In a major reversal from recent years, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s proposed fiscal year 2024 budget slashes funding for eviction prevention and includes few increases for homeless services and housing. The biggest win, advocates say, is funding for non-congregate shelters.
The draft budget, which Bowser submitted to the D.C. Council on March 22, is the first the mayor has proposed that does not include new housing vouchers. Housing advocates and councilmembers have roundly decried the proposed budget for falling short of advancing the mayor’s stated goal to end chronic homelessness in D.C.
“What I think is we’re going to find a lot of people with nowhere to go,” At-large Councilmember Robert White, who chairs the Housing Committee, said at a March 24 hearing on the budget.
Bowser’s proposed budget also does not fund the implementation of two bills covered by Street Sense and The DC Line in the past year. One sought increased funds for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and the other granted labor protections to domestic workers.
Homeless services are far from the only programs to see a reduction in Bowser’s proposed budget. Due to rising costs, high inflation, reduced local revenue and the end of pandemic-era federal funding, D.C. faced the prospect of a $1.7 billion budget gap over the four-year financial plan that Bowser’s team had to close to present a balanced budget.
“I haven’t seen these types of circumstances since I was a young councilmember following the last recession,” Bowser said as she introduced the budget on March 22. “It means that our resources are shrinking while at the same time, our fixed costs are increasing.”
To balance the budget, Bowser is suggesting D.C. tap into its “financial stabilization reserve,” cut vacant positions across the government, reduce spending in various programs to pre-pandemic levels and leave out a proposed free bus fare program. Her $19.7 billion budget also relies on anticipated fines from new traffic cameras.
The mayor’s introduction is the first of many steps to approval of the District’s next budget. Over the next few weeks, the D.C. Council will hold hearings on agency proposals, with testimony on the entire budget slated for April 14. Committees will then propose their changes and Chairman Phil Mendelson will present his proposal, all leading up to a first vote on May 16.
No new local vouchers
The mayor’s spending plan provides no new vouchers for people currently experiencing homelessness. The proposed budget cuts $25 million in funding for Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) vouchers, which subsidize housing for people who have experienced homelessness. However, the cuts are largely administrative and will not decrease the number of people served, Department of Human Services (DHS) Director Laura Zeilinger said at a March 28 briefing.
Over the past few years, D.C. has substantially increased the number of PSH vouchers but has struggled to use them all due to staffing shortages and a lengthy application process. As of March 15, just 907 people had moved into apartments using the 2,400 new vouchers that became available at the start of fiscal year 2022. D.C. funded another 500 new PSH vouchers for individuals in 2023, none of which have been used as of yet.
Bowser attributed her decision to withhold any expansion of the PSH program to this backlog, which both she and agency officials estimate will take D.C. through fiscal year 2024 to clear. But homeless services organizations take issue with the decision, saying the city should instead address the logjam by speeding up the process of getting people into housing
“No one thinks we are done needing vouchers,” said Kate Coventry, deputy director of legislative strategy at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. If the flat funding stands, she anticipates the city will need to fund a large PSH increase two years from now.
The budget includes $2.5 million for a recruitment and retention fund for hard-to-hire D.C. government positions, which could include social workers implementing PSH vouchers, though Zeilinger would have to apply for the money, which she said she has not made a decision about.
Another housing subsidy program, Rapid Rehousing (RRH), will see a $42 million investment of one-time federal funding. This will maintain the budget for the program, which provides time-limited housing aid to families, and allow DHS to make improvements to widely known program shortfalls. The funding will also allow families to stay in RRH for 18 months, instead of 12. There’s also a one-time $17 million investment in Career MAP — which some families in RRH use to keep their benefits as they seek higher-paying jobs — to maintain the 600 families already in the program.
Slashed eviction prevention services
DHS shocked some housing advocates and lawmakers earlier this month when it announced D.C. would stop taking applications for its Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) because funds were running out, six months before the end of the fiscal year. The abrupt announcement led many local homeless services and housing nonprofits to call for substantially increased ERAP funding in a supplemental 2023 budget as well as in 2024.
Instead, Bowser proposed cutting the annual funding for ERAP from $43 million to $8 million, linking the increased spending on rental assistance in recent years to the spike in unemployment early in the COVID-19 public health emergency. White and Mendelson are among the councilmembers who have already said they want to boost funding for ERAP.
“The current demand is double the $43 million we have this year and is not showing any signs of slowing down,” Mendelson said at the March 24 hearing, pointing out that 37,000 households in the District are severely rent-burdened.
Bowser, on the other hand, argued during her budget presentation that with the pandemic coming to a close, there is no longer the same need for a large ERAP fund, despite the number of applications for assistance — over 15,000 by the time DHS cuff off applications for 2023.
“We have to get back to the spending that we saw pre-pandemic,” she said. “In some ways, we think it matches the true need.” Advocates contend, however, that even before the pandemic, ERAP was not funded at a high enough level, with the program regularly running out of money months early.
