Jewel Burgess, 39, is “definitely worried” about losing her one-bedroom apartment in Northeast. She stopped paying her monthly $1,002 rent in April in a strike over the lack of cleaning and other poor conditions in her building. Now she can’t afford it after being furloughed in May from her job delivering meals for the city’s Office on Aging.
“I would probably have to move in with a relative or find a shelter somewhere,” Burgess said. “I swear to God I hope I don’t get to that point.”
Another at risk is a 36-year-old Mexican immigrant and single mother of two boys, ages 4 and 10, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she is undocumented.
She has lived in a studio apartment in Columbia Heights for 15 years but missed paying her $1,200 rent in May and June after losing her job as a food preparer at a Korean restaurant.
“This is the first time that I’ve fallen behind on rent, and it’s only because I can’t work,” she said. “I don’t have anywhere to go with my kids. I don’t know what I would do [if evicted].”
The threat of a spike in homelessness is the first sign of the devastating blow that the coronavirus shutdown has delivered to the city’s ambitious efforts to address its shortage of affordable housing. Some progress had been achieved, which was illustrated when the region’s annual homeless count, conducted in January before the pandemic hit, was its lowest since the survey began in 2001.
The setback risks aggravating racial inequalities, as both the layoffs and housing pressures fall most heavily on African Americans, Hispanics and other minorities. The effect will be similar in the suburbs, whose affordable housing programs have generally been less well financed than those in the District.
In the city, the impact will last for years. Affordable housing projects launched when the city was flush with cash are suddenly in limbo.
Developers were expecting Bowser’s budget for the 2021 fiscal year, which begins in October, to add $250 million or more to the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund. That would have been a historic increase. But the plunge in city revenue because of the coronavirus shutdown led Bowser to propose just $100 million.
The budget pressure endangers Bowser’s signature promise to create or preserve 36,000 new housing units, including 12,000 affordable ones, by 2025. Polly Donaldson, director of the Department of Housing and Community Development, said the goal remains unchanged. But developers are skeptical it can be met.
“The 12,000 affordable units don’t seem to be in reach if we don’t do more in this budget cycle,” said James D. Knight, president of Jubilee Housing, a nonprofit developer. “Without an additional investment, there are going to be really bad consequences for [planned] projects and the people they would serve.”
Knight has submitted testimony for a D.C. Council hearing Monday on the housing budget.
The evictions moratorium, combined with emergency relief from both the federal and city government, have postponed the immediate pain. The number of people behind on rent has risen but not soared.
The government aid won’t last forever, though. The extra $600 a week given to those who qualify for federal unemployment insurance is scheduled to end July 31. The House has voted to extend it through January, but there’s opposition in the Republican-controlled Senate.
“The real story is going to be when the subsidies end, the $600 extra from the feds, and when the evictions prohibition goes away,” said Leslie Steen, senior adviser to Wesley Housing in Fairfax.
Marian Siegel, executive director of Housing Counseling Services, said the spike in homelessness would occur later this year or in early 2021.
“Let’s assume the best circumstances, that we have a [coronavirus] vaccine or cure early next year. We’ll still have a tremendous crisis. None of us sees the solution yet,” Siegel said.
Housing activists are urging the District government to provide generous new subsidies, such as by erasing rent obligations for a time, rather than allowing the amount owed to the landlord to grow each month.
“We’ve been trying to get council members to sign on to cancel rent,” said Lowell Hickman, a board member of the DC Tenants Union. “They’ve got money for everything else. Why can’t they give money to landlords or give them some kind of credit?”
Said Amber Harding, an attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless: “If we put a lot of money into housing and eviction prevention, we could make the choice as a city . . . to stop the increase in homelessness.”
There’s also a risk that many fewer affordable units will be available in the future unless projects that are in early stages of development get help now.
Knight, of Jubilee Housing, said without more city money, about 30 projects representing between 2,500 and 3,000 affordable units would be postponed until 2022 or later. Many risk being canceled altogether because developers cannot afford to continue paying the carrying costs.
“Some will have to be sold. Some will be foreclosed on. Some developers could go down with the ship. At the same time, we have this human need for housing,” Knight said.
Donaldson, the housing director, said the money is not there. The coronavirus crisis has cost the District $1.5 billion in revenue in the two fiscal years from 2019 to 2021. Given that, Donaldson and private developers say, it was a relief that the city still was able to commit $100 million for the housing trust fund.
Donaldson said the key to success will be getting more help from the next federal relief package. The city is already spending about $15 million in federal aid on three rental assistance and support programs, she said, but it needs more.
“The resources I’m looking for are at the federal level,” Donaldson said. “It can’t be from local resources at this time. We have to have a balanced budget.”
The House bill includes $100 billion for emergency rental assistance, but the Senate has been cool to the legislation overall. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said he would rather see states go bankrupt than give them more federal aid to deal with the pandemic’s economic impact. The District also lost $700 million in aid in an earlier relief package, when the Senate chose to treat it as a territory instead of a state, as it usually does in such appropriations.
Donaldson said another possibility is using federal funds as a kind of collateral to float bonds to raise more money for housing amid the current emergency.
Despite the worsened economic environment, Donaldson said, Bowser remains committed to the goal of producing 36,000 housing units by 2025, including 12,000 affordable ones. (“Affordable” has various definitions. One is that the rent would not be a burden for a family of four with income of $97,050 or less).
“At this time, our goals and values remain the same,” Donaldson said. “The mayor is committed. My job is to find ways to get us there.”
The pandemic has made that task drastically harder.