the $6.6 million increase plus $3.1 million) over to permanent housing subsidies. The Council moved Rapid Re-housing funds ($6.6 million) and some additional money from other sources over to permanent housing subsidies. There is a small reduction in the rapid re-housing program as a result (unclear because the agency has reported that costs have gone down), but a net gain in housing placements, and a significant shift in the balance between permanent and time-limited assistance for families.
Housing for Chronically Homeless Individuals
We (along with the Way Home Campaign) asked for 1220 chronically homeless individuals to be housed with permanent subsidies. After the first vote, there are enough funds to end the chronic homelessness of 459 individuals with permanent subsidies (37% of the need), leaving a gap of 761 chronically homeless individuals who need housing this year.
Affordable housing for DC residents with the lowest incomes
We asked for 2600 units of affordable housing (1/2 built, 1/2 leased) for extremely low income DC households (0-30% Area Median Income) in order to meet the true need for this type of affordable housing in ten years. The Council added enough money to project/sponsor-based Local Rent Supplement Program to allow DC to meet it statutory obligation to use 40% of the Housing Production Trust Fund to build housing for people earning between 0-30% of the Area Median Income, but nowhere near the 1300 units we were asking for. The Council added $1.5 million for 75 tenant vouchers (about 5% of the need), which is the least amount of money appropriated to that program since it began in 2007.
Housing for Domestic Violence Survivors
The DC Coalition Against Domestic Violence asked for an additional $5.5 Million to support domestic violence-specific shelter for 37 individuals or families, transitional housing for 119 individuals or families, and a flexible funding program that can keep survivors stably and safely housed and not needing to enter the housing continuum. The Council added $2.5 million, leaving $3 million unfunded.
We asked for an increase of $12 million in the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP), an extremely effective program that keeps people in their homes and prevents evictions. Instead, Mayor Bowser cut the program. The Council reversed the cut and added an additional $35,369.