Mendelson also said Bowser’s proposed budget jeopardizes additional eviction protections, with a 50% cut to the Access to Justice Initiative, which helps low-income residents navigate the justice system. In fiscal year 2023, when calls for help from tenants more than doubled compared to past years, half of the program’s $31 million budget went toward legal representation for people in eviction cases. Clients who worked with the initiative were able to avoid 65% of scheduled evictions.
“The elimination of these two successful tools to avoid eviction may save money in the short term but will cost far more in the long term,” Mendelson said at the March 24 hearing.
Mixed messages on homelessness services
While Bowser’s proposed budget makes some new investments in outreach services and shelters, it also cuts money for DHS employees and public restrooms, the expansion of which was a long-standing demand of the People for Fairness Coalition, an advocacy group consisting of people who have experienced homelessness.
The budget proposes to use local dollars to offset the loss of federal funds for outreach and youth services, and adds $1.7 million to create a new program led by the Department of Behavioral Health to provide case management for people on housing subsidies across the city.
While the city declined to use local funding to continue the Pandemic Emergency Program for Medically Vulnerable Individuals (PEP-V), it will use remaining COVID-19 relief funds to acquire two sites that will be used for non-congregate shelter for 245 people, City Administrator Kevin Donahue said at a budget briefing. DHS hopes to have at least one of these facilities online before PEP-V closes, and will allow people of different genders to share a room, which would reduce the barrier to shelter for couples.
While many see this as a win for the city’s shelter system, it’s not yet clear if DHS will have enough funding to maintain 24/7 shelter operations, Zeilinger said. The city began providing round-the-clock shelter due to the pandemic, a policy that can make shelter more accessible. There’s no set-aside budget allocation for 24/7 operations, but Zeilinger said the agency plans to try to continue the schedule. “We don’t want to have to cut it,” she said.
Bowser’s budget for DHS and the D.C. Housing Authority also proposes reductions in the housing subsidy for seniors ($2.2 million); homelessness prevention, including through Project Reconnect ($764,000); domestic violence services ($750,000); and a queer youth workforce program ($667,000). Some of the agency cuts come from the elimination of 112 of 211 unfilled positions, which White predicted would result in increased caseloads.
White said he sees at least three potential repercussions from leaving the agency short-staffed. “I’m worried one, that there aren’t going to be enough people to manage the programs; two, that the folks there are going to burn out and leave; and three, that the work just won’t be done to their satisfaction or ours,” he said.
Zeilinger said DHS is working through what the decrease in positions would mean for DHS.
Bowser’s proposed budget also removed $1.7 million slated for public restrooms across the city’s six-year Capital Improvement Plan. Public restrooms can be an asset to people experiencing homelessness, who generally don’t have easy access to a bathroom. The city initially funded the project in 2019, and a working group presented a list of suggested locations.
“When [the Department of General Services] provided us what the cost would be per constructed public restroom, I did not think it was supportable given how tight the budget was,” Donahue said when asked about the decision to remove funding.
Modest increases for public housing, affordable housing
After last year’s scathing federal audit of the D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA), which found public housing units unused and in poor condition, White called for D.C. to fund repairs to the tune of $500 million over five years.
Instead, Bowser proposed $115 million over two years, with most of the funding going toward rehabilitation, HVAC, plumbing and roofing projects. This investment is just a $16 million increase over what was previously allocated to repairs at the authority over the next two years.
DCHA Executive Director Brenda Donald has previously insisted the roadblock to repairs is staffing, not funding, but advocates and councilmembers disagree. At the budget presentation, White described the $115 million investment as far too low to tackle the urgently needed repairs. A previous DCHA executive director estimated the total need at $2.2 billion, though the agency has made some repairs since.
Bowser also proposed adding $31 million to the Housing Production Trust Fund (HPTF), through which the city contributes to the development of affordable housing. When combined with projected revenue from deed and recordation taxes, this would bring the HPTF up to her long-standing goal of $100 million. However, it represents a dramatic decrease from the last few years when federal relief funding allowed annual spending of up to $500 million. Nonetheless, she told the council, the spending should prove sufficient to realize her administration’s 2019 goal of 12,000 new affordable housing units by 2025 given the number of projects already in the pipeline. As of February, the city had met 59% of the target, with 7,025 new units, according to the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development.
Meanwhile, Bowser is proposing to enhance incentives for construction of housing downtown as a way to enliven the area, which she and others describe as an economic engine for the District. The budget proposes spending up to $41 million over the next five years on tax breaks for developers who convert unused office space into housing, a substantial increase from last year’s $7 million. The program was authorized by the D.C. Council last year, but Bowser officials say changes — including reduced affordability requirements — are necessary to make projects profitable enough for developers to pursue.
This version is slightly different from the version that appeared in print.
This article was co-published with The DC Line.
Annemarie Cuccia covers D.C. 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.