The Districts Dime

In Memory of Marion Barry, Jr.

November 24th, 2014 | by Ed Lazere

We at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute mourn the passing of Marion Barry, Jr., an unparalleled champion for the dignity and well-being of DC residents.

Mayor Barry understood and sympathized with District residents who struggle to make ends meet.  He gave a voice to those who often feel powerless and ignored. Among numerous accomplishments, he gave many DC residents their first job — which they remember and appreciate — an important reminder of what government can do and how important a job is to someone’s dignity and sense of self-worth.

We fondly remember working with Councilmember Barry in a number of ways to improve the lives of DC residents. Most notably, he was a champion of efforts to expand job training for adults, require businesses in DC to provide paid sick leave to their workers, and increase funding for affordable housing.

Barry perhaps stood out most for his unabashed approach to doing what he thought was right. In one small anecdote we remember, Barry was speaking at a DC Council hearing when the Chairman interjected to say “Your time is up.”  Councilmember Barry responded “I know that” and then went right on talking. He would not let formal rules get in the way of accomplishing his goals.

Mayor Barry worked every day to bring more dignity, more security, and more opportunity to DC residents. It’s a legacy we’ll never forget and one we’ll proudly be working to carry forward.

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More Than the Reeves Center: Other Changes Are Needed for A Better Soccer Stadium Deal

November 21st, 2014 | by Ed Lazere

The deal to bring a new soccer stadium for DC United appears to be making progress, with the proposal to swap the Reeves Center for stadium land likely to be taken out. The land swap has been contentious because it lacked transparency and was recently assessed by independent consultants to be a bad financial deal for DC. Instead of a land swap, the District is likely to borrow funds to buy stadium land.

But there are a number of other very important issues that remain unresolved, including risks that DC’s costs could rise substantially, large tax breaks for DC that are not warranted, and the lack of community benefits. These are important because every dollar borrowed to buy stadium land is a dollar that could otherwise go to build something else – a school or a replacement for the DC General shelter, for example. In addition, every dollar in tax breaks for DC United is a dollar not going into the city’s coffers that could be used for education, public safety, health care, or other services.

Here are issues the DC Council should consider as it moves the deal forward.   10-22-14 Soccer

  •  Set a clear cap on DC’s contribution, and ensure DC United will meet their obligations:  Final legislation should set a firm cap on how much the city will provide for land, environmental remediation, and infrastructure – and clarify that DC United will pick up all necessary costs above the cap, including future stadium repairs. It is projected that DC’s costs would be around $130 million, and this could be set in law as an ironclad cap.
  •  Consider other sites that are DC-owned:  The District wouldn’t need to borrow as much for the stadium if it used land it already owns.
  •  No tax abatements:  The deal currently includes tax breaks worth $50 million or more. Yet most stadium deals do not include tax breaks for the team, and DC’s Chief Financial Officer finds that the proposed sales and property tax breaks for DC United are not needed for the deal to go through. With tax breaks, DC’s share of stadium costs would be over 60 percent, not a fair split.
  •  Eliminate other risks:  The legislation should require DC United to line up financing and make firm commitments to build the stadium before the city starts its process to buy land.
  •  Community benefits:  Most large developments include new benefits to help the surrounding community that is most affected by development. The best way to do that is to mandate in legislation that the stadium include a binding community benefit agreement that includes the city, DC United, and a community representative.

Getting a new stadium for DC United is a good thing, but it is important to get it right rather than to rush it and get it wrong.

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Helping Low-Income Families Access High-Quality Schools

November 20th, 2014 | by Soumya Bhat

It appears that the recently adopted changes to the District’s school boundaries, feeder patterns and admissions policies may or may not move forward under the Bowser administration, with the possibility of revisions to the plan once she takes office in January. Despite this uncertainty, several of the recommended changes include key steps – outside of school boundary changes – to help low-income families access high-quality schools, and should not be derailed.

Source: flickr.com, brianjmatis

Source: flickr.com, brianjmatis

DCFPI thinks the following recommendations should be maintained:

Prioritize Placement for At-Risk Students: Starting in the 2016-17 school year, DCPS and public charter schools would set aside 25 percent of their out-of-boundary seats in the lottery process for low-income students. Currently, 20 DCPS and 12 public charter schools would be affected because of their current number of low-income students. This would promote socio-economic diversity, which is linked to improving outcomes for low-income students without adversely affecting middle class students, as long as a core of middle class children attend the school. The Advisory Committee on Student Assignment recommended that this preference apply to charter schools, in addition to DCPS, which would require a change in DC law.  

Neighborhood Access to Early Childhood Education Programs: Currently, children apply for Pre-Kindergarten through the lottery process, without a guaranteed seat at a child’s in-boundary school. The Committee recommended giving children who live near high-poverty DCPS schools (those that receive Title I funds) access by right to Pre-Kindergarten 3 and 4 slots in their zoned DCPS school. This makes sense for families who would prefer to send their young children to schools close to their home, and may help alleviate the struggle of lengthy wait lists for early childhood education slots at many DC schools. 

