DC Council increases funding for affordable housing and homeless services, but advocates warn budget still falls short
The D.C. Council unanimously approved an amended version of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s fiscal year 2021 budget proposal on July 7, giving advocates less than two weeks to push for additional funding for affordable housing and homeless services before a final vote on July 21.
Councilmembers met virtually during a hearing of the Committee of the Whole to consider a series of last-minute revenue-boosting amendments after Council Chair Phil Mendelson circulated an updated print of the budget the night before.
Of the six amendments proposed by councilmembers, the four that were passed primarily increased money for programs geared to tenant relief and housing for people experiencing homelessness over what the Mayor’s original budget allocated.
One measure that passed was an amendment proposed by Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen which will free $7.4 million for Local Rent Supplement Program (LSRP) vouchers and the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP), among other things. The amendment delays a tax deduction for publicly-traded corporations for five years.
Another amendment, brought by Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, provides $5.5 million for permanent supportive housing (PSH) and $4 million for ERAP, in addition to other social services. The amendment also makes proposed funding levels for the homeless outreach program and transition-age youth shelters recurring, instead of one-time funds that would expire in the next fiscal year.
The committee voted against an amendment that would have shifted $35 million from a planned streetcar expansion along Benning Road NE toward urgent repairs to public housing units and another amendment that would have raised funding for ERAP and affordable housing by raising income tax rates on D.C. residents making more than $250,000 per year.
During the committee’s July 7 meeting, Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent Gray, a proponent of the streetcar expansion whose funding advocates wanted to reduce, said doing so “breaks a promise to the residents and businesses of Ward 7, who already have limited transportation access going east to west.”
In response, Councilmember Robert White, who proposed the amendment, said it was important to provide the D.C. Housing Authority with a predictable funding stream so that the agency could make decisions about which units to repair first.
“If we’re going to be honest, there are other ways to get around,” White said. “There are not other places for people to live who are living with mold and infestation. And if we don’t want it for our family, we would never want folks to say a streetcar is more important than the housing conditions for our family and putting public housing on a sustainable path to stability.”
Jesse Rabinowitz, an advocacy and campaign manager at Miriam’s Kitchen and a spokesperson for The Way Home campaign, issued a statement criticizing councilmembers for voting down the two amendments. A poll released by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute last month found that 72% of District voters supported raising taxes on incomes higher than $250,000.
[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]
“Yesterday, a majority of the Council broke with the wishes of four out of five voters by declining to pass a small increase on our highest income neighbors to fund basic human needs and by prioritizing funding for the Streetcar over funding for urgent public housing concerns,” Rabinowitz said. “Unfortunately, for many Councilmembers, their celebration of Black Lives Matter painted on the street does not match the ink in their budget.”
— Martin Austermuhle (@maustermuhle) July 7, 2020
Under its revised budget, the Council has increased funding for several housing and homeless diversion and mitigation programs that were policy priorities for advocates disappointed with the funding levels Bowser proposed in May.
According to a tally done by The Way Home campaign, the Council nearly doubled the $5 million investment Bowser allocated for permanent supportive housing, adding another $4 million to build an additional 118 units for individuals and 53 units for families. In total, the current budget provides $8.5 million to end homelessness for 319 households, but is still $43 million, or 1,481 units, short of The Way Home’s recommended investment level.
The Council also invested $9 million in the Housing Production Trust Fund (HPTF), on top of the $100 million allocated by Bowser.
The new budget also authorizes the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) to apply for Section 108 guaranteed loans from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Affairs (HUD) to finance new affordable housing units. According to the Council, DHCD will pledge $5 million in Community Development Block Grants each year to unlock $88 million in Section 108 loans “to subsidize the creation of over 600 new units of affordable housing projects” this fiscal year. A summary of the Local Budget Act describes this funding as “a gap subsidy resource for affordable housing acquisition and rehabilitation” that will function alongside the HPTF to advance ongoing housing developments.
As of March, D.C. had a total borrowing availability under the Section 108 program of only $77 million, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Affairs. In an email, Jennifer Budoff, the D.C. Council’s budget director, clarified that the additional revenues approved on July 7 increased the District’s borrowing capacity by approximately $90 million.
The Council also provided an additional $25 million in the capital budget for repairing the D.C. Housing Authority’s public housing stock, building on the $25 million that was previously allocated by Bowser for this fiscal year. Last year, the housing authority’s director, Tyrone Garrett, told councilmembers the agency required $343 million in 2019 to address conditions of disrepair that were “extremely urgent” in 2,610 units. An additional 4,445 units were in “critical condition,” Garrett said at the time, meaning that nearly 90 percent of the agency’s 8,000 unit-portfolio required immediate attention.
The Council is expected to vote on a final draft of the budget on July 21, at which point the budget will be sent to Bowser for her approval. Advocates including The Way Home campaign have signaled they will push for additional funding over the next two weeks before the budget is finalized.
This article has been updated to include comments from D.C. Council Budget Director Jennifer Budoff received after publication.