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Mayor Muriel Bowser’s proposed fiscal year 2021 budget falls short of adequately funding critical affordable housing and homelessness prevention programs, advocates said in statements and public testimony last week.
The budget, which was presented to the D.C. Council for review on May 18, describes affordable housing as a key priority and includes a $100 million investment in the Housing Production Trust Fund (HPTF) and $1 million for the Housing Preservation Fund (HPF), which will total $4 million. Other funding includes $40 million over the next two fiscal years for the D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA) to repair its portfolio of public housing and $35.5 million for expanding and renovating permanent and temporary supportive housing.
Bowser has committed $100 million to the HPTF every fiscal year since 2015, but though this year’s investment is in line with that, it is $30 million less than the city’s request for the fund in 2019. It is also $80 million short of the amount suggested by the Fair Budget Coalition. The investment in HPF is also down from the $7.5 million in local funds allocated last year.
The $40 million for revamping public housing over two years also falls short of the Fair Budget Coalition’s $60 million per annum recommendation. In May 2019, DCHA Executive Director Tyrone Garrett told NPR the agency needed $343 million in emergency funding to repair 2,500 units that were virtually uninhabitable.
Meanwhile, Homeward D.C., the city’s strategic plan for ending homelessness, was allocated $12.8 million: $5 million of which is for building 150 new permanent supportive housing (PSH) units and the remaining $7.8 million for operating costs for new short-term family housing shelters. The PSH allocation consists of 96 units for individuals and 54 units for families — a fraction of the 1,800 units advocates have said are necessary.
In a statement released on Thursday, The Way Home campaign said the $5 million investment in new units — which comprises only 7% of the group’s recommended $71 million in spending to mitigate homelessness — “would not go far enough to address D.C.’s urgent housing needs.” Of the $5 million set aside for PSH, $1.5 million covers case management while the rest goes toward rental costs.
[Disclosure: Street Sense Media signed in support of a letter produced by the Fair Budget Coalition, which supports The Way Home campaign, that called for specific tax and budget changes to increase funding for homeless services programs]
Since the campaign’s inception in 2014, the collaboration between more than 90 nonprofits, local businesses, and faith communities has made annual budget recommendations for ending chronic homelessness, routinely pointing out that to do so would take less than 1% of the city’s budget.
In order to meet the demand for PSH, The Way Home campaign called on the D.C. Council to allocate the remaining $66 million they requested to fund enough units for 1,500 individuals and 300 families. The money would also prevent 2,150 people from entering long-term homelessness through investments in homeless prevention and diversion programs like the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP), and Project Reconnect, which helps newly homeless people avoid shelters by reuniting with family and friends or returning to their previous residences.
In their budget recommendations, advocates from The Way Home and the Fair Budget Coalition called for an additional investment of $1.75 million in Project Reconnect. Instead, the mayor’s proposal reduces funding for Project Reconnect by $1.2 million, citing fewer individuals than anticipated availing of the program this past year.
Similarly, the budget does not preserve the $2.1 million in one-time funding for homeless street outreach it allocated in last year’s budget. At the time, shifting federal priorities would have caused a reduction in street outreach services that help guide people experiencing homelessness to resources and respond to people in crisis. Instead, the city was able to expand its services, including a new DHS outreach team through Pathways to Housing and 24/7 outreach support through the Department of Behavioral Health. It is unclear if those services will be available this year with the cut in outreach funding.
The mayor’s proposal also only provides $7.9 million for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, instead of the $12 million advocates requested. The Department of Human Services said in a May 20 briefing about the budget that it would leverage federal resources to supplement ERAP’s local funding, but during a D.C. Council Committee on Human Services budget oversight hearing two days later, advocates expressed skepticism about the reliability of federal funding.
“It would be helpful to hear how many people the administration is anticipating will need ERAP, and then about how much federal funding they think they’re going to get,” said Kate Coventry, a senior policy analyst at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. “The federal government is not a perfect system and we know we might not get it fully, but I think we all can agree the $7.9 million is inadequate.”
