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Federal cutbacks could worsen D.C.’s affordable housing crunch

Ceola Lewis, who has been unable to work for five years, has been on a waiting list for the District’s Housing Choice Voucher Program for 37 years. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

The White House today released state-by-state breakdowns of the looming federal budget cuts, and the effects of so-called “sequestration” on the District are as dismal as in the rest of the nation, if not more so: About $1.5 million in education cuts; less aid for low-income college students; $25,000 less for child immunizations; $174,000 less for job-search assistance; and near $200,000 in cuts to senior meals programs.

But the Obama administration’s breakdown skims over one consequence of the federal cuts that could have an outsize impact in D.C., where a lack of affordable housing supply has reached near-crisis levels. Public housing is dependent on federal funding more than any other part of local government, with the possible exception of health care, and the D.C. Housing Authority warns that sequestration could have real-world consequences very quickly.

First things first: No family that currently lives in one of 8,000 public housing units or receives one of 10,500 federal vouchers will lose their home, DCHA executive director Adrianne Todman said last week.

But if the cuts take effect on March 1 and are not resolved quickly thereafter, Todman said, the authority’s ability to help families waiting for assistance could be significantly curtailed. Ninety-seven percent of DCHA’s nearly $300 million budget comes from the feds, and an expected 5 percent cut will mean vacated housing units may not immediately turn over and new vouchers might not be issued as they become available.

Nationally, the picture is perhaps even more dismal. A letter to congressional leaders signed by the leaders of three public housing organizations says the cuts will “severely disrupt” local authorities’ ability to serve families now receiving assistance, “further lengthening waiting lists and negatively impacting communities.”

On the public housing side, Todman said, “daily maintenance activities” would slow down. Matters of basic health and safety would be attended to, but other matters — like preparing vacated units for new tenants and some major capital projects — would cease. Should the cuts remain in place for several months, employees may have to be furloughed. On the voucher side, Todman said, DCHA may be forced to cut payouts to landlords, which could cause some of them to stop accepting vouchers. If a family gives up their voucher, she said, the authority might not recirculate it, in order to maintain landlord payments to the greatest extent possible.

“We would first try to reduce as much harm as we can,” Todman said. “But if this starts getting into May … we’re going to hit the wall, and we’d have to make some changes.”

The cutbacks could hardly come at a worse time: While there is widespread acknowledgment of an affordable housing crisis in the city, government investment in housing programs has dwindled in the past five years. While plenty of housing stock for high-income earners has already been produced or is in the pipeline, units for moderate- and low-income residents are becoming more scarce. Families continue to crowd the city’s homeless shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital, and Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s promised $100 million affordable housing investment won’t translate into new units for months, if not years. Reducing the assistance available though DCHA to the city’s lowest-income residents stands to make an already difficult problem even worse.

Todman is not particularly hopeful that Congress will fully restore housing budgets — “the industry that I am in has never been very popular when it comes to funding on the congressional level,” she said — but she said the consequences could be dire if DCHA’s funding, “already at the bone,” is cut any further.

“Sequestration isn’t just a fancy word,” she said. “It’s about people, too.”