In a city with a rapidly rising cost of living, the issues of housing and homelessness are at the forefront of just about every mayoral debate. Now a coalition of religious organizations and housing advocates—-comprising the Good Faith Communities Coalition, The Way Home, the Fair Budget Coalition, and the Foundry United Methodist Church—-has done us the favor of compiling the candidates’ positions on these issues in one place, with a questionnaire the group submitted to all the declared mayoral candidates. Conveniently, the four candidates who are leading the polls were the ones who responded. Their answers are below:

What would you do as Mayor to strengthen the District’s safety net in a way that provides stability for the poor and vulnerable and is also cost effective and financially supportable over the long term?

Muriel Bowser: I will protect the Housing Production Trust Fund by fully funding it with at least $100 million each budget year. I will also provide housing assistance to families who need help filling the gap between what is reasonable to spend on housing and the market rate. I will fully fund the two best programs we have to do this—Rapid-Rehousing and the Local Rent Supplement Program—and work with our providers and advocates to make sure these important programs are optimized. These programs are far more cost effective than renting motel rooms for families.

Jack Evans: While I am a firm advocate for safety net programs, I believe a long-term approach must balance current funding priorities with policies that encourage growth in our tax base over the long term. This insures continued funding for our safety net programs in the future. Programs such as the Housing Production Trust Fund have and continue to produce wonderful secondary effects of enabling tenants to become homeowners, attain stability and enter the middle class. That is why I advocated for the “Ready to Work” legislation to review and enhance workforce readiness of young District residents. As Mayor, I will advance wrap-around services for our families and partner with existing nonprofits that provide services such as specialized skills-training, clothing, daycare, and transportation while offering employees incentives to hire the long-term unemployed.

Vincent C. Gray: Long-term dependence on the safety net is not the best solution for many of our vulnerable neighbors. Safety net benefits will never be generous enough to ensure families are not living in poverty. Our strategy is to help clients get jobs and support them to gradually increase their income until they are self-sufficient. We have made several system improvements, including completing assessments with all TANF customers resulting in better services for families. Future improvements will include implementing a web-based application/recertification system to distribute benefits more quickly and improve efficiency. I am also committed to significant additional investments in affordable housing.

Tommy Wells: I will:
-increase the standard income tax deduction so low- and moderate- income workers can keep more of what they earn;
-elevate enforcement of wage and labor laws under a new Department of Labor and combat wage theft;
-enforce First Source law so all city contractors hire D.C. workers as required under city-funded development projects;
-create a new Department of Workforce Development to coordinate efforts, beginning with a first-ever unified profile of the barriers to employment faced by each D.C. resident applying for services;
-identify emerging employment sectors, deliver workforce training programs aligned with job opportunities, and place job seekers.

Briefly outline your approach to serving District residents who are chronically homeless.

Bowser: I will not treat our homeless families like emergency flood victims, housing them in city recreation centers. I will work to quickly identify affordable apartments in a timelier manner for families experiencing homelessness. I will fully staff the Department of Human Services, and make funds available to assist families in exiting the homeless system. Transitional housing units, made available to families who need them, can be the stepping stone to permanent housing. Emergency shelter should only be used for emergencies. I support a housing first approach, not a shelter for the night approach.

Evans: In addition to enhancing existing programs, I will propose legislation ensuring permanent supportive housing through Housing First. As Mayor, I will work with stakeholders such as DCAYA, The Way Home, and Good Faith to develop a fully funded platform to end chronic homelessness. I worked to establish the Interagency Council on homelessness to coordinate with organizations to identify, track, and offer solutions to end homelessness among populations hit hardest, including veterans. I also passed the “Returning Veteran’s Tax Credit,” which encourages businesses to hire veterans and championed funding to local organizations housing homeless veterans through the “Southeast Veteran’s Access Housing.”

Gray: I strongly believe the Housing First philosophy is the right intervention for our most vulnerable, chronically homeless residents. This is why I have increased local funding for Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) from $9.4 million to $21.4 million (127 percent) since FY2010. I have also made a $187 million investment in affordable housing production and the 2013 DHCD Super NOFA will create an additional 430 permanent supportive housing units—44 percent of the total units funded. We will continue our investments in PSH and I recently announced that I will commit the resources necessary to end chronic veterans’ homelessness in the District of Columbia.

Wells: Rather than moving homeless individuals from streets to shelter to transitional housing and, finally, to an apartment, Housing First immediately moves homeless residents into a stable apartments. This approach has proven that rather than making successful treatment of substance use and other issues a condition of receiving housing, providing housing first actually improves an individual’s chances of recovery from other issues that led to homelessness. As chairman of the Council’s Human Services Committee, I promoted Housing First, and as Mayor I will expand the program by increasing its annual funding by $10 million.

What steps would you take to address the crisis of homelessness among families with children?

Bowser: We must provide transitional housing units with additional services. Many families end up in shelters because young parents often lack the knowledge of how to manage a family’s budget, and the skills to land a job that pays a living wage. I will also work with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Government’s task force on homelessness to convene a regional summit to create immediate action steps. We must work together as a region to help our neighbors who need us, the District cannot and should not bear the burden of this crisis alone.

Evans: We know that 8 percent (7,354) of youth under 18 experience homelessness. However, only 300 designated youth beds exists. The “D.C. Homelessness Services Reform Act” implements policies to help families in need of housing. I believe in its goal of preventing families from becoming homeless, moving families out of shelters and into housing quickly as possible. Although it is estimated roughly 10 percent of the population identifies as LGBT, identifying members account for 30 percent of youth receiving homeless services. That is why I co-sponsored the “LGBTQ Homeless Youth Reform Act” to develop policies to reduce the rate of homelessness within this community.

Gray: Since emergency shelter must be the last resort I have focused on increasing stable, long-term housing arrangements. I recently introduced a plan to further improve our system for serving homeless families. This plan includes moving families from shelter to housing more quickly, ensuring we take advantage of all opportunities to keep families in their communities, re-introducing provisional shelter legislation to allow for alternative housing arrangements when appropriate, and continuing to invest in affordable housing. We use a nationally recognized tool to match families with the most appropriate program, which may be Rapid Re-Housing or a different intervention such as PSH.

Wells: I support emergency bridge funding and rent supplements to help qualified residents remain in their neighborhoods, with a portion exclusively for seniors. I will end tax lien sales to third-party, for-profit buyers. When the government must foreclose, we will convert it to affordable housing. I will increase funding for rapid rehousing to extend its benefits to more at-risk residents. I also will work with housing advocates to improve the program by increasing assurances that landlords can count on rent payments over the long term and residents don’t have to fear they will end up in a shelter when subsidies end.

What housing renovation and construction programs beyond direct city investment through the Housing Production Trust Fund do you consider promising for increasing and maintaining the affordable housing stock in the city? How would you increase the support and utilization of these programs?

Bowser: Two programs that need shoring up are the Section 8 housing voucher program, and the Local Rent Supplement Program. We need to find better incentives for landlords to stay in the section 8 program, and follow the best practices of other jurisdictions that provide more housing options. Additionally, there is a lot we can do regarding the Rapid Return of surplus city-owned buildings, and building new and infill housing on city-owned land. I would also work to strengthen our Inclusionary Zoning requirements.

Evans: As the Chair of the Committee on Finance and Revenue, I have a strong record of supporting tax incentives to create affordable housing throughout the District. I was instrumental in creating the Housing Strategy Task Force, which is designed to assess the quality and availability of housing for residents and workers at all income levels. I also introduced legislation to create a “Community Impact Fund,” an offset program that provides support to the District’s social benefit programs and could be utilized by the District to provide new revenue sources for various projects such as affordable housing.

Gray: Direct District investment through the HPTF is the most effective, efficient and expeditious government tool for increasing preservation and production of affordable housing at the ambitious scale I have set out. It has the infrastructure necessary to underwrite and monitor affordable housing, which is why I made the vast majority of my unprecedented $100 million investment through the HPTF. In addition, to align HPTF and the various other affordable housing subsidy programs, last year DHCD developed a unified Super NOFA process. This process increased the efficiency of public investment and will result in shorter funding timelines for projects that require subsidy.

Wells: I will:
-fund the HPTF using 15 percent of transfer and recordation taxes and additional funds for an annual minimum of $100 million;
-streamline the transfer/sale of affordable homeownership units and Home Purchase Assistance Program (HPAP) mortgages;
-create an expedited underwriting process for HPAP-qualified first-time homebuyers;
-commit to an increase in affordable housing stock of 1,800 units—and 300 units of limited equity cooperative housing each year;
-tie housing requirements to all city construction and development contracts;
-with government assets leverage trading them to require the construction of affordable and workforce housing.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery