DC’s vibrant and growing economy has made it a great place to live and work for many, but the benefits are not being shared widely. Our healthy economy has had troubling downsides, including an increase in homelessness, displacement of people of color from the city and widening racial inequities in access to affordable housing, quality healthcare and educational opportunities.
The DC budget – our community’s decisions about how to spend its resources – is the central tool for addressing these challenges. Budget choices can help ensure that all residents thrive, through investments in schools, affordable housing, healthcare, homeless services, jobs and training and more. Smart use of resources to support residents also lays the foundation for a strong future for the city as a whole.
DC’s growing economy and strong finances give us the opportunity to make bold investments in the fiscal year 2019 budget. The District has a proud history of supporting services that make a difference for all of us, like housing, healthcare, schools, libraries and rec centers. Yet, in many cases, those investments are not enough to meet the scope of our challenges. Affordable housing programs still make up just three percent of the DC budget, for example, and school funding in recent years has not kept up with inflation and enrollment.
The coming months will offer many opportunities to give voice to our values and help shape the fiscal year 2019 budget. We all can, and should, have a say in where our community invests its resources.
The following recommendations for the 2019 budget reflect effective ways to use the city’s resources and prosperity to create a promising future for all District residents.
The mayor and the DC Council should take important steps to strengthen access to quality healthcare, improve public health and reduce racial and economic inequities in health access and outcomes. A crucial first step is to improve the DC Healthcare Alliance program, a local health insurance initiative for residents, many of whom are immigrants, who don’t qualify for other forms of public coverage. An investment of $17 million in the DC Healthcare Alliance program would support several improvements to an unnecessarily burdensome re-enrollment process, which currently prevents thousands of residents from staying covered and receiving healthcare.
An investment of $7.4 million would help ensure that DC residents with behavioral health needs can continue to access effective treatment options by, among other things, supporting a needed increase in reimbursements for behavioral health providers to better cover the costs of providing treatment.
Meanwhile, a $2-per pack increase in the District’s tobacco tax would reduce tobacco use, reduce healthcare costs and save lives, particularly among youth. It would also increase resources for tobacco-cessation services that help residents quit.
The District’s recent efforts to create and preserve affordable homes, while substantial, have made only a modest dent in the affordable housing challenges. Workers in low-paying jobs and residents relying on fixed incomes bear the brunt of high housing costs. The crunch hits residents of color the hardest, putting communities with long-term roots in DC at risk of displacement. Yet, since 2015, DC has funded just a small fraction of the overall need for units affordable to the city’s extremely low-income residents.
Faster progress is needed. The mayor and the Council should make a substantial down payment toward DC’s complete affordable housing needs by ramping up the city’s investments in the Housing Production Trust Fund, which creates more affordable homes, and the Local Rent Supplement Program, which helps low-income families pay rent. Greater investments in affordable housing will be key to addressing racial equity, economic mobility and homelessness.
The District has made significant efforts to tackle homelessness in the past few years, but more needs to be done to reach DC’s goals of making homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring. The mayor and the Council should invest $30.8 million toward helping residents experiencing chronic homelessness. These are residents who have been homeless for years and suffer from life-threatening health conditions and/or severe mental illness that are made worse by the lack of a home. The District should also improve conditions in shelters for individuals experiencing homelessness, and it should expand the Homeless Prevention Program, which currently serves only families, to serve individuals as well.
A $5.5 million investment is needed for shelter and transitional housing for survivors of domestic violence. Domestic violence is one of the leading causes of homelessness, and providers must frequently turn survivors away because of lack of capacity.
The District should also invest in long-term affordable housing for families who need it to avoid a return to homelessness. The District should build on its investments to end youth homelessness by fully funding year two of Solid Foundations, the Comprehensive Plan to End Youth Homelessness. And finally, the District should invest $600,000 in public restrooms to ensure that all residents have a place to go.
Early Childhood and Pre-K to 12 Education
The District is not investing enough in education to give all students the support to reach their full potential. Students of color and low-income students, who represent the vast majority of DC students, experience fewer opportunities and face barriers to academic achievement, starting at birth. The budget should provide targeted resources to address racial injustice and economic inequality.
This starts with investments in our youngest children. DC should adopt pending legislation to give childcare providers enough resources to offer high-quality early education to low-income children, and to support salaries for staff on par with similarly credentialed pre-K teachers. The budget should include an $11 million down payment toward that goal for the toddlers of today.
DC must also implement the special education reforms adopted in 2014 that expand early intervention services for more toddlers with delays, in addition to providing faster evaluations and better high-school transition planning for older special-education students.
The District needs to invest more in support for school-age children, both inside and outside the classroom. This includes $25 million to give low-income students the same enriching, out-of-school-time opportunities, like afterschool and summer programming, as their higher-income peers.
The District should also provide enough funding for DC Public Schools and public charter schools to meet growing enrollment and the rising cost of living, and to ensure that at-risk funding dedicated to low-income and academically struggling students is spent on targeted programming for these students. Beyond that, schools should get additional resources to support evidence-based solutions for school discipline, like restorative justice. Every school that wants to become a “community school,” with community-based resources to deliver services like healthcare, after-school programs, adult education and early childhood programming, should have enough resources to do so.
The DC Fiscal Policy Institute (www.dcfpi.org) promotes budget and policy solutions to reduce poverty and inequality in DC and increase opportunities for residents to build a better future.