Mayor Bowser stands next to police officials behind flowers and a fountain.
Mayor Bowser stands at the 38th Annual Washington Area Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Service in D.C. during May, 2017. Photo By Shane T. McCoy

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ayor Muriel Bowser’s proposed budget will reduce funding for affordable housing in fiscal year 2021 and disproportionately hurt the District’s Black residents, housing experts say.

The budget would cut funding for the Housing Production Trust Fund from $116 million to $100 million for FY21; cut funding for the Housing Preservation Fund from $11.8 million to $1 million for 2021; and cut the budget for the Local Rent Supplement Program by $2 million dollars from about $10 million to about $8 million. 

The Housing Production Trust Fund fund is the main tool that D.C. uses to create and preserve affordable housing and help tenants exercise their Tenant Opportunity to Purchase right. Affordable housing developers have said that $100 million dollars is needed just to fund existing commitments, including projects that were already awarded funding last year. If the budget does not increase from $100 million, there could be few, if any, new projects, said Beth Harrison, supervising attorney at the Legal Aid Society, and she recommended that the amount allocated for the fund stay at $116 million in the  FY21 budget.

“This money is critical for tenants exercising their rights under the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act,” Harrison said. “[There are] several deals that Legal Aid has worked on in the past year that have preserved units for low income Black and Latino residents, including individuals who are seniors or have disabilities. These are the residents right now that we need to protect from displacement the most.”

The Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act requires that tenants in buildings up for sale be offered the first opportunity to buy the building. The goal is for tenant groups to be able to purchase a building and convert the units into cooperatives or condominiums, according to D.C.’s Department of Housing and Community Development, and HPTF funds can be used by low-income residents to make a TOPA purchase and pay for renovations if needed.

Harrison also recommended that the budget for the Housing Preservation Fund be restored to at least $10 million. She noted that because the fund is matched 3:1 with private investment, cutting $10.6 million of public funding will result in cutting overall funding from $47.2 million to just $4 million dollars. 

During discussions of the budget at  D.C. Council meetings, Reginald Black, Street Sense vendor and advocacy director for the People for Fairness Coalition, an organization run by people who are currently homeless or were homeless in the past, urged D.C. to find $15 million to fund the Vacant to Virus Reduction Plan. Under the proposed initiative, the government would secure vacant units in D.C. and allow people experiencing homeless to live in them. The initiative would also provide funding to allow residents to be permanently housed in these units after the pandemic subsides. 

“Last year the Chief Financial Officer identified approximately 10,000 vacant rental units in about 3,000 buildings in the District of Columbia,” Black said at a meeting of the Committee on Housing and Neighborhood Revitalization. “Vacancies at any level in our city are unacceptable [when some people are homeless].”

Scott Bruton, the vice president for housing policy for the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing & Economic Development, noted that D.C.’s Black residents have been the most severely affected by the pandemic in terms of both infections and loss of housing or income.

Seventy-four percent of District residents who have died of COVID-19 are Black, while Black people total less than half of the city’s population.

Nationally, non-Hispanic Black Americans make up roughly 25% of deaths caused by COVID-19, despite being only 13% of the population. 

Black Americans are also more susceptible to homelessness. The 2019 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress found that nationally, 40% of people experiencing homelessness on a single night were Black. Black Americans also made up 52% of people in families experiencing homelessness. 

Bruton said budget cuts would only contribute to these disparities.

“These overlapping crises are tied directly to our nation’s and the District’s histories of structural racism, which have resulted in wealth and income gaps that impact every aspect of life, including health outcomes,” he said. “To ensure that we are protecting the District’s most vulnerable residents and acting in ways that help alleviate racial and economic inequalities, we must protect programs that secure the basic needs of individuals and families including affordable housing.”

Jesse Rabinowitz, advocacy and campaign manager for Miriam’s Kitchen, testified at a hearing on the budget on behalf of The Way Home campaign and said D.C. has prioritized funding for less essential services over affordable housing, hurting D.C.’s residents of color and causing them to experience higher rates of homelessness. 

“Homelessness, like [COVID-19] and like police brutality and violence, disproportionately impacts people of color,” Rabinowitz said. “It is not a coincidence but rather a purposeful result of public policy that the people most likely to die from [COVID-19] are the same people most targeted by the police.” 

In recent years, D.C. has overfunded housing for those with medium to high incomes, while underfunding housing for those experiencing poverty, said Rabinowitz. He also pointed out that the Metropolitan Police Department is funded at over $500 million per year. He recommended cutting this budget and increasing taxes for households earning over $350,000 to restore the budget for affordable housing.  

“The mayor’s budget does little to alter the status quo of D.C.’s homelessness crisis. Without action from the [D.C.] Council, over 1,600 households will continue to experience chronic homelessness,” Rabinowitz said. “We cannot let COVID-19 force us into accepting a manufactured scarcity mindset…Not only should we do more to end chronic homelessness, but we can afford to do more.”

The D.C. Council will continue to review the budget and is expected to pass a spending plan by the end of July.