The Districts Dime

A New Future for New Communities

September 30th, 2014 | by Jessica Fulton


A new report commissioned by the District acknowledges that an effort to transform four communities characterized by deteriorated public housing — the New Communities Initiative — is way behind schedule and needs a reset. To reach completion, the project needs an additional $200 million and a host of administrative changes. But the challenges in redeveloping these areas — Barry Farm, Lincoln Heights/Richardson Dwellings, Northwest One, and Park Morton —  serious questions about whether this is the best way to use such a large amount of public resources. 

Some recommendations, such as updating project timelines and creating a well-defined management system, would help ease resident fears; others, like eliminating the requirement to replace the large bedroom sizes of some apartments, could prove to be harmful to the communities. 

Given the District’s serious affordable housing problems, it makes sense that any effort to redevelop public housing should maintain the affordability and protections residents currently have and should reject changes that may limit affordable housing creation and retention. With that in mind, some of the Policy Advisor’s Recommendations on the District of Columbia’s New Communities Initiative appear reasonable: 

  • Update timelines to be more realistic: Right now, none of the projects is on schedule, leaving residents unsure of their futures. 
  • Clearly define the roles and responsibilities of the District and the DC Housing Authority. These agencies must work together on the New Communities Initiative, but as of yet lack well-defined written guidelines for who is responsible for which tasks. 
  • Establish uniform and fair rules for which residents will be allowed to move into replacement housing. The requirements residents must meet to qualify for the new housing are not clear to all residents. In addition, residents will likely have to meet qualifications set by the developer of each property, which could make it difficult for some residents to return. The requirements should be designed to broadly allow residents who were following rules in their former home to qualify for a new one. 

The report also includes some recommendations that might negatively affect New Communities’ residents. These include: 

  • Broadening the geographic boundaries for each site. The report recommends developing replacement units beyond the boundaries of existing communities because it has been difficult for the District to find affordable land at certain sites. This could disperse members of tightly knit communities, many of whom may want to remain in their neighborhoods.  At Barry Farm, for example, 70 percent of residents want to return to their community.
  • Not replacing all large public housing units. The report argues that because larger bedroom sizes are not economical, the District should find other options for larger families. But because public housing is often the “housing of last resort” for families with no other options, this could diminish housing opportunities for large families.   

The report finds that $200 million in funding — which has not been identified — is needed to complete the New Communities Initiative redevelopment, and this figure does not include infrastructure improvements that will bring the cost even higher. With such a large investment needed, it may be time to take a look at the goal of this project — revitalizing housing for public housing residents — and decide how to best move forward. This could mean continuing with the New Communities plan, but it would also be worth exploring other approaches.  

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How to Meet the Needs of Soccer Stadium Neighbors? A Community Benefits Agreement

September 26th, 2014 | by Wes Rivers

6-9-14 Stadium Hearing blog f1

Mayor Gray’s proposal for a new soccer stadium at Buzzard Point raises a number of concerns. But for neighbors in Southwest, the most important issue is the impact on their community, their homes, and job opportunities. That’s why a coalition of Southwest residents, led by the Community Benefits Coordinating Council, have approached District officials and DC United with a detailed proposal to protect the community and provide job, recreation, and other opportunities to nearby residents. 

The residential neighborhood adjacent to Buzzard Point is economically diverse – with affordable and public housing units, as well as mixed income condominium and apartment buildings. However, the community has not benefited much from the development at Nationals Park and the Navy Yard, and has several pressing needs – including jobs, work-readiness and training, access to health care, and inadequate recreational facilities. 

That’s why the coalition has begun negotiations with the city and the team for a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) – a legally binding contract to address specified community needs. CBAs across the country have helped low- and moderate-income neighborhoods benefit from big development projects. For example, a CBA tied to the development of Staples Center in Los Angeles led to new parks and recreational space, job readiness programs, and affordable housing. 

Here are the highlights of the Southwest community’s CBA request: 

Preserve Affordable Housing: The coalition is asking that the city commit to preserving the existing affordable housing in the area, because the stadium and related development could create pressure to redevelop older public housing buildings. Affordable housing preservation will allow lower-income residents to stay in the neighborhood and take advantage of the jobs and amenities from the new development.

 Support Jobs: The proposed CBA calls for the team to set aside some of the stadium’s construction and operation (ticketing, concessions, guest services) jobs for residents living in the immediate neighborhood. This, along with city funds for workforce development and training, will help residents gain long-term employment.  

Create a community fund: The coalition is asking for a $5 million community fund to support recreational and educational programming for the community’s youth. The CBA will also call for funds for the Randall Recreation and Author Capper Community Centers.  

The Southwest CBA will hold the team and the city responsible for making sure that a new soccer stadium benefits the entire neighborhood, rather than leaving existing residents behind.

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A Chance to Improve Special Education

September 24th, 2014 | by Soumya Bhat

9-24-14-special-education-blog-f1Yesterday, the Council advanced a set of bills focused on strengthening DC’s special education services. These proposals have broad community support and will raise the District’s standards to better serve students with special needs. DCFPI urges the Council to pass these bills when they are up for a vote on October 7th. Here are two policy changes from the legislative package that we think are especially important.

