Sign on building advocating to cancel rent in D.C.
Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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The D.C. government is in the midst of budget season, in case readers forgot. Wednesday kicks off budget markups, which means Council committees will begin to vote on changes to the mayor’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2022, which takes effect Oct. 1. 

Given that the pandemic left many more people un- and underemployed, and that the eviction moratorium is not expected to last forever, one of the most important budget items is affordable housing and homeless prevention and diversion services. 

Mayor Muriel Bowser’s proposal garnered a lot of attention for its $400 million dollar investment over two years in the Housing Production Trust Fund, which is the main way the city builds and finances affordable housing. According to the mayor’s office, the $250 million dollar investment in FY2022 alone is “record-setting.” Immediate funding dedicated to the trust fund would support the creation of 462 new affordable units and preserve another 175 affordable units. At least 50 percent of the trust fund’s spending must serve households below 30 percent of area median income. The vast majority of new units are in Wards 7 and 8. 

The mayor’s budget would also dedicate $42 million dollars for project-sponsored vouchers via the city’s Local Rent Supplement Program. This program aims to help extremely low income families, meaning those with incomes below 30 percent of AMI—about $38,700 annually for a family of four. The project-based vouchers can subsidize units created by the trust fund. According to the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, “sponsor-based rental assistance” via this program is awarded to landlords who make units affordable and available to individuals and families. These vouchers are portable only if the tenant moves to another unit run by the same landlord. 

You’d be hard pressed to find someone poo-pooing these investments in housing—unless they fundamentally believe that dollars should not go to developers but, say, social housing. Still, advocates for affordable housing and homeless services believe the mayor’s budget does not do enough to meet residents’ needs given the times. And they hope the Council invests more dollars in housing subsidies, tenant-based voucher programs, and eviction prevention. If that means taxing D.C.’s top earners, so be it. 

First, the problem:

Before the pandemic hit, D.C. had a housing affordability problem. The Bowser administration has struggled to meet self-imposed deadlines and follow through on its ambitious plan to end homelessness by 2025. Homelessness could increase depending on how the D.C. government prepares for the day when officials lift the eviction moratorium, advocates say. 

A year into the pandemic, officials say the number of people who are “chronically homeless”—a term the city uses to describe someone who’s experienced homelessness for a year or more—increased by 20 percent compared to the year before, jumping from 1,337 to 1,618. But the total number of individuals and families experiencing homelessness declined, according to the officials. 

Some advocates are skeptical of the point-in-time count that officials use to inform these numbers, particularly during a pandemic year when the city presumably had fewer counters. Jesse Rabinowitz, the senior manager of policy and advocacy at Miriam’s Kitchen, says there are 2,600 people who are chronically homeless, a number he gets after looking at D.C.’s coordinated entry system and people who touch homeless services. The broader point for Rabinowitz is whatever figure you look at, which he thinks are all likely undercounts, D.C. is not meeting the need.    

What do advocates really think of the budget? 

Advocates acknowledge there are good parts of the mayor’s budget, namely the strong investments in the Housing Production Trust Fund. However, advocates are concerned about the funding levels for a program they say has proven to end chronic homelessness, and the lack of funding for tenant-based vouchers and eviction prevention. 

“Pretty much at all times, we want to be building more affordable housing and investing in programs that quickly end people’s homelessness like vouchers,” says Amber Harding, an attorney with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. “This budget, most of the money is going into building affordable housing, which isn’t going to be ready for a minimum of five years. I had some higher expectations for what we could do as a city with both federal infusion of money and the fact that the local economy was doing better than people expected.” (At-Large Councilmmber Anita Bonds, chair of the housing committee, has recommended ways to speed up the process to pass out trust fund dollars.) 

According to Harding, the mayor’s budget invests enough money to support upward of 687 individuals and 327 families through Permanent Supportive Housing vouchers, which advocates generally agree help end chronic homelessness by combining housing subsidies with wrap-around case management. The Way Home Campaign, an initiative seeking to end homelessness, says this is the mayor’s largest single-year increase in Permanent Supportive Housing vouchers for single adults. However, 2,300 residents would continue to experience homelessness for another year at the current funding levels for these vouchers for singles. 

The mayor’s budget uses no local dollars for Permanent Supportive Housing vouchers, but instead relies on federal dollars, some of which are supposed to go to these types of housing programs anyways. “The distinction is not so important to my clients,” says Harding. “It’s a distinction that’s important when someone asks me to assess the mayor’s commitment to affordable housing or ending homelessness.”

Some more red flags: There’s no new funding for Targeted Affordable Housing vouchers or tenant-based vouchers through the city’s Local Rent Supplement Program. Harding argues these programs are important because only 10 to 15 percent of homeless families qualify for Permanent Supportive Housing, so there needs to be money for other types of vouchers for low-income individuals and families. 

Targeted Affordable Housing vouchers are very important for those who stop qualifying for the Rapid Re-Housing program, a program that subsidizes rent for a set period of time. That’s because 83 percent of families who have to exit the Rapid Re-Housing program cannot afford housing without assistance, according to government data. Beginning in August, the government is expected to resume the time limit for the program. Meaning people will have to begin exiting the Rapid Re-Housing program, and most won’t be able to afford rent without subsidies and thus be subjected to eviction when the moratorium lifts. Meanwhile, the mayor is dedicating more money to the Rapid Re-Housing program using federal Emergency Rental Assistance dollars. 

There’s also a cut to the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP), which helps residents earning less than 40 percent of the area median income with overdue rent. The FY22 budget includes $8.5 million for ERAP, as compared to $14 million in the FY21 budget, according to the office of Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau. The reason tenant advocates (and landlords) want the Council to dedicate more money for ERAP is because STAY DC (the other rental assistance program) only covers overdue rent related to the pandemic. People struggled to afford rent before the pandemic, and they will continue into next year. 

How could government officials fund increases to homeless services? 

Advocates are calling on the Council to invest $66 million in Permanent Supportive Housing to help over 2,000 individuals and 100 families. They are also calling on legislators to fund the Targeted Affordable Housing program enough to support 928 families, and tenant-based vouchers enough to support 800 households. Advocates want the Council to dedicate more money to public housing repairs.

There are a number of ways the Council could fund these housing priorities. Advocates believe the Council would be hard-pressed to fund them exclusively through savings identified elsewhere in the budget. That’s why many are encouraging the Council to look at raising revenue by raising income taxes on the city’s highest earners. 

“Broadly, we are supportive of increasing tax equity so that wealthiest residents pay their fair share in taxes. It allows us to keep funding these programs when federal funding runs out. It allows us to fund more than the mayor did,” says Rabinowitz with Miriam’s Kitchen. “Support ending homelessness. If they are not backed up with funding, they are talking points. Fund these programs.” 

Analysis and polling from the DC Fiscal Policy Institute makes a compelling case for why the Council should heed calls to tax the rich. According to one recent analysis from the progressive local think tank, “the richest 1 percent of DC residents pay less in DC taxes as a share of their income than middle-income residents.” Polling released last week showed 80 percent of voters support raising taxes on big corporations and higher-income earners if it’s “to support other residents facing hard times and to sustain D.C.’s recovery”

Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen voiced support for the idea, which he actually proposed last budget cycle. Meanwhile Chairman Phil Mendelson is still not about it, saying in his most recent newsletter “It’s not clear whether their goal is to fund programs, since there is so much federal money right now to do the same thing, or to increase ‘equity.’” Perhaps after reading this newsletter, it becomes clearer for the chairman.   

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