Greater Greater Washington

Don't let affordable housing become a victim of speeding

It doesn't seem like there would be a connection between the amount of affordable housing DC builds, and the cost of a speeding ticket. But those two things might become directly connected this winter.


Photo by Damien [Phototrend.fr] on Flickr.

Last week, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute revealed that the Gray administration plans to pay for lower fines with $25 million in "unexpected revenue," the money which becomes available if revenue projections in the DC budget are too conservative.

There has been much outcry from drivers about the cost of these tickets, yielding proposals to lower fines from the Council, particularly Councilmember Tommy Wells. This response, however, does more than just lower punishments for unsafe driving. It also penalizes District programs, including affordable housing, which District leaders have already deemed top priorities for unexpected revenue.

In March, Mayor Gray's proposed budget included $84 million in revenue from speeding tickets, cuts to many human services and affordable housing programs, and a "priority restoration list." Top on the list are homeless shelters, youth mental health services, and the Housing Production Trust Fund.

The latest budget is the second year the Housing Production Trust Fund has had the majority of its funding used for other programs, with a commitment that it would be a priority for restoration. Of the $38 million removed in the last two years, however, the District has only restored $2 million.

Spending money first on lowering speeding tickets runs counter to the Mayor's and Council's own commitments to fund key programs with the first available resources. The Mayor and Council agreed to the list during budget negotiations. This allowed residents directly see the trade-offs between programs, and represented as a set of promises to residents about how it would spend extra revenue.

The Mayor and Council want to act quickly to respond to the public concern over the cost of traffic violations, but they have dragged their feet finding funding to restore the Housing Production Trust Fund and funding the other critical areas. They should not speed to a resolution, without looking at the other impacts this choice would bring to many people in the District of Columbia.

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Elizabeth Falcon is the campaign organizer for the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development (CNHED), an association of affordable housing developers, community organizations, government agencies and more in DC. She writes about how policies affect affordable housing at the Housing For All blog. 

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Spending money first on lowering speeding tickets runs counter to the Mayor's and Council's own commitments to fund key programs with the first available resources.

The reason for lowering fines is that the punishment is disproportionate to the crime. Basically, the level of fine is unfair. It seems reasonable to spend available money correcting an injustice before spending it on key programs.

If you don't agree with that, you could always raise additional money by instituting new unjust punishments/enforcement. For example, I'm sure lots of money could be raised by strictly enforcing public drunkenness laws in DC. In DC, you can actually be fined for having an open container on private residential property, like a backyard BBQ, so there's tons of revenue to be had there. Or, what about strictly enforcing DC's law against photographers spending more than 5 minutes at a location? That should be a serious money maker with all the tourists around.

by Falls Church on Nov 19, 2012 1:59 pm • linkreport

It's time that a way be found to raise money so those most directly affected by these cuts can all take a day off of work, then they go and form a human chain around the home of a prominent politician, not letting them leave for the day until they agree to work diligently on their demands.

Civil disobedience.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Nov 19, 2012 2:00 pm • linkreport

Falls Church,

Why was the level of the fine ok before there was a camera but not ok now? Or was it not but the unlikelihood of being caught made it ok?

by drumz on Nov 19, 2012 2:20 pm • linkreport

@Drumz

As you increase the certainty of getting caught, the level of fine ought to go down:

http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/13803/lower-camera-fines-sure-once-we-have-more-cameras/

It would make sense to lower fines, if DC adds more cameras to catch more unsafe behavior...Criminologist Mark Kleiman has done substantial research on the tradeoff between the severity of punishment and the certainty of getting caught. A long prison term might deter someone from a crime more than a short prison term, but a far better deterrent is simply arresting people more quickly and more frequently when they commit a crime.

Kleiman studied fairly complex policing strategies to achieve this in criminal law, such as focusing intense police attention on a certain area for a period of time. For traffic, it's simple. With cameras, it's possible to enforce more of the laws against unsafe driving behavior, more of the time.

At a recent policy forum, I met Kleiman and asked him what he thought of cameras. He said the ideal enforcement system would be one where running a red light, or speeding, triggered a fine every time, but the fine was fairly low.

by Falls Church on Nov 19, 2012 2:30 pm • linkreport

I get the political reality and necessity and I'm not against it per se (the point being that its important to find the level that actually gets people to stop doing the thing they shouldn't be doing). I just fail to see the difference between getting a ticket from a police officer vs. a camera and why one deserves a higher fine over the other.

Because in that case why not argue to keep fines where they are but increase them if an MPD officer pulls you over?

by drumz on Nov 19, 2012 2:41 pm • linkreport

Spending money first on lowering speeding tickets runs counter to the Mayor's and Council's own commitments to fund key programs with the first available resources.