Expanding services to more young children with developmental delays. Currently, infants and toddlers up to age three can get services if they have a 50 percent developmental delay in one area or a 25 percent in two areas. The legislation being considered by the Council would allow children to get services earlier, as soon as they demonstrate a developmental delay of 25 percent in just one area. 

Early identification of disabilities in children can lead to better academic and behavioral outcomes and also lessen future costs to the city and society. The earlier that a child is evaluated and a disability or developmental delay is identified, the sooner they are able to receive the services they require. Low-income children may have the most to gain from early identification. Children living at or below the poverty line are more than twice as likely to be at high risk for developmental delays (19 percent) as their peers living at more than twice the poverty line (7 percent). 

Getting school-age students the help they need faster. Right now, DC Public Schools and DC public charter schools must assess or evaluate a student for special education eligibility within 120 days of a referral. The legislation proposes to change this timeline to 60 days from the student’s referral date. Keeping a child and their family waiting for half a school year for this process is a waste of learning time for the student and an unwise use of public education resources. While children wait to be evaluated, they go without the services they need, often falling farther behind their peers. 

DCFPI looks forward to watching these bills pass through the Council this fall. 

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The Path to a Better Job: Let’s Start with Adult Literacy

September 23rd, 2014 | by Ed Lazere

Maintaining economic diversity in the District, a city where housing costs are increasingly out of reach for many residents, depends in large 9-23-14-literacy-blog-f1part on efforts to help residents earn better wages. Yet nearly one in nine DC adults lacks basic literacy skills, and most are not getting services to address their educational or job skill needs. That’s why we are excited that this week is Adult Literacy Week, a chance to highlight what the District is doing to tackle literacy – and what else needs to be done. 

The need for the District to do better on adult literacy couldn’t be clearer. In the midst of a seemingly strong and growing economy, the number of residents living in poverty has grown by one-fourth in recent years. And DC’s lowest-wage workers have seen their hourly pay drop $1 an hour since 2008.  

In the District’s highly competitive job market, where many have a bachelor’s degree or more, 63,000 adults do not have a high school degree. That is nearly eight times the 8,000 residents who get help from adult basic skills programs.

9-23-14-literacy-blog-t1The District has invested in several new initiatives to prepare more DC residents for work, including a community college and a new task force focused on “career pathways” programs that integrate basic education with training for specific occupations. These initiatives are important, but more is needed.

There are other things that the District can do to jumpstart adult literacy efforts. That includes creating a new “innovation fund,” recommended by DC’s Adult Education and Family Literacy Coalition, to test new approaches and build capacity among adult education providers. A $1 million investment would be enough to get things started. Organizations receiving grants should participate in professional development and have their programs rigorously evaluated. The most successful pilots can then be expanded.

Helping all DC residents build the skills they need to get a good-paying job is an important challenge, and it should be a central part of a vision for the future of our city. 

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The Best Way to Serve Vulnerable Homeless Families: Get Them Out of Shelter!

September 19th, 2014 | by Kate Coventry

Some families become homeless simply because they earn too little, while others lose their homes after a short-term setback such as a serious illness. But a small subset of homeless families – like Relisha Rudd’s — face deep and long-term challenges such as addiction, mental illness, or chronic physical health problems. Without intensive help, these families often cycle in and out homelessness, and their children may end up in foster care.

DCFPI will highlight three strategies

Photo by: Johnathan Comer. Available here.

Photo by: Johnathan Comer. Available here.

to help vulnerable homeless families when we testify before the DC Council today on the report on the abduction of Relisha Rudd.

  • Move families out of shelter: Stable housing with wraparound case management is a proven way to help families overcome personal challenges.
  • Hire more social workers for DC General: This will help identify early the families who need most help.
  • Coordinate care: Many families are served by multiple assistance programs that are not always well coordinated. 

The District has struggled to move vulnerable families out of shelter, even though there is a program to do just that — permanent supportive housing (PSH). Research finds, not surprisingly, that parent and child well-being decline while a family is in shelter. This year’s budget included funding for PSH, but it took the District nearly eight months to move any families out of shelter into it. The budget for next year once again includes funding for PSH. The District government needs to address any administrative problems with PSH so that eligible families can take advantage of this program when needed, rather than languishing in shelter. 

A second important goal is to quickly fill newly budgeted staff positions at the DC General Shelter. These staff, added to the fiscal year 2015 budget, will provide case management to children living at DC General. The best approach would be to fill these positions with licensed social workers, who have more experience and education than the typical case manager. 

Finally, there is no process for how to coordinate the services a family is already receiving when they enter shelter. The report on Relisha Rudd wisely recommends creating a cross-agency working group to ensure that the staff from all programs helping a given family can work together. For the coming winter, a temporary procedure is needed to ensure that families currently in the shelter don’t fall through the cracks. 

By taking these steps, the District can ensure that the most vulnerable families receive the services they need to exit homelessness and tackle their other challenges. 

To read the entire testimony, click here.

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