Mayor Muriel Bowser’s proposed budget, released on March 16, includes over $1 billion to build, maintain and match D.C. residents with affordable housing. With the budget now up for D.C. Council review and debate, housing advocates — led by the Fair Budget Coalition — are pushing for increased money for several programs while also seeking guarantees that large allocations will be spent responsibly. These demands fall into the broad categories of increased funding for vouchers and subsidies, homeless services, and public housing; and improved oversight over long-term investments.
Vouchers and subsidies
Local Rent Supplement Program
The request: an additional $17.33 million for 800 tenant-based Local Rent Supplement Program (LRSP) vouchers. Advocates describe this as a modest request given that, according to D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA) responses to the council’s oversight questions, there are nearly 40,000 residents waiting for a tenant-based voucher.
Current funding: These vouchers provide rental assistance for extremely low-income families and individuals, who can use them at any rental unit where the landlord is charging fair market rent. Currently funded at $67 million, tenant-based LRSP is one of the few voucher programs for which the mayor did not propose an increased budget.
Background: Most tenant-based LRSP vouchers are obtained via a waitlist run through DCHA. This list is supposed to provide low-income residents with access to one of the only centralized government programs open to all who need help obtaining affordable housing, according to Amanda Korber, supervising attorney at the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia. One of the most common calls to Legal Aid is from residents who have been on the voucher waitlist for years, wondering what is taking so long.
The answer, Korber says, is that the waitlist has 37,160 people on it and moves painfully slowly — the list closed to new applicants in 2013 and is currently matching people who applied in 2004 with vouchers.
“People are sitting on that list and waiting decades for affordable housing,” Korber said in an interview. “Is it even a list if it doesn’t move after all this time?” She hopes the increase, if added by the council, would be the first step toward pulling people off the list faster.
The request: enough additional funding to continue subsidies for 913 families in D.C.’s Rapid Rehousing (RRH) program whose subsidies will end by September. RRH provides a short-term subsidy that helps people experiencing homelessness find housing, and advocates argue most families in the program will return to homelessness if their subsidy expires.
Current funding: The mayor’s proposed budget increases the RRH budget by $45 million from last year’s approved budget, though due to mid-year increases in fiscal year 2022, the funding level would stay functionally the same. The proposed budget does not provide the funding necessary to extend existing subsidies for current participants.
The stakes: “The rug is almost literally going to be pulled from under them if there is no funding,” Daniel del Pielago, the organizing director at Empower DC, said in an interview.
Also: Rounding out the Fair Budget Coalition voucher demand is $27.7 million in Targeted Affordable Housing (TAH) vouchers to serve 1,040 families. TAH — a long-term voucher for families in the homeless service system that combines housing support with a case manager — sees no new money in Bowser’s proposed budget, with $21 million in funding.
The request: enough money to ensure D.C.-funded shelters can remain open 24/7, limiting the stress people experiencing homelessness face about where to go during the day; money to ensure the D.C. Department of Human Services (DHS) can continue providing portable restrooms and handwashing stations at encampments; and $300,000 more for Project Reconnect, a diversion program that helps people who are newly experiencing homelessness avoid shelters and instead stay with family or move directly into housing.
Current funding: Bowser’s budget includes a $727,000 increase for Project Reconnect, bringing the budget to $1.2 million, but Kate Coventry, a senior policy analyst at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, testified at a March 31 oversight hearing that the number of newly homeless individuals is likely to skyrocket as people approach a benefits cliff.
Implementation: Advocates say the mayor’s proposed budget fully funded their asks for Permanent Supportive Housing vouchers, which provide subsidized housing to people experiencing chronic homelessness. Jesse Rabinowitz, senior manager for policy and advocacy at Miriam’s Kitchen, said he appreciates the funding boost but remains concerned about whether these vouchers will actually get to the people who need them.
“We have the Permanent Supportive Housing resources to end chronic homelessness for 3,000 individuals, which is phenomenal,” he said in an interview.
