Photo of activists holding a sign stating "fix public housing now"outside the DC Council on May 28.
Activists stand outside of the Wilson Building on the day the D.C. Council determined its last changes to the Fiscal Year 2020 Budget Support Act of 2019. Photo by Will Schick

UPDATE: D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson released the Committee of the Whole’s draft committee reports on the Fiscal Year 2022 Local Budget Act and the FY 2022 Budget Support Act on Monday afternoon. He also released a statement highlighting the changes in his budget proposal.

The D.C. Council is slated to take an initial vote Tuesday on the District government’s next budget, with Council Chair Phil Mendelson expected to release his proposal by Monday afternoon. The building blocks for the upcoming deliberations were on display July 8 during the council’s informal work session, at which legislators relayed the budget recommendations adopted by the council’s 10 committees to either accept the elements of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s budget plan for fiscal year 2023 or to make modifications.

During the nearly nine-hour meeting, councilmembers raised concerns about everything from the need for additional funding to support permanent supportive housing (PSH) to the need to find the dollars required to split the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) into two agencies. The following are some highlights from the meeting.

  • D.C. Council members say the city needs more money for emergency rental assistance in the next fiscal year. The chair of the Committee on Human Services, Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, stressed the importance of finding additional funds for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) for FY 2022. “Despite the $1 million enhancement included in the committee’s budget report, there’s still a multimillion-dollar shortfall,” Nadeau said. While ERAP received additional funding last year in response to the pandemic, it has been underfunded for years and tends to run out of money a couple of months before the end of the fiscal year.
  • Councilmembers also expressed broad agreement about the need for adding funds for PSH vouchers to help end homelessness. Nadeau identified the need for upward of $65 million more in funding for homeless services — specifically, to fund permanent supportive housing. She proposes to raise funds for this effort by taxing residents making more than $250,000 a year at a higher level — an idea opposed by Mendelson but urged by advocates such as the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute and D.C. Action. The mayor’s proposed budget for FY 2022 includes $20.6 million for PSH for individuals, which is about $4 million less than the year before. The funding proposal for family PSH remains the same as the year before at $18.5 million. Nadeau stressed the need to create a permanent source of funding for PSH. “Every year, we had to do some magic,” Nadeau said, referring to the varying ways the council has found to fund the program in the past. Street Sense Media reported that PSH vouchers for this fiscal year ran out in April, five months early.

[Read more: DC’s richest 20% of residents, who pay an average of 9.6% of their earnings to the District, pay less in taxes as a share of income than the bottom 80% of residents]

  • The heightened visibility of unsheltered people living outdoors seems to be an issue councilmembers are seeking to address by finding ways to fund more PSH vouchers. At-large Councilmember Elissa Silverman warned that without the right investments in housing, D.C. could become “like San Francisco or Seattle” with “tents everywhere.” Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen said that growing encampments in Ward 6 are signs of the need to fund housing. Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto signaled agreement, saying she thinks the city needs between “$65 to $80 million” for permanent supportive housing for single adults and “at least $15 million” for family vouchers. 
  • Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent Gray, chair of the Health Committee, proposes cuts to the city’s Department of Behavioral Health and Department of Health. In his committee report, Gray proposed making cuts of $6.2 million and $2.1 million, respectively, in order to provide funding for initiatives such as Produce Plus, expansion of Birth-to-Three programs, and more school nurses. His proposals prompted Mendelson to read aloud from a letter issued by the mayor saying such cuts are “reckless and threaten critical programs.” Silverman, the most vocal in her criticism, said she was “thoroughly confused” by Gray’s report and went on to characterize aspects of it as a “budget trick.” She added that “we should be careful about mental health services, especially in this budget, given the impact of the pandemic.” Gray appeared uncertain at times while responding to criticism but said he was willing to work with his fellow councilmembers to resolve these concerns.
  • Silverman, chair of the Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, takes issue with the mayor’s proposed tax cut, which she says doesn’t benefit the kinds of businesses that struggled the most in the pandemic. The tax cut is intended to help businesses recover from their losses over the past year, and draws on a surplus in the city’s universal paid leave fund. Instead of the tax cut, Silverman proposes using the money to do the following:
    • $30 million in targeted grants to small, local, and minority-owned businesses that have had significant revenue losses. 
    • $29 million to permanently exempt unemployment compensation from D.C. income tax.
    • $20 million for excluded workers from Events D.C. According to Silverman, 13,000 residents have accessed funds for excluded workers through a previous grant program, highlighting the need for this funding. Starting in June 2020, the D.C. government and Events D.C. provided a total of $13 million in relief funds for workers excluded from federal stimulus benefits. 
    • $98 million to expand universal paid leave medical benefits from two weeks to six weeks for FY 2022. Silverman said this is a racial equity issue. According to a study conducted by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, white, non-Hispanic workers are much more likely to have access to paid leave than are Black or Hispanic workers.  
  • Councilmembers held a prolonged discussion over the need for upward of $60 million to fund public housing repairs. According to the discussion at the budget work session, nearly a quarter of public housing units are vacant because of disrepair. Mendelson, however, cautioned that the council should not allocate more than the D.C. Housing Authority can realistically spend. Of the $50 million allocated for public housing repairs in FY 2021, DCHA had spent only $10 million by January, four months into the fiscal year, according to the Washington Business Journal. In 2019, then-DCHA Director Tyrone Garret estimated it would take approximately $2.2 billion over 17 years to fix the housing authority’s full portfolio.
  • Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, chair of the Committee on Business and Economic Development, proposed an array of initiatives aimed at reducing the racial wealth gap. In his comments, McDuffie said the median wealth of a white household is 81 times that of a Black household in the District. That figure, originally from an Urban Institute report, was highlighted in a 2017 analysis by the inaugural chair of the D.C. Commission on African American Affairs. McDuffie’s committee proposed $10 million for a property acquisition fund to help local female- and minority-owned businesses. His committee’s recommendations for several other similarly aligned initiatives included $32 million for child trust funds, which are otherwise known as “baby bonds.” Any child born into a D.C. household with an annual income of less than $132,000 would be automatically enrolled in the program, which deposits $1,000 into a trust fund that is supplemented with an additional $2,000 every year. The funds would be made available when the child turns 18 to be used for specific purposes such as financing an education, purchasing a home, or starting a business.
  • Councilmembers expressed broad support for funding to split up DCRA and create a new Department of Buildings, as envisioned in legislation approved late last year. Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George asked Mendelson, “What’s the plan for getting the Department of Buildings off the ground?” Recalling her own experience being on the scene at a building collapse in her ward earlier this month, Lewis George called it an “urgent issue that we need to address.” The construction project on Kennedy Street NW had passed a building inspection in May. In response, Mendelson said he believes the city’s chief financial officer’s estimate of $12 million to fund the new department is “inflated” and reiterated past comments that he still expected to find the necessary funding.

A first draft of the D.C. Council’s revised budget — likely to incorporate some of the various committee recommendations while discarding others — will be discussed and voted on Tuesday during the Committee of the Whole meeting and subsequent legislative meeting. Deliberations will continue until the Aug. 3 final vote on the Fiscal Year 2022 Local Budget Act. Votes on the FY 2022 Budget Support Act, which contains various laws underlying the budget, are slated for July 20 and Aug. 10.

This article was co-published with The DC Line.

Will Schick covers DC government and public affairs through a partnership between Street Sense Media and The DC Line. Year one of this joint position was made possible by the Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellowship, The Nash Foundation, and individual contributors.