Advocates stressed that the number of residents seeking ERAP relief will likely rise as the city’s economy remains shut and unemployment and the cost of living continues to climb. In mid-March, as speculation loomed that Mayor Bowser was preparing to issue a formal stay-at-home order, advocates asked city officials to double ERAP’s budget to $15.8 million. According to a Fair Budget Coalition estimate, even $12 million for the program would prevent up to 4,800 evictions.
As of May 7, landlords had filed more than 1,100 eviction complaints in D.C. Landlord & Tenant Court since the D.C. Council suspended evictions on March 17, DCist reported. On May 5, the council suspended the filing of eviction complaints until 60 days after the end of the District’s public health emergency order, currently extended until June 8, expires.
For many people, ERAP is often the “last line of defense towards becoming homeless” and needs to be “greatly expanded,” said Leonard Edwards, a client organizer at Bread for the City. “With the uncertainty that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to our lives, the ERAP program is going to be needed not only by older people like me on a fixed income with health problems, but people who never thought they would need this program.”
Edwards also asked DHS to ease restrictions on how often eligible households can use ERAP benefits. Currently, the program only allows for payments to be used once per year.
An analysis by Columbia University economics professor Brendan O’Flaherty estimates a more than 40% increase in homelessness in the United States due to the pandemic.
Advocates from the Latin American Youth Center and Sasha Bruce Youthwork requested D.C. Council allocate an additional $1.785 million for the Extended Transitional Housing Program, which provides homeless youth with long-term housing and intensive case management.
The budget for DHS also provides $11 million in one-time funding for the Family Re-housing and Stabilization Program and $10 million in one-time funding for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families cash assistance program.
A separate $2 million is allocated for emergency family shelter and local hotel use in light of the need to continually house homeless residents amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The temporary sheltering and quarantining of residents in hotels, which began in early April, comes as federal public health officials warn that the District continues to have the highest positivity rate of COVID-19 infections in the country. According to DHS, hotel costs range from $125 to $181 per room per night and 154 people experiencing homelessness were quarantined in hotels on May 25.
The budget also features new capital investments for the District’s over-burdened homeless shelters, including $36 million to replace Harriet Tubman Women’s Shelter, which DHS first proposed shuttering in March 2018, and $11.57 million for improvements to the New York Avenue Men’s Shelter, which the department referred to at the time as “a dilapidated facility that has outlived its life cycle.” There is also $2 million for repurposing an existing facility that has not yet been identified into a hypothermia shelter with a capacity of 100 individuals, and $1.73 million for smaller capital projects at three family shelters.
On May 19, D.C. Council began holding budget oversight hearings to hear feedback on the proposed budgets for each agency. A hearing of the Committee on Housing and Neighborhood Revitalization, which oversees DCHA, the Office of the Tenant Advocate, and the Rental Housing Commission, will be held on June 8 at 9 a.m. and will likely feature questions and concerns about ERAP and other tenant protections and relief measures.
After public hearings conclude in mid-June, each committee chairperson will prepare a budget report on funding and personnel levels for each agency under its purview. These reports also include recommendations for any additional funding the committee chairperson deems necessary. Full committee markups on the budget reports are scheduled to take place between June 23 and 25.
Once the committees have passed their respective budget reports, D.C. Council’s Office of the Budget Director will incorporate the recommendations into a single balanced budget, as required by the D.C. Home Rule Act. The full council will then review the final budget — likely in late July — and upon passing it, send it to the mayor for approval.
In addition to the council’s public hearings, The Way Home will be hosting virtual housing meetings for residents in each ward starting June 7. Those interested in participating may RSVP for their respective ward’s meeting on the campaign’s website. The advocacy group will also be hosting a virtual “People’s Roundtable to End Homelessness” on June 22.
Sasha Polonko contributed reporting.