Advocates Insist Housing Programs Need Full Funding

James Wright | 1/26/2011, 4:53 p.m.
A coalition dedicated to advocacy on behalf of the District's low-and-moderate income residents say that...
The shuttered D.C. General Hospital in Southeast provides emergency shelter for approximately 145 families

A coalition dedicated to advocacy on behalf of the District's low-and-moderate income residents say that cutting programs that deal with housing and aiding the homeless will not be in the best interest of the city.

That was the conclusion of the Fair Budget Coalition of the District of Columbia's Housing and Homelessness Issue Briefing at the John A. Wilson Building in Northwest on Fri., Jan. 21. Advocates for affordable housing and improved services for the homeless said that shelter has become a critical issue for many District residents.

"In the last decade, the city had a big housing boon," said Jenny Reed, a policy analyst for the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute in Northeast. Reed addressed a group of 50 who attended the briefing. "The boon is gone and the city has lost a third of its low-cost housing units. However, while losing those units, the city has gained more units that charge rents $1,500 and above," she said.

The Fair Budget Coalition is a group comprised of grassroots community organizations, human service providers, advocates, faith-based organizations and concerned community members that call for inclusive policies for the residents of the city. The breakfast briefings are co-sponsored by D.C. Council members Michael Brown (I-At-Large), Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8).

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray (D) has said that the city faces an approximately $440 million deficit for fiscal year 2012 and that "there will be pain that will have to be spread around." It is believed that programs for housing and the homeless may be cut severely due to the large shortfall.

Reed, 31, produced data that showed in 2000, there were 69,400 rental units that charged less than $750 and 12,200 that were available for more than $1,500. The data also indicated that in 2007, there were only 45,700 rental units under $750 while the number of units over $1,500 jumped to 27,400.
Reed said that rising rents are the problem.

"The rise in rents in D.C. outpaced the growth in rents in other cities," she said. "However, while the rents did rise in the city, the income of residents did not."

She presented data that showed that in 2000, 78,000 residents paid 30 percent or more of their income on housing costs whereas in 2007, the figure had risen to 98,000. The data also showed that in 2000, 36,000 people spent 50 percent or more of their income on housing while in 2007, the number was up to 47, 500.

"This clearly states that one-fifth of the population of D.C. pays 50 percent or more to live in D.C.," she said. "My research shows that two-thirds of those who pay 50 percent or more are renters."

Reed said that low-wage residents have a much more difficult time paying for housing.

"Contrary to the belief of many, D.C. has lots of low-wage workers," she said. "However, the lower end has not kept up with the rising housing costs."
Reed used pre-school teachers as an example. Reed presented data that showed that the median wage for a pre-school teacher in the District was $13.89 an hour.

"At that wage, a pre-school teacher would make $1,400 a month working full-time," she said.

"That teacher would have to pay 60 percent of their monthly income to pay for a two-bedroom apartment in the city."

Reed pointed out that city funding for housing programs have dropped within the past few years. For example, in the fiscal year 2008 budget, housing programs were funded at the level of $129 million but had dropped to $94 million by 2011.

The Housing Production Trust Fund, which is designed to fund the building of affordable housing units in the city, lost revenue from $73 million in 2008 to $28 million in 2011, according to Reed's research.

The Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP), which helps qualified low-income families with a one-time payment to catch up on their rent, was praised for its effectiveness in terms of keeping families off of the streets.

"This is a good program for people facing immediate eviction or have been laid-off from work," said Anna Duncan, the lead tenant organizer for the Latino Economic Development Corporation in Northwest. "It is more cost-effective to keep people in their homes. A person who stays in their home can keep their kids in school and can better deal with medical emergencies."

Duncan, 28, pointed out that in 2008, 3,174 households were helped by ERAP, with an average payment of $2,023. She further pointed out that; in contrast, the cost of sheltering a first-time homeless family in D.C. using both congregate and apartment-style emergency shelter in the District costs $38,444, with an average length of stay of 513 days.

Ezekiel Raspberry of Southeast can attest to the need of continuing to fund ERAP.

"My wife and I pay market rent in the building we stay in," Raspberry, 60, said. "I am three months behind on my rent because the recession has affected my ability to work, plus my wife and I are both disabled."

Raspberry said that his landlord does not want to know about his problems, saying that "corporate does not want to hear that."

The inability to pay his rent has affected him physically. "I am taking medication because of what is going on," he said.

Residents who find themselves homeless resort to emergency shelter. Emergency shelter should be supported at all costs, said Andy Silver, a staff attorney for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless in Northwest.

"Emergency shelter saves lives," Silver, 31, said.

Silver presented data that showed that emergency shelter is a very basic safety net, ensures that those experiencing a housing crisis have a stable and safe place to reside the day they become homeless and saves lives in extreme weather conditions. He said that emergency shelter is not and should not be considered a long-term solution to housing.

Silver, a resident of Petworth in Northwest, produced data that showed there are 2,470 emergency shelter beds for single adults in the city and 148 emergency shelter units for families, plus 145 overflow units for families at D.C. General Hospital in Southeast. He said that conservative estimates suggest that there are currently 1,200 homeless and/or unstably housed District youth between the ages of 12-24.

He said that the District provides 156 emergency shelter and transitional housing beds for youth.

Silver said that for the past two years, District shelters have been close to capacity practically every night.
"Homelessness is on the rise in D.C. and nationally," he said.

He said that federal funds from such programs as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families contingency funds and the federal one-time funding for the Permanent Supportive Housing program are "scarce." Plus, he said, the Department of Human Services is facing spending pressures for homeless services up to $25 million in fiscal year 2012, which represents one-third of the budget for homeless services.

"Helping the homeless is not just the right thing to do but it will save the District money," Silver said.

The Local Rent Supplement Program (LRSP) has been an important bridge for low-income residents to become more stable in regards to their housing needs, Nechama Masliansky, senior advocacy adviser for So Others Might Eat of Northwest, said.

The LRSP provides an ongoing subsidy to cover the difference between rents that extremely low-income tenants can pay and the actual cost of the unit. The program allows residents on the D.C. Housing Authority's waiting list -- which was 36,000 as of 2010 -- to rent in the private market.

Developers and housing providers also benefit because the program secures future income for operating expenses for tenants that cannot pay full rents.
"This program stabilizes people and moves them toward affordable housing," Masliansky said.

Masliansky said that the LRSP saves the city $11,000-21,000 a year per person or family, compared with emergency homeless shelter services.
Nevertheless, because of the struggling economy and severe cuts in the budget, LRSP will likely be hit at the level of $7.88 million.

"It needs full-funding at a minimum of $22 million to meet its commitments," she said.

The Fair Budget Coalition recommended to the Council that the ERAP and the LRSP programs be fully funded; work to transition residents from emergency shelter to affordable housing and produce housing for low-income residents that will lasts decades.

"We have a challenge regarding housing in the city," Masliansky said, "and it is important for city government and the residents to work together to try to fix it." WI