Council Chairman Phil Mendelson
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

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Mayor Muriel Bowser has made quite a bit of political hay out of her efforts to build more affordable housing and end homelessness. So it seems a safe bet she’ll be none too pleased with Council Chairman Phil Mendelson’s newest budget changes, as he tinkers with her plans for programs covering both issues.

The Housing Production Trust Fund has been Bowser’s baby these last few years, as she’s steered record-setting investments into the city’s main loan fund for affordable construction, and she’s pitched a massive, $250 million increase in her 2023 budget that would make $500 million available to developers. But Mendelson wants to pull $48 million from that funding bump and use it to help people who’ve recently experienced homelessness, arguing that Bowser’s existing investments (as promising as they are) don’t truly address the city’s problems.

In essence, Mendelson argues that Bowser’s big talk about the city’s progress on ending homelessness has been something of a mirage. D.C. shuffles many people in shelters into its rapid rehousing program, offering them help paying the rent in their own home for up to a year before evicting them, a practice Mendelson sees as “a vehicle for emptying our shelters without truly emptying them.” Advocates have indeed long criticized the program as a stopgap method rather than a real fix, since many participants are forced to leave their homes before they can afford rent on their own.

Mendelson would use that $48 million to fund 400 new targeted affordable housing vouchers, a permanent city subsidy that can help people pay the rent. That type of voucher is generally available to people who have been homeless, but Mendelson hopes to direct it specifically to rapid rehousing participants exiting the program: About 913 families will lose their rapid rehousing subsidies this year alone.

Mendelson is making the statement that it’s more valuable to use this money to help these vulnerable families right away instead of using it to build projects that could make new homes available to them many years from now. And it’s contrary to Bowser’s wishes, considering she didn’t allocate a single dollar for new targeted affordable housing vouchers in her budget proposal.

“The whole point of affordable housing is to keep people out of homelessness,” Mendelson told reporters in a Sunday night briefing. He released his proposed changes Monday, and the full Council will cast the first of its two budget votes Tuesday (and could opt to amend the document further).

Fights between the mayor and the chairman during budget season are nothing new. The mayor exerts a great deal of influence over the budget simply because she gets to propose the whole document. The Council can only really make changes around the margins, so Mendelson is frequently pressing to shift around money where he can (so long as he can keep the budget balanced). And in many ways, this move is classic Mendo: offering progressive advocates some (but certainly not all) of what they’d hoped for, without disrupting too many of Bowser’s priorities.

Activists saw a need for more like 1,040 targeted affordable housing vouchers to meet rising demand as more and more people lose rapid rehousing subsidies: Bowser put a pause on evicting people from the program during the height of the pandemic, but she reversed that policy last summer. That’s led to a backlog of people being phased out of rapid rehousing, so most advocates expect a surge in demand for vouchers as time goes by.

Even so, Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, a leading voice on homelessness as human services committee chair, sees Mendelson’s proposed change as a step in the right direction, though she can acknowledge that losing HPTF money is far from ideal. She expects some blowback from the administration, but nothing earth-shattering. A Bowser spokeswoman said officials are still reviewing the proposal.

“We’ve been cautious about not using [the HPTF] as a cash register, and so as long as this isn’t a recurring habit, I think people can live with it,” Nadeau says. “But at the end of the day, this is why I’ve always been supporting revenue raisers. I’ve wanted to avoid robbing Peter to pay Paul, which is what this is.”

Nadeau expects that most of her Council colleagues will go along with such a change: The bigger fight will likely be over the future of rapid rehousing more broadly.

Mendelson says he’d initially hoped to include a much broader overhaul of the program in the budget, perhaps adding a new requirement that the city work with rapid rehousing participants to find them an “exit plan” before their subsidy expires. The idea would be to ensure people can access a voucher (or find a home they can afford) before they’re forced to leave, reducing the risk that they’ll be back out on the street as soon as their time in rapid rehousing is up.

But Mendelson ran into that persistent bane of any councilmember’s existence: A sky-high cost estimate from the chief financial officer’s staff. The CFO suggested such a rapid rehousing change would cost well over $100 million, and Mendelson wasn’t able to find the money to cover that expense so quickly (he says he only started these discussions in the last week or so).

“I think that’s bogus but we weren’t able to work it out,” Mendelson says. “This is just codifying a process that ought to be happening now. We already have caseworkers working with these people. I don’t see why that should cost so much.”

Complaints about an inflated cost estimate from the CFO are a familiar lament around the Wilson Building (particularly when a councilmember’s proposing something the mayor doesn’t want to do). But Nadeau expects the CFO isn’t too far off, since this change would involve keeping people housed until they have somewhere else to go.

“You’re kind of codifying a right to housing through this program, which I am very supportive of,” Nadeau says. “But you’re talking about covering the rent for however long these people need to stay in rapid rehousing until they can leave. That’s expensive.”

Mendelson says he plans to write his own bill to make those rapid rehousing changes and move it through the legislative process soon (and Nadeau says she’d give it strong consideration in her committee).

But the budget is the much more immediate issue, and it tends to consume absolutely all of the Council’s attention until it gets passed (likely sometime in early June). There may not be the sort of bruising last-minute fight over an income tax hike that have marked the last few budget seasons, but at least some additional drama is likely. Nadeau herself is not likely to push for such “revenue raisers” Tuesday (as she and a group of left-leaning colleagues managed last year) but Loose Lips has heard that the possibility has at least been discussed in recent weeks.

As ever, Nadeau says one remaining point of contention is money for emergency rental assistance. Advocates have predicted a need for hundreds of millions more in funding to prevent evictions, and though Bowser has invested some cash in those efforts, Nadeau certainly supports more.

Mendelson says he considered the rapid rehousing money a much more pressing need, but he’s open to reconsidering.

“I focused the money there because of the attention on the rapid rehousing exits, but we can always revisit it between first and second reading” of the budget bills, he says.