I'm pretty sure that Mayor Gray is sympathetic to this cause, as he has spoken out in the past about the budgetary impact of the proposed reductions in speeding tickets. The momentum is coming from the Council members, who have probably reasoned that lowering speeding tickets is a bigger vote-winner than whatever it is the Housing Production Trust Fund does.

by renegade09 on Nov 19, 2012 3:08 pm • linkreport

Glad to see it discussed in the open as a revenue item.

by charlie on Nov 19, 2012 3:18 pm • linkreport

@charlie
Just curious...what is the controversy with this being a revenue item? If the cameras increase safety and also generate revenue, is that not a bonus? I have to pay a load of tax. If the Council can offset my tax bill by imposing a reasonable fee on drivers who choose to disregard the widely-posted speed limits, what is wrong with that?

by renegade09 on Nov 19, 2012 3:38 pm • linkreport

@renegade09: What a fabulous idea you got there!

Lets see now:

$80M in ticket revenue / $125 per citation = 640,000 tickets issued
Total DC FY13 budget = $9.4B/640,000 = $14687.50

So lets increase the speeding fine to $15,000 then then nobody will have to pay taxes!

by goldfish on Nov 19, 2012 3:56 pm • linkreport

@goldfish,
What you have just written is a total mis-representation of my post. I support 'a reasonable fee'; it's right there above. You'll also notice that I wrote 'offset my tax bill', not, 'eliminate my tax bill'.

Back to the point: what is the objection to camera proceeds being used as a revenue item?

by renegade09 on Nov 19, 2012 4:31 pm • linkreport

@Renegade09: because to raise general funds we have a finely-tuned tax code that is fully politically justified by DC City Council Representation. The primarily function of this code is to accounts for the taxpayer's ability to pay. Expecting fines to cover a substantial fraction of revenue circumvents that. Among other problems.

by goldfish on Nov 19, 2012 4:38 pm • linkreport

renegade09: No, the point is not about camera proceeds, the point is about affordable housing.

I don't mean to be rude, but the fact that we're all a bunch of privileged, well-off people (we can afford to comment on a blog in the middle of a week day) means that we might not be paying attention to the serious problems of those with low incomes.

This article was written to shine a light on a small part of how those problems are being dealt with within our city's government. If you're paying closest attention to the speed camera point, you've missed the bigger point.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Nov 19, 2012 4:38 pm • linkreport

@goldfish
'Finely-tuned tax code'? That's a funny one!
I *think* what you're maybe trying to say is that speed cameras are regressive because they don't take account of a user's ability to pay? But nobody has to pay a camera fine, as long as they obey the law, right? Or is it that camera revenue is unpredictable? (no more so than general taxation). Political justification? That applies just as much to camera fines as to taxation. I really just don't see any problem with camera fines going into revenue.

@Geoffrey
The DC Council consider this bill a priority. The Trust Fund is not as big a voter issue as the speed camera fines. Best of luck to the author in changing that. I have no idea about what the merits of the Trust Fund are. Is it providing affordable housing or distorting the local housing market? I have no idea. What I do know is that it ruins your day if you get a brutal speeding ticket.

by renegade09 on Nov 19, 2012 5:06 pm • linkreport

The DC area has no shortage of affordable housing. Its all in undesirable places in SE, PG county and N Virginia. Welcome to a market economy. People want to live in DC and should be expected to pay a premium to do so. If you cant afford DC, too bad, move to Maryland.

by dcdriver on Nov 19, 2012 5:45 pm • linkreport

Considering the DC "Photo Enforcement Program" was implemented to "promote safety", I don't get the logic behind the "reduced revenue" complaints.

Then again, maybe Photo Enforcement never was about "safety" to begin with. And it looks like the DC "government" and the speed camera apologists are finally admitting it.

by ceefer66 on Nov 19, 2012 5:50 pm • linkreport

I agree with previous comments that speeding tickets should not be thought of, or used as, a revenue stream for affordable housing. The goal behind speeding fines should be to deter speeding, not to close a budget gap for a program people want but are unwilling to pay for themselves through taxes.

by Paul on Nov 19, 2012 6:02 pm • linkreport

"The DC area has no shortage of affordable housing. Its all in undesirable places in SE, PG county and N Virginia. Welcome to a market economy. People want to live in DC and should be expected to pay a premium to do so. If you cant afford DC, too bad, move to Maryland."
=====
Statements like this make it reasonable for one to question whether affordable housing is honestly a priority in the "new DC".

by ceefer66 on Nov 19, 2012 6:03 pm • linkreport

Statements like this make it reasonable for one to question whether affordable housing is honestly a priority in the "new DC".

Why should it be a priority? People want to live in DC, that's a good thing, and that translates into higher prices. Those that