DC Council Advances Recovery with First Budget Vote, But More Work Remains

The DC Council voted unanimously this week to advance the fiscal year (FY) 2023 budget, which goes beyond the Mayor’s proposal to make critical investments in many of DC’s most underserved communities. The Council largely kept promises made to residents last year and built on the progress toward a just recovery, with a couple of big exceptions. The largest of the exceptions being zero investment in pandemic relief for workers who were ineligible for unemployment benefits and other forms of federal aid. And, while the Council largely leveraged the District’s resources to stabilize schools, families, and communities, some choices allocate funds away from real need. More work remains in the next few weeks to improve the plan and make it as racially equitable as possible.

Many critical investments and policy changes that continue momentum toward a just recovery are well on their way to final approval by the Council. For example, the budget:

  • Adjusts downward the Mayor’s $500 million investment in the Housing Production Trust Fund (HPTF) to direct $50 million over the four-year financial plan to Targeted Affordable Housing (TAH) vouchers, with priority going to families approaching the time limit for Rapid Rehousing (RRH), and an additional $4 million to fund shallow rental subsidies for seniors.
  • Includes a reporting and transparency requirement for the HPTF. Administrators of the HPTF do not regularly or reliably provide details to the DC Council or public about funding selections made through the HPTF application process.
  • Adds $300,000 to expand Project Reconnect, the homelessness prevention program, to 171 more individuals.
  • Funds legislation that adds homelessness as a protected class under the Human Rights Act and legislation that caps rental application fees, requires landlords to have a transparent tenant screening process, seals eviction records, and strengthens voucher discrimination protections.
  • Ensures Early Education Compensation stipends reach teachers’ pockets by FY 2022 and includes measures to protect teachers from benefit cliffs due to higher income from the stipends. But the budget delays subsequent compensation payments in the long-term program to FY 2024 rather than FY 2023. It also funds the Birth-to-Three Law’s Healthy Steps, Healthy Futures, and child and family home visiting program.
  • Adds $41.6 million over the financial plan to provide additional dollars directly to schools with large populations of students who face the steepest barriers to learning. Also increases funding for school based behavioral health to stabilize grant funding for community-based behavioral health organizations (CBOs) and make permanent the one-time $10,000 supplement that CBOs received to cover pandemic-related costs.
  • Extend DC’s Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to workers who are undocumented and file their taxes with an individual taxpayer identification number (ITIN) to ensure workers can receive the credit regardless of their immigration status. The expansion takes effect in tax year 2023 (calendar year 2024).
  • Allocates $673,610 in funding to the Metropolitan Police Department to require monthly and annual reporting of budget and staffing data including: the number of officers who join and leave the force per month, unfunded staff positions, overtime spending, and the anticipated impact of the proposed budget on future hiring.
  • And, importantly, the Council reversed a move by the Mayor to repeal previous legislation phasing out the presence of police officers in the District’s schools.

Council left some other priorities partially funded, unfunded, or not advanced. For example, the budget:

  • Does not provide any cash assistance to workers who were excluded from unemployment assistance and other forms of federal pandemic relief. These workers called for the Council to fulfill the remaining $160 million of $200 million in aid requested last year. The budget includes no new money to help them meet needs or pay down debts racked up over the pandemic.
  • Fails to allocate funds for a study of the true costs of providing school-based behavioral health services within DC’s schools.
  • Doesn’t meet the full need for avoiding family homelessness. More than 900 families are facing possible termination from family RRH because they are reaching the end of their time limit in FY 2022. Additional families will face termination in FY 2023. The Council added 400 TAH vouchers with priority for these families but 640 more vouchers are needed.
  • Does not make significant progress toward meeting housing needs of the more than 37,000 households on the voucher waitlist. Advocates asked the Council to allocate funding for 800 tenant based Local Rent Supplement vouchers for these households; Council allocated funding for only 20.
  • Minimally invests in the Emergency Rental Assistance Program. While the true need is hard to measure, DCFPI and partners asked Council for $113.1 million for FY 2022 and $172 million for FY 2023, and Council only allocated an additional $300,000.
  • Does not change the Clean Hands Law to allow District residents who owe more than $100 in government debt to renew a driver’s license, a policy that punishes people living in poverty and disproportionately harms Black Washingtonians. Although the projected cost for this measure is just over $7.5 million, Council allocated zero funding for the driver’s license exclusion.
  • Fails to fund 24-hour shelter operations for individuals. Shelters were open 24 hours during the pandemic, but District officials will soon cut the hours.
  • Adds $1.1 million to right size youth homelessness contracts that have been cut or remained flat in recent years. An additional $2.2 million is needed to account for COVID-related costs and inflation.

While the FY 2023 budget takes the District in another step toward an equitable economic recovery, it also includes a few spending choices that drive dollars away from the highest areas of need. For example, the budget includes:

  • A $14 million investment in a gas station in Georgetown without a plan for use of the property.
  • A 20-year tax abatement to aid the conversion of downtown office space into housing. While the abatement requires eight percent of units built are affordable to families at 60 percent of area median income, it is unclear that this is the proper tool for housing conversions or creating affordable housing in the District.
  • $7.5 million in a so-called Vitality Fund that offers businesses incentives within targeted sectors to relocate or expand to the District’s central business district, even as funds budgeted for this purpose in FY 2022 appear unspent .

Each passing budget is an opportunity to ‘build back better’ and put the District on a path toward economic inclusion and a racially just future. We can build back from the pandemic to ensure that Black and brown communities and people currently struggling on low pay aren’t left vulnerable to the next crisis and have what they need to live to their fullest. There’s still time to make the FY 2023 budget better aligned with that goal.