D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser may be outpacing the hypothetical opponents for her 2018 re-election bid, but her administration’s handling of the city’s affordable housing crisis has drawn the ire of some residents.
A recent Washington Post survey revealed Bowser to be the most favorable candidate in a hypothetical vote. She snagged 50 percent of the vote, while her predecessor, D.C. Council member Vincent Gray, received 27 percent and D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine got 10 percent.
But the survey also showed 62 percent of residents felt that she had done a poor job addressing homelessness in the District and 55 percent felt she had not done enough to create affordable housing.
The two issues sat highest on the list of concerns in which a majority of polled residents found Bowser’s job performance to be “not so good/poor.”
“[Bowser] leads an administration that puts more energy into hiding the problem of homelessness and into presenting the data [so] that it looks like her homeless service providers are earning their keep, than it puts into actually decreasing homelessness,” Eric Sheptock, a longtime advocate for the homeless, said in a blog post earlier this month criticizing the mayor’s spending on homeless-related issues.
Though the city saw a 10.5 percent decrease in homelessness between 2016 and 2017, it has seen a 9 percent increase over a five-year span. For every 1,000 D.C. residents, 11 are homeless.
Sheptock, who is also currently homeless, said the city is not doing enough. He called for the city to stop dismantling homeless encampments, or “tent cities,” until it connected 5,000 homeless people to affordable housing annually.
Some agency directors disagree.
“[Bowser] has talked a lot about how to ensure that families who have been here for five minutes or five generations can opportunities to have housing that is affordable to them,” said Allison Ladd, deputy director of the D.C. Department of Housing and Urban Development. “This administration has spent more into affordable housing than any other city on a per capita basis across America right now.”
Ladd said housing programs in D.C. have seen consecutive funding increases under Bowser, including the doubling of the Housing Production Trust Fund to $100 million, which preserves about 1,000 affordable units a year, increased allotments to the city’s down payment assistance program and the addition of staff to social agencies.
“We’re in a time where [D.C.] is spending a record amount on the issue, but it’s not enough to keep up with what we’re losing to the private sector,” said Ed Lazere, director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute (DCFPI), which conducts research on budget and tax issues in the city and places heavy emphasis on issues that affect low- and moderate-income residents.
DCFPI staff contributed several testimonies calling for increased funding to support programs that addressed affordable housing and homeless in the city to the D.C. Council during the most recent budget markup process.
DCFPI said that the city’s 2018 budget appropriations of about $196 million for affordable housing and $253 million for homelessness services of the entire $13.8 billion budget are too small.
Lazere said drastic reform to the budget process will be needed to effectively address the issues of affordable housing and homelessness. He suggested increased funding to voucher programs that adjust rent responsibilities based on income, rather than programs that cap rent to a fixed rate.
“It’s often the case that we only make little changes to the budget year to year,” he said. “We should be able to tackle this issue. We need bold leadership and commitment to find the money that needed to make that people have affordable housing.”
According to DCFPI, 26,000 of D.C.’s lowest-income residents live in housing they cannot afford where they spend more than half of their income on rent. They make up 77 percent of those in the city in need of affordable housing, though only 39 percent of the subsidized apartments the city has produced are within reach of these households.
D.C. Interagency Council on Homelessness Director Kristy Greenwalt said District agencies feel a great sense of urgency to respond to affordable housing crisis, but are limited in how quickly they can realistically scale programs.
“It’s possible to spend money without having impact,” Greenwalt said.
She said the administration puts an emphasis on data-driven strategies and focusses on enhancing existing programs to help develop a pipeline to affordable housing in the city, adding that housing interventions are typically linked to other social services.
“We’ve seen that Mayor Bowser is committed to investing in affordable housing and homelessness,” Greenwalt said. “Our affordable housing crisis didn’t appear overnight and it’s going to take time to recover from the situation that we find ourselves in right now.”