The Districts Dime

DC Should Seize the Opportunity to Strengthen Inclusionary Zoning And Generate More Affordable Housing

July 23rd, 2015 | by Claire Zippel

An opportunity is coming this fall to improve a DC program that creates affordable housing in new market-rate developments. The Zoning Commission will consider recommendations to modify the Inclusionary Zoning (IZ) program to produce more low-cost housing and at prices affordable to more DC households. We hope the Commission will take assertive steps to enable this important program to better meet DC’s growing affordable housing needs.

Inclusionary zoning harnesses DC’s strong housing market to create low-cost units in market-rate apartment and condo developments throughout the city. It works by allowing new residential buildings to be larger than normally allowed by zoning rules. In return for the extra square footage (called “bonus density”), up to 10 percent of the building is set aside as affordable housing.

10-7-14 Public Land

IZ has many positive benefits. It creates low-cost housing in high-cost neighborhoods, where access to public transportation, good schools, retail amenities, and job opportunities are likely to be best.  And it does so without requiring tax dollars. About 770 IZ units have been built or will soon be coming on line, with hundreds more planned, and the number will grow given record-high levels of building permits in recent years.

But there are ways to ensure that Inclusionary Zoning does as much as possible to address DC’s growing housing needs.

  • Ensure IZ serves the low income families who need it most. Due to its current design, fewer than 1 of 5 IZ units have gone to residents with incomes below 50 percent of the median for the metropolitan area, or $49,150 for a family of three. The rest are affordable to households at 80 percent of area median income, or $61,200 for a family of three. Yet the families most likely to struggle to afford housing in DC are at the lower income level.

An advocacy campaign, of which DCFPI is a part, hopes that half of all future IZ units will be affordable to families earning below $49,150. A preliminary report by the Bowser administration to the Zoning Commission agreed that IZ should better serve low-income residents. Several Zoning Commission members have asked the administration to look into even stronger affordability scenarios. A DC Council resolution passed this year also calls for strengthening IZ’s affordability.

  • Get more affordable units out of each IZ project. Setting aside a greater portion of IZ buildings will increase the number of affordable units the program produces. This may mean allowing buildings to be larger or denser, so that the low rents of IZ units are balanced by more market-rate space. Members of the Zoning Commission have asked the Bowser administration to examine how that could work given other zoning rules, and we hope all parties come up with a solution that gets as much affordable housing out of IZ as possible.

With encouraging signs from many interested parties, we are hopeful that in the future IZ will produce more affordable units that low income families sorely need in DC’s high-cost market.

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Feds Give States Options to Cover Housing-Related Services with Medicaid

July 22nd, 2015 | by Wes Rivers

At a time when the District is working to combat chronic homelessness, the federal government has offered a great opportunity to use Medicaid — a health program that comes with federal funding — to support services that help homeless residents establish stable housing. The federal government recently issued guidance on how DC and states can use Medicaid to pay for housing-related services, because of the evidence that stable housing leads to better health. The District should move quickly to take advantage of this opportunity to expand programs like Permanent Supportive Housing, which puts chronically homeless residents into their own apartment with supportive services.

The new federal guidance focuses on how to use Medicaid to pay for housing-related services for people with disabilities and older adults, as well as services for people experiencing chronic homelessness. States can broadly use Medicaid for three kinds of housing-related services.

  • Transitional services: including screening for barriers to successful tenancy, identifying resources to cover the costs of deposits and utility set-ups, and development of housing support crisis plans.
  • Sustaining services: including linkages to community resources, assistance with housing recertification process and securing required documentation, such as identification.
  • Collaborative activities – including partnerships, agreements, and coordination between the state Medicaid agency and housing organizations and providers.

The District’s Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) program provides many services like these. It places homeless residents with chronic health conditions and other barriers into housing and then provides services to address those issues. There is lots of evidence that PSH not only improves the health of participants, but also improves the fiscal health of the community at large. PSH participants are better able to get to the doctor and keep up with prescriptions, are more likely to stay healthy and housed, and are less likely to go to the emergency room. This lowers the District’s costs for both homeless services and health services.

