Following the money: Council implements new accountability measures

Steps lead up to a glass door in a white stone building.

The John A. Wilson building, where the D.C. Council meets. Photo courtesy of Adam Fagen/Flickr.

With the recent passage of accountability measures in this year’s Budget Support Act, the final piece of D.C.’s budget is in place.

The D.C. Council unanimously passed the Fiscal Year 2023 Budget Support Act on June 7. The annual legislation — known in D.C. government circles as the BSA — contains the legal language necessary to implement the budget and often includes oversight guidelines for city agencies on how to manage their money. The BSA comes after the FY 2023 Local Budget Act, which distributed $19.5 billion of funds to government agencies.

This year, the BSA includes notable requirements for three government agencies key to implementing the agenda established by the mayor: the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), the Office of Victim Services and Justice Grants (OVSJG), and the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD).

The council’s final version of the BSA also authorized enforcement of a recently passed tenant’s rights bill — which had been subject to future appropriations — and extended the Flexible Rent Subsidy Pilot Program (regularly called D.C. Flex) through 2026.

The bill strengthens the ban on landlords discriminating against people who have housing vouchers, including a new provision against the use of rental history as reason to reject an applicant. It also capped rental application fees at $50 and sealed eviction court records after three years. This year’s budget funded the Office of Human Rights to enforce the bill.

D.C. Flex, a program that gives $7,200 a year to extremely low-income residents to use on expenses such as rent, was set to expire this year. The subsidy, which lawmakers say they want more time to test before making permanent, is also being expanded to cover individuals as well as families for the first time, rather than just families.

Reigning in the HPTF

This year, the BSA includes additional reporting requirements for DHCD, the agency that administers the Housing Production Trust Fund (HPTF), a taxpayer-funded pool of money used to create and preserve affordable housing in the city. After regularly failing to meet existing accountability targets, DHCD will now have to report every HPTF project to the council and request a waiver when those targets are not met.

In May, the council allocated $446 million to the HPTF, the largest one-time investment in recent history. By law, the city must allocate half of the fund to constructing and maintaining affordable housing for extremely low-income households. In D.C., a household of four that makes below $38,700 annually is considered extremely low-income.

However, DHCD has regularly failed to meet that requirement, spending just 27%, 18% and 13% on extremely low-income housing in the last three years, with the rest going toward housing units for households who are closer to the median family income for the region. An Office of the Inspector General report released last September found DHCD habitually selected proposals with fewer affordable units over those with more, a finding mirrored in previous reports issued by D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson. Over three years, DHCD spent $81 million reserved for extremely low-income units on less affordable ones, according to the inspector general’s report.

To keep tabs on the fund’s affordability targets, the council is now directing DHCD to send a full report of any new projects it plans to fund. The report must include the number of affordable housing units to be created by the project proposals that are selected as well as those that are rejected. If the agency chooses a project that will produce fewer affordable units over a project that will produce more, DHCD will have to explain why. If the DHCD does not meet the affordability targets by the end of the fiscal year, the mayor must submit a waiver request to the council.

The HPTF finances the construction of affordable housing and is funded through appropriations and by transfer and recordation taxes collected when real estate is sold. Mayor Muriel Bowser has lauded it as a key part of D.C.’s plan to end homelessness through the creation of more affordable housing.

A last-minute amendment from At-large Councilmember Anita Bonds, who chairs the Committee on Housing and Executive Administration, removed a provision from the BSA that would have increased the share of the HPTF devoted to extremely low-income housing in FY 2023 from 50% to 56%. This was similar to a proposal from advocates that sought to replace the $82 million slated for extremely low-income housing that DHCD misspent.

While no councilmembers expressed opposition to the idea of spending more on extremely low-income housing, Bonds said it was unlikely DHCD officials would be able to meet this goal given their poor track record. The amendment to remove the requirement passed unanimously.

Priorities at the Office of Victim Services and Justice Grants

The Office of Victim Services and Justice Grants (OVSJG) and the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) — two agencies key to D.C.’s public safety plan — also face new public reporting requirements.

As part of its work with victims of crime and individuals involved with the justice system, the OVSJG helps fund housing programs for survivors and individuals just out of jail; it also provides various grants to domestic violence prevention and recovery organizations in D.C. Leaders of several nonprofits that work with the OVSJG testified at an oversight hearing held by the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety this spring that increased rates of domestic violence in D.C. have outpaced available funding during the pandemic. Front-line service organizations, according to an opinion piece by Bridgette Stumpf, executive director of the Network for Victim Recovery of D.C., don’t know why they have seen grant decreases despite overall budget increases for the office.

The OVSJG usually posts grant details each year so service providers can understand the agency’s priorities, but it has not yet posted information for FY 2022. For every year moving forward, the BSA will require that the OVSJG post the amount, recipient and purpose of each grant. In response to concerns the agency does not have a clear mission, the mayor will now also have to include grant-making priorities as part of the agency’s budget request, including how much the OVSJG expects to spend on emergency shelters, short-term housing and transitional housing. This transparency aims to repair what domestic violence service providers have described as a damaged partnership with the OVSJG.

Counting MPD

In her budget proposal, Bowser included $30 million to hire and retain 350 new police officers over the next year. This is the first step toward her goal of bringing MPD up to 4,000 sworn officers, which she and the police chief say is necessary to have adequate response times and a consistent neighborhood presence. The force currently has 3,500 officers and loses about 300 each year; the police department projects that it would take a decade to reach 4,000 officers.

While the council approved most of Bowser’s proposed increase for MPD, not all policymakers or residents are sold on the 4,000 number as a long-range policy. Beyond those who have sought to defund or reduce the police force, multiple groups have called for an audit to determine how many police officers D.C. needs.

While some MPD information is already public, the BSA will require the police department to release additional data, including the unit of officers that make stops. All information on stops and use of force will have to be posted on the MPD website, along with a report on the number of sworn officers and civilian employees, where officers serve, the number of vacant positions, and standard salaries. MPD will also have to provide an annual report on overtime spending, expenditures and projected hiring.

The BSA will next go to the mayor for approval. Due to the legislation’s complexity, it frequently takes several weeks after passage for the D.C. Council’s staff to finalize the text for the administration to review.

This article was co-published with The DC Line.

Annemarie Cuccia covers DC government and public affairs through a partnership between Street Sense Media and The DC Line. This joint position was made possible by The Nash Foundation and individual contributors.

Issues |DC Budget|Domestic Violence|Housing

Region |Washington DC

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