But while the District has granted 1,812 vouchers this year to people in need of housing, only 120 have actually moved into housing so far. The process can take over 100 days, and voucher holders often struggle to find leases due to source-of-income discrimination and poor housing conditions.
“We’re about 10% of where we should be,” Rabinowitz said of the current pace.
The request: $60 million each year for public housing repairs over the next decade. This demand has two goals — first, to enable repairs as soon as possible, and second, to ensure there is money in the long term to make up for years without substantive repairs. A few advocates who testified at oversight hearings, including Dr. Janet Phoenix from the D.C. Asthma Coalition, also asked the council to include money to remediate environmental issues and help inspectors spot health risks faster.
Current funding: Bowser’s proposed budget funds public housing repairs at $110 million over three years, with $50 million in the first year, $41.1 million in the second, and $19.3 million in the third.
Background: The funding level proposed by the mayor would be change-making, del Pielago said. But the problem is much larger. Former DCHA Director Tyrone Garrett first identified what del Pielago calls the “sky-is-falling number” needed to fully repair all public housing in D.C. — $2.2 billion. Though that estimate is from 2019, the housing authority has had little success with comprehensive repairs since then, as multiple residents testified at a March 30 budget oversight hearing.
“People have lived in these terrible conditions for a very long time,” del Pielago said.
Implementation: For two public housing investments included in Bowser’s budget, advocates aren’t asking for more money, but instead for more oversight. The first — the New Communities Initiative, which was supposed to redevelop Barry Farm, Park Morton, Northwest One and Lincoln Heights — received another $219 million. According to del Pielago and Park Morton resident Shonta High, who testified at the hearing, little progress has been made so far, although many residents have been displaced. If the initiative is going to continue, High testified, residents need to know how the money will be used.
Investments in affordable housing
The request: increased oversight of the Housing Production Trust Fund (HPTF), particularly given Bower’s proposed FY 2023 investment of $500 million. The HPTF is supposed to fund the creation of affordable housing in D.C. and is legally required to use half its money to produce housing for individuals and families making no more than 30% of the area median income (AMI).
The problem: The fund has failed to meet this legal requirement for several years, spending just 27% on deeply affordable housing in 2021. That is nonetheless an increase from the prior two years — 13% in 2019, and 18% in 2020.
The HPTF’s use of the available funding is limited by the proposals developers submit, interim Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) Director Drew Hubbard testified on April 7. Another rationale offered by developers and city officials is that deeply affordable units generally require greater public subsidies to offset the limited availability of private financing.
But Brit Ruffin, senior counsel at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, thinks there are a few policy decisions behind this failure. In administering the fund, DHCD has made a choice to prioritize mixed-income housing and has shied away from creating buildings that are majority 0-30% AMI, she said.
“Consistently, 0-30% is the most needed in the city, and it’s consistently the most underproduced,” Ruffin said.
The solution: To fix this, advocates say, the council needs to conduct more oversight of the use of the funds. Ruffin and other advocates support legislation currently before the council that would add new accountability measures by requiring DHCD to release reports on why officials chose to fund each project; explain any failures to meet the 50% goal; and detail how many units are being created for extremely low-income households. Ruffin also suggested potentially separating the HPTF into two pots of money to preserve half for 0-30% AMI.
Additionally, advocates are asking that this year’s budget set aside even more for deeply affordable units. Specifically, they want $82 million of the proposed $500 million allocation added to the half that is supposed to be reserved for 0-30% AMI. This would replace the $82 million that was misspent in 2020, according to a report from D.C.’s inspector general. The report found that money spent did not guarantee affordable housing was created, and that some developers were overpaid.
Next steps: Council committees will meet to mark up agency budgets on April 20 and 21 in preparation for deliberations on the overall budget at a work session tentatively scheduled for April 27 and the subsequent preparation of a draft proposal by D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson. The D.C. Council will hold its first formal vote on its draft budget proposal on May 10 and 24, according to the current schedule.