by Bob Schober
This section is devoted to studying the local impacts of specific issues the Trump Administration or Republican Congress will propose.
“Words may show a man’s wit, but actions his meaning.” — Benjamin Franklin
“Actions speak louder than words. Words cost nothing. Actions can cost everything.”
— Aleksandra Layland, author “Of Wisdom and Valor: The Art of War. The Path of Peace.”
“A budget is a moral document,” says author and public theologian Jim Wallis.
On March 16, 2017, President Donald Trump issued his fiscal 2017-2018 federal budget proposal that slashes domestic programs to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy, more missiles and tanks for the military and to fulfill long fancied Republican dreams of rending the social safety net. If enacted, this budget will strip Bellingham, cities across the country and, importantly, rural areas of project dollars to aid the most vulnerable among us — low-income seniors and families.
Congressional Republicans, fearing they would be blamed for a federal shutdown and under heat from Democrats, passed the remainder of the 2016-2017 fiscal year budget without such cuts. But September cometh, and October 1, the start of the new fiscal year, looms. Many senators have declared that budget proposal DOA, yet uncertainty reigns.
Trump proposes to cut the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) budget by $6.2 billion and eliminate the Community Development Block Program (CDBG) which, for 43 years, has providing keystone funding for local public and human service projects.
“The program is not well-targeted to the poorest populations and has not demonstrated results,” the budget document states.
Not so, here.
That grant program and the HOME Investments Partnership program, also proposed for the cutting floor, are critical funding elements in the building of Eleanor Apartments, under construction and nearing completion on State and Champion streets, for low-income seniors; funded a dozen projects in downtown Bellingham; funded sewer system improvements in the Town of Concrete; supported affordable housing in San Juan County; and aided Sumas, Lynden, Blaine, Everson and Ferndale with social and community improvement projects.
Trump’s budget also cuts the Department of Health and Human Services and eliminates the $4.2 billion in community services programs, including the low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps low-income households in our county. And it would also eliminate the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG), claiming it “a low-impact program.”
Those grant programs supply about 15 percent of the Opportunity Council’s annual budget, and losing them would affect about 1,000 households in Whatcom County.
“It would have far-reaching impacts on families on the edge,” Executive Director Greg Winter said. “Doing so would be ill-conceived, mean-spirited and short sighted.”
History and Dollar Details
President Gerald Ford signed the CDBG program into law on Aug. 3, 1974, which was authorized under Title I of the Housing and Community Development Act. In 40 years, the CDBG program invested nationwide $144 billion in improvements to public facilities and programs to increase affordable housing. Of the people and families most impacted by these grants, 95 percent are low- to middle income, according to a HUD website.
The grants are issued according to population size, poverty levels and housing conditions. Bellingham, with a population exceeding 50,000, is an “entitlement community” and receives direct program grants from HUD. Cities and towns of less than 50,000 population and counties with fewer than 200.000 residents are “non-entitlement” entities and receive HUD program grants through the state General Grant CDBG program. Whatcom County’s rural areas are allocated funds from the state program.
The 2016 state CDBG program for rural areas listed five grant funds. The General Purpose Grant offered a total of $9 million for “planning or construction of public infrastructure, community facility, affordable housing and economic development projects,” according to the Washington Department of Commerce. The Public Services grants offered $1.5 million “for county and community action agencies to fund new or expanded services for lower income persons.”
Federal Funds Critical for Local Projects
On May 8, 2017, the Bellingham City Council voted on the 2017-18 HUD Action Plan presented by Samya Lutz, Housing and Services Manager for the city’s Department of Planning and Community Development. The 2017 plan is the final year of the current Consolidated Plan.
CDBG and HOME funds make up 42 percent of the plan’s financing, including a $1.095 million allocation from CDBG and $674,825 from HOME. These funds are critical project financing tools: every HUD and federal dollar leverages about $7 in private and public funds. And CDBG eligibility rules state that not more than 15 percent of the allocation can be used for administrative services, Lutz said.
“The effect on Bellingham of losing these funds would be huge,” she said. “We have limited tools for raising funds for projects — the General Fund and Housing Levy — so federal dollars are really important. And with homelessness being huge nationwide, especially after the Great Recession, taking away these crucial tools would have a huge impact.”
Increase in Homeless Students
Consider this: In the 2015-16 school year, one of every 26 students, or 1,021 total, in Whatcom County schools were homeless. In 2014, there were 854.
The Point in Time Homeless Count taken in January 2017 revealed that 89 families were homeless. The actual number is likely much higher, because many parents are reluctant to reveal their homeless status for fear of drawing attention from Child Protective Services, said Janie Pemble, Outreach director for the Interfaith Coalition.
“There’s real desperation out there,” Pemble said. “Housing is the issue, because most families don’t have a safety net of family support or friends with deep pockets.”
Local HUD Projects
CDBG funds for the 2017-18 fiscal year will aid the following projects (not a complete list):
1. $85,655 for Improvements underway by the Bellingham Housing Authority for rehabilitation of the Roosevelt Family Resource Center;
2. Administrative support to the Homeless Service Center;
3. $150,000 to Catholic Community Services to rebuild Hope House for very low income people;
4. $55,000 to the Foundation for the Challenged to develop housing for the disabled;
5. $53,185 for human and social services.
In fiscal year 2017-18, the city will increase its commitment to $1.25 million for rental assistance and supportive services, according to the council agenda.
CDBG funds will be allocated to (not a complete list):
1. $48,000 to Lydia House for its program, Ending Family Homelessness;
2. $30,000 to Meals on Wheels;
3. $40,000 to Opportunity Council for housing services;
HOME funds will provide $142,500 for the Tenant Based Rental Assistance Program and helped fund the building of Eleanor Apartments.
The city’s home rehabilitation program, launched in 1977, has helped about 900 households, Lutz said. With CDBG aid, the city spends about $300,000 per year in projects of up to $40,000 that install a new roof or furnace or provide interior or exterior painting for low-income individuals or families. The low-income loans are not payable until the house is sold. Another $150,000 of the CDBG grant provides services to help people stay in their homes, she said.
Greg Winter of the Opportunity Council said the loss of HUD funds would impact about 9,000 households. And federal tax reform, also on the Republican agenda, could also have a major impact.
“The big mystery is how the tax reform package might affect the affordable housing tax deduction or do away with the low-income tax credit,” Winter said. “Budgets are moral documents, and they say a lot about priorities.”