Subsidize Public Transit: Low-income families will need access to affordable transportation to truly be able to take advantage of new opportunities to attend out-of-boundary schools. While students can now ride MetroBus for free, their parents cannot, which is a problem for parents with very young children. That’s why the Committee’s recommendation to offer free bus passes to parents of students in Pre-K3 through 5th grade makes sense. 

As Mayor-elect Bowser reviews the boundary and admission changes, we hope that these positive steps will be allowed to move forward.

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DC Council Moves to Use DC-Owned Land To Create Affordable Housing

November 19th, 2014 | by Ed Lazere

The DC Council took an important step recently to ensure that affordable housing is built every time city-owned land is sold for residential development. The new law requires that up to 30 percent of housing developed from DC land will be affordable for low and very low-income residents. The new rules are needed because, even recently, the city has sold land with no affordable housing set-aside.

Photo by Ted Eytan: available by clicking here.

Photo by Ted Eytan: available by clicking here.

There were last-minute changes to the legislation, approved in late October, which will lessen its impact in some cases. Nevertheless, the outcome is a big step forward and demonstrates the District’s commitment to use all possible resources to make the city affordable to all residents.

The Disposition of District Land for Affordable Housing Act allows DC-owned land to be sold below market value, and in return, requires developers to make a portion of the new housing there affordable. This smart approach pairs private and public resources, creates mixed-income communities, and helps low-income residents live in developing areas with better job, school, and retail opportunities.

The new housing will be affordable to the city’s families who struggle the most with DC’s rising costs of living. A quarter of the affordable units in rental buildings will be for residents with incomes under $29,000 for a family of three (30 percent of AMI), and the rest will serve residents making up to $48,000 for a family of three (50 percent of AMI) For homeowner properties, the affordable units will be split between residents earning under $48,000 and those earning under $78,000 for a family of three (80 percent of AMI).

One of the changes adopted by the Council prioritizes public buildings — like libraries — over affordable housing when DC a project includes both housing and a public building. This means a developer could be required to use savings from buying DC land below-market value to build a new public building without having to make any of the new housing affordable.

Another amendment affects cases where the full affordable housing requirement may not be financially possible, if the land value is not enough to cover the cost. Under the initial legislation, DC’s independent Chief Financial Officer (CFO) would determine the maximum affordable housing possible from a given land sale. But a last-minute amendment made the CFO’s assessment advisory, rather than binding. This means that while an independent assessment may support 20 percent affordable housing in a given project, the developer, the mayor or DC Council could still push for a smaller set-aside.

Nevertheless, the new legislation creates a unique opportunity to use the rapid growth in property values to develop affordable housing units without using tax dollars. Low-income residents will get to live in mixed-income areas that have greater economic opportunities such as access to job centers, higher-quality schools, and greater public amenities.

In other words, the benefits of a growing DC will be spread a little bit wider.

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Helping DC Students Facing Health and Nutrition Challenges

November 12th, 2014 | by Jenny Reed

Low-income children are more likely to come to school hungry or to suffer from a serious illness that impacts their ability to learn. Improving school health and nutrition services reduces missed school days and helps ensure students some to school ready to learn, making it an important part of improving educational outcomes in the District.

By woodleywonderworks, at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/wwworks/2458666314/

By woodleywonderworks, at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/wwworks/2458666314/

Children in DC rank worse than the national average on many health outcomes including asthma, obesity, and food insecurity. This is partly because child poverty in DC is higher than in the nation as a whole.

Schools are a great place to help students with health and nutrition needs. Students who eat school breakfast, for example, have higher test scores and fewer absences. Access to school health centers and school nurses makes it more likely that children will seek care, which reduces absences and increases the likelihood that students stay in school.

The District provides a number of health and nutrition services for students, and performs well in a number of ways. Yet there are gaps that could be addressed in the following ways:

  • Increase the number of school-based health centers. Bringing primary care services directly into the school increases student access to care, reduces health-care costs and improves academic outcomes. School-based health centers currently exist at only six DC high schools in school year 2014-15.
  • Increase the number of school nurses. Ten DC schools have student-to-nurse ratios that were well above industry standards. Also, one of 10 DC public schools, and more than one of seven public charter schools, has only a part-time nurse.
  • Increase participation in key health programs. Just over two thirds of students use school health centers, and just 19 schools have requested oral care services.  
  • Increase the number of schools that use innovative school breakfast practices. The District offers free breakfast for all students in all schools. While participation has grown since the mid-2000s, it has declined in recent years in some DC public schools. Increasing the use of innovative serving practices, like grab-and- go breakfasts, can help DC get back on track to boost participation in school breakfast.
  • Add a ‘Healthy School’ indicator on school ratings. DC schools are assessed on various academic measures, but not health and nutrition outcomes. Schools in Chicago, Colorado and Illinois report on health and nutrition standards, which prompts schools to be more engaged in how they could make their schools healthier. 

You can read more about what DC schools can be doing to help low-income children succeed here.

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