What you need to know: A look at Mayor Bowser’s 2016 District budget

*Editor’s Note: This week, The Daily WRAG is excited to bring you commentary on the recently released 2016 federal and state budgets from leading fiscal policy experts. What issues should you be concerned about in your jurisdiction? How might the proposed budgets affect your grantmaking priorities? Check in this week for an overview of the federal, District, Maryland, and Virginia budgets, and their implications for some of the most pressing social issues affecting our region.

Next up, Ed Lazere, executive director of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, shares his take on Mayor Bowser’s first budget:

by Ed Lazere
DC Fiscal Policy Institute

Mayor Bowser’s first budget invests heavily in affordable housing, in efforts to address rising homelessness and to protect thousands of families with children from losing basic income support. She accomplished this despite facing a shortfall between revenues and the costs of maintaining city services. To fund these important investments while still balancing the budget, the mayor proposed a number of reductions and modest tax increases, including a sales tax change that will add 25 cents to a $100 purchase.

  • Building Affordable Housing: Mayor Bowser committed $100 million to the Housing Production Trust Fund to build and renovate housing. This doubles the Trust Fund’s resources.
  • Helping More Families Pay Rent: The budget expands rental assistance (D.C.’s Local Rent Supplement Program) to make 200 homes affordable to very low-income households and to aid families needing help after short term “rapid rehousing” subsidies end.
  • Protecting Families with Children: Mayor Bowser extended income and employment assistance for one year to 6,000 families facing the loss of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits. This will prevent 13,000 children from falling deeper into poverty and will give the mayor’s new human services leadership a year to address a TANF program that has not always served families well.

Despite these gains, large gaps remain to creating “pathways to the middle class,” Mayor Bowser’s stated goal. While the budget provides a record level to build affordable housing, it offers a much more modest increase to help families pay rent, yet rental assistance is key to making housing affordable to very low-income families. In addition, a one-year plan to keep families from being cut off the TANF welfare-to-work program gives time to repair a flawed system, but leaves vulnerable families with too little to make ends meet – $156 a month for a family of three.

Here are areas the DC Council should prioritize as it considers adding resources to the mayor’s spending plan.

  • Add Support to Families with Children on TANF: TANF should provide financial stability while helping parents move to greater self-sufficiency. Even with the extension of benefits for a year, the very low levels of assistance do not support family stability.
  • Expand Rental Assistance: There is virtually no affordable private-market housing in the District, which means that families with low wages or living on fixed incomes will struggle with housing cost burdens without additional assistance. Expanding rental assistance is a way to create affordable housing quickly and for the lowest-income families.
  • Increase Resources for At-Risk Students: The current funding devoted to helping low-income and other at-risk students in DCPS and public charter schools is well below the level recommended by a D.C.-commissioned study. Increasing the “at-risk weight” would allow high-poverty schools to take the steps needed to help low-income students succeed.

You can check DCFPI’s full take here for the key changes in Mayor Bowser’s budget.

Ed Lazere, the executive director of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, has led the organization since its inception in 2001. Under his leadership, DCFPI has become the primary source of independent information on the DC budget and one of the most influential policy organizations focused on the District. Mr. Lazere is recognized as a leading expert on the District’s budget and tax system, and he is looked to as a resource on a number of policy issues such as affordable housing and welfare-to-work programs.

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