Using Medicaid to expand PSH in DC makes a lot of sense, since the federal government covers 70 percent of DC’s Medicaid costs and since many of those who are chronically homeless are also eligible for DC Medicaid. Beyond that, expanding PSH could help the District reduce the millions spent by Medicaid for unnecessary health costs last year, related to uncoordinated care, avoidable hospital visits, and emergency room use for non-emergencies.

The District is making progress in seeing how services under Medicaid and in Permanent Supportive Housing could overlap, but more can be done. Medicaid already covers most health services in Permanent Supportive Housing for people with a severe mental illness. Starting this year, substance abuse is also covered under Medicaid and should have many of the same benefits. DC should now take up options offered by the Feds to use Medicaid for housing-related services as its next step to creatively use Medicaid to combat chronic homelessness.

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The President Can and Should Boost the Pay of Low-Wage Federal Contract Workers

July 21st, 2015 | by Ilana Boivie

Federal contracting contributes to DC’s wide income inequality, but changes can be made by the federal government to boost the wages for these workers, both in the District and throughout the nation, a new report finds.

While the District is one of the most economically successful cities in the nation, it is also one of the most economically unequal places to live and work in America. Federal contracting work exacerbates this problem, according to “How the U.S. Government Is Making Washington, DC the Capitol of Inequality,” coauthored by DCFPI and Good Jobs Nation.

Capitol of InequalityThe report finds that:

  • Federal contracting is a major source of jobs in the District of Columbia, with $21.2 billion in contracts supporting approximately 85,000 jobs—or 13 percent of all jobs in the District.
  • Nearly one-third of those jobs—24,500—pay less than $20 an hour, the wage needed to meet the basic expenses for a family of four. And a substantial number of jobs created by federal contracts pay as low as $11 an hour, essentially a poverty-level wage.
  • At the other end of the income scale, many federal contract workers make well above the average wage. Some 12,600 federal contract employees in DC make over $120,000 per year.

A look at the Senate Dining Room’s workforce illustrates how federal contracting exacerbates the city’s economic divide. The restaurant’s workers were once directly employed by the federal government, and earned living wages as well as health care and retirement benefits. Then in 2008, the government outsourced its food service operations to a private corporation, which promptly slashed pay and benefits for new hires. Jobs that once paid living wages with full benefits now pay just over $10 per hour with no benefits.

In order for contract workers to adequately provide for their families, their wages and benefits must increase. Yet currently, federal contracting firms have the opposite incentive—to depress wages in an effort to lower their prices when bidding for contracts.

To that end, the President can issue an Executive Order granting contracting preference to companies that pay at least the living wage for the local region. Establishing this preference would remove the motivation for companies to pay the lowest wages, and instead offer an incentive to increase the wages of their lowest paid workers, who need it the most.

The President himself has declared that “nobody who works full-time should ever have to raise a family in poverty.” The issuance of an Executive Order to boost contract workers’ wages would go a long way to ensuring just that, and would help to re-establish the federal government as a model employer, rather than one that exacerbates income inequality.

Such an action would not only improve the standard of living for some 24,500 workers in the District of Columbia, but will also help thousands more federal contract workers throughout the nation.

To read the full report, click here.

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The Need for Fairer Scheduling Practices in DC Emerges from Hearing

July 16th, 2015 | by Ilana Boivie

A public gathering this week served as an important reminder that far too many workers in the District face inadequate hours and unpredictable work schedules that erect barriers to providing for their families and furthering their education.

The Workers’ Rights Board Hearing, convened by DC Jobs with Justice, featured testimony from workers, advocates, and researchers about how such practices harm workers, and, as a result, are bad for businesses, too.

WRB HearingThe powerful workers’ stories included:

  • Samantha Davis, from So Others Might Eat (SOME), spoke of Lawrence, a homeless man who worked in food service. He often is forced to walk the streets all night because scarce shelter beds usually are full by the time his shift ends at 9:30 p.m.
  • RasImani Diggs, an employee at Marshall’s in Columbia Heights, said two of her co-workers were denied time off to attend family funerals, because management did not consider the deceased “immediate family.”
  • Claudia Esteve, from the Carlos Rosario International School, noted that erratic work schedules make it impossible for many people to both work and attend school. Often they end up dropping out of school, damaging their long-run economic prospects.

These stories added a personal touch to the recent joint research on unfair scheduling conducted by DC Jobs with Justice, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, and the Georgetown University Kalmanovitz Initiative. The report found that many service sector companies use “just-in-time” scheduling—where employee schedules are changed frequently in an attempt to match customer foot traffic, reservations, or sales volumes—and that this creates many problems for workers.

Those at the hearing noted that using more fair scheduling practices, such as giving workers schedules two weeks in advance, is helpful not only to employees but to employers as well. When employees receive schedules that are more predictable and manageable, their morale is higher, and they stay on the job longer. This results in higher productivity and reduced turnover costs, according to a new report by the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP). Several retail and food service employers in the District—such as El Camino Restaurant and Beadazzled—already practice these measures to improve employee retention and morale, CLASP reports.

Yet because many employers do not see the potential benefits of implementing such changes on their own, the District’s elected leaders should advance legislation to ensure that workers have access to fair, predictable schedules. These standards should include giving workers sufficient advance notice of their schedules, encouraging stable work schedules in place of just-in-time practices, and protecting part-time employees from being discriminated against with regard to pay, leave, and promotion opportunities.

The hearing also generated an idea for reforming DC’s paid sick leave requirements to help workers. Councilmember Elissa Silverman, who spoke at the event, was so moved by Ms. Diggs’ story that she suggested reforming DC’s law to allow workers to use sick leave for bereavement.

Such actions would go a long way to helping hard-working DC residents provide for their families and continue the education that they need to advance their careers.

The DC Council will likely take up fair scheduling legislation when it reconvenes in the fall. Stay tuned to the District’s Dime for updates.

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Making Sure DC Residents Don’t Go Hungry

July 15th, 2015 | by Wes Rivers

Federal nutrition programs help low-income residents have the healthy diets they need to succeed, but improvements to these programs are needed, along with policies that address the root economic causes of hunger. To address hunger in DC, the city and its federal partners should work together to boost nutrition benefits to help residents keep up with the cost of living in DC, but also invest in programs like affordable housing and job training to improve household stability.

Yesterday, DCFPI testified before the National Commission on Hunger on the importance of federal nutrition programs, like SNAP, in helping residents stay fed and economically stable. SNAP, formerly called food stamps, serves more than 140,000 residents or 20 percent of DC’s population and is responsible fo4.7.2015 supplemental photor lifting 14,000 residents out of poverty since the recession. Likewise, 91 percent of District schools are “community eligible” for free and reduced price lunch through the National School Lunch Program – meaning that because 40 percent or more of the students are eligible, all students can receive free breakfast and lunch. These programs, along with federal nutrition education programs help ensure that kids have a healthy diet and enter school ready to learn – boosting academic achievement and ability to seize other economic opportunities later in life.

That’s why it is so important that our federal partners look to increase benefits, especially SNAP.  Higher benefit levels will improve District residents’ ability to purchase healthy foods throughout the month and give them flexibility in purchasing healthy and locally sourced options. Higher benefits will help more residents navigate the high costs of living in DC, freeing up money for housing and transportation, and will lift more residents out of poverty.

However, nutrition benefits alone cannot solve hunger in DC. The District must look at the root causes of hunger like unemployment, low-wages, and unaffordable housing. Over the last decade, average income for the poorest 40 percent of DC residents has been flat. Many low-skilled workers still face unemployment or underemployment. Yet rents have increased steadily in a booming housing market. Low-cost housing in the private market has virtually disappeared, and as a result, 64 percent of low-income renters spend more than half of their income on rent.

Not surprisingly, when families face high housing costs, they are forced to cut back on other necessities, including food. A study by the Joint Center for Housing Studies showed that low-income families with severe affordable housing cost burdens spent $160 a month less on food than low-income households that do not face severe housing burdens. This suggests high housing costs make it even harder for families to get enough nutritious food.


As a community, we must address economic determinants of hunger in conjunction with improving national nutrition programs. DC has already made strides, like increasing the minimum wage to $11.50 (to be fully implemented in 2016) and putting $100 million towards affordable housing production, but there is more than can be done.

To read the full testimony, click here.

To print a copy of today’s blog, click here.

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