Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Conditions at more than 8,000 public housing units that accommodate roughly 20,000 D.C. residents could further decline if the federal government decides to proceed with an initial budget prepared by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

Data circulated by the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee and obtained by City Paper show a dramatic reduction in funds that would be available to the D.C. Housing Authority under a preliminary proposal involving a 14 percent decrease in HUD’s overall budget next fiscal year. DCHA administers public housing in the District across 56 sites.

The housing authority—which also distributes vouchers to low-income tenants, creates policy, and orders repairs—has estimated that it needs well over $1 billion to sufficiently preserve or refurbish the majority of its units. The $14.4 million in capital funds it received from HUD last fiscal year paled as a share of this demand. Now, HUD proposes to slash that subsidy by almost $10 million, to just $4.5 million—less than a third of the amount in fiscal year 2016. The figures follow years of steady disinvestment in U.S. public housing.

Like public housing authorities nationwide, DCHA largely relies on capital funds from the federal government to help bankroll significant renovations to its buildings, including replacing distressed roofs, utility systems, and other equipment. But in recent years, the amount of federal funding DCHA receives has declined—both on the capital and operational sides.

The data show that under the leaked HUD budget, federal capital funds for state public housing authorities—including DCHA—would decrease by about $1.2 billion, from $1.8 billion to $590 million. There are more than 1.1 million units of public housing nationwide.

The preliminary national budget proposal, reported by The Washington Post last week, would reduce total HUD spending by $6 billion in the upcoming fiscal year. It has already sent ripples of uncertainty through local housing agencies and advocacy groups. Many have expressed concern that such cutbacks would exacerbate existing problems, from a lack of affordable housing in major metropolitan areas, to homelessness, to income inequality.

President Donald Trump‘s administration insists that the numbers are provisional. HUD Secretary Ben Carson, who reportedly did not participate in the earliest internal budget discussions because of his delayed confirmation, told staffers in an email last week that the ongoing budget process reflects those under previous administrations. “Please take some comfort in knowing that starting numbers are rarely final numbers,” Carson wrote.

Affordable housing advocates worry that the possible rollbacks could have far-reaching impacts on District residents. Not only would the $10 million cut in HUD capital funds restrict DCHA’s ability to commission repairs, they explain, but it would also curb the housing authority’s means of paying off old debt—much of it from capital repairs made a decade ago. Because these funds cover a big share of such debt payments, advocates say DCHA would have to redirect money from other areas to avoid defaulting on its debt.

The agency hasn’t gotten there yet, though it’s quick to point out how dire the status quo already is. “We’ve seen and heard reports speculating about the impending HUD budget reduction,” a DCHA spokesman says in a statement. “Clearly any continued cuts to the public housing program would be extraordinarily challenging as evidenced by our current funding situation and the impact of sequestration.” (More on sequestration here.)

“We are anxiously awaiting the actual proposed budget,” the spokesman adds. Trump’s budget plan is expected to be released Thursday and to contain across-the-board, non-defense cuts. The administration has said it wants to up military spending by $54 billion

The prospective squeeze on D.C.’s public housing comes as residents face what many have called an affordability crisis that has disproportionately impacted the city’s poorest.

Last year, DCHA Executive Director Adrianne Todman told D.C. councilmembers that the loss of federal commitments has strained the District’s social safety net. “This is regrettable given that, much like our highways and schools, public housing is part of the infrastructure of America—and but for its existence so many Americans and almost 20,000 District of Columbia families would likely have nowhere to live,” Todman testified.

Beyond capital cuts, the anticipated HUD budget would slash housing vouchers across the country by $300 million or even more, according to the Post. This especially troubles advocates because it could put households at increased risk of displacement. Some say DCHA may have to take money from vouchers to cover debt, complicating this problem. Meanwhile, experts say the rising cost of living may lead to a net voucher loss over time.

The Senate documents do not touch on Section 8 or project-based voucher allocations, but they do outline potential 20 percent cuts to the Section 811 program, which benefits people with disabilities. In D.C., 143 units under the program were funded by more than $1 million in fiscal year 2016. The HUD proposal would only fund 116 units, at $900,000.

It is possible that DCHA could partially cover financial gaps with aid from the District government. Last year, the D.C. Council passed a $15 million appropriation for DCHA property repairs. Another million went toward rehabbing more than 20 vacant public housing units. The council was to hold a performance oversight hearing on the housing authority this afternoon, but the legislative body took the day off because of the weather.