Commentary: Fully Fund Human Services

Commentary: Fully Fund Human Services

The following testimony on Fairfax County’s FY2019 Budget was presented by the South County Task Force.

Our testimony is in two parts: this document and a video focused on the need for more affordable housing funding that brings in a number of supporters who were not able to spend the 6-8 hours needed to travel to and testify in person at the Fairfax Government Center.

We support the 2.5 cent property tax increase to fully fund the Human Services budget, the Community Services Board budget, and the school budget. We will support this increase among our neighbors in Mt. Vernon and Lee Districts. We also support the county’s legislative efforts to diversify funding mechanisms for counties so that we can support the city-level of services required with a city- style taxing power that does not put the entire burden on property owners.

We are delighted that the filter of OneFairfax was used to set priorities in the Human Services budget. We encourage the use of funds to help the most vulnerable such as providing basic human needs, safety from violence, early childhood education, diversion first practices, and assistance to the disabled. Only be supporting all of our residents to achieve their fullest potential can we thrive as a community.

We are especially happy to see funding for a new domestic violence shelter in Mt. Vernon. Victims from this area must not go to a shelter in Reston, with their children bused back to Mt. Vernon schools daily. A local shelter will offer them a more stable environment.

We are also pleased with the emphasis on modernizing the technical services and databases in the Human Services department under Deputy County Executive Tisha Deeghan. She told us the department must now works with 70 unconnected databases. This situation causes confusion and delays to vulnerable clients. Our Guide to Health Care Services on the Route 1 Corridor was a small effort to address the confusion people face in obtaining services in service area and one geographic area.

While we are glad to see funds restored to schools and human services after years of budget cuts, we also want to see a priority given and funds restored to affordable housing. The Penny Fund established in 2006 to support affordable housing was cut to a half-penny in 2010 during the recession. As other parts of the budget are being restored, it is time to restore that fund to a full penny.

Price–appropriate housing must become a priority of Fairfax County.

Housing first is the Fairfax policy for vulnerable residents who receive human services. While we have made progress over 10 years to eliminate homelessness, we still have 1,000 homeless people.

In the morning after spending the night volunteering at the Rising Hope hypothermia shelter at the end of March, I encountered a woman who was distraught. She said she had recently been robbed of her money, her cellphone, and her glasses. She couldn’t see and was getting a migraine and running out of medication. She was in the Diversion First program and wanted to contact her counselor. Rising Hope was closing its shelter for the summer in two days and she didn’t have another place to stay. Imagine being in that situation. She was articulate, focused, and grateful for a ride to the Gartlan Center.

Advisory groups (Human Services) and forums (Ventures in Community forum on health care at INOVA) have recommended that stable housing is needed first for delivery of other services.

But it is not only the most vulnerable who need help with housing. If we are to become a OneFairfax community, we need to provide housing and services for people of all ethnicities, faiths, and income levels. We must not become gentrified, driving our service workers to other counties further south. While people near or above area median income have a good selection of housing, people with 80 percent or below face a much tighter market, and people at 50 percent or below are really struggling. There is a need for an additional 30,000 units of price appropriate housing in the county.

Alexandria and Arlington have lost 90 percent of their affordable housing as they have gentrified and the gentrification will continue spreading through Fairfax unless we stop now to intentionally implement alternatives.

The new draft Housing Strategy is a good start in that it recommends aligning county efforts to reduce barriers to developers who want to provide affordable housing and streamline processes.

With no more federal housing being built, the focus has shifted to supporting affordable housing developers with public funds or loans and well as favorable rules and processes. The Penny Fund, the Housing Trust Fund, and the Housing Assistance Program have been used for this purpose. Their funding fluctuates but does not seem to increase in line with the need. Affordable housing developers tell us that it costs an average of $350,000 to build or restore an affordable housing unit and they can do that only with an $80,000 public contribution. Although most of the Housing and Community Development department’s $127 million budget comes from state and federal sources, the $21 million supplied by the county this year for all purposes plays an important role because of its flexibility.

We recommend that over the next two to three years the board resupply the Penny for Affordable housing fund until it reaches one full penny each year and that new guidelines from the housing strategy provide for how these funds are used for affordable housing for low- and very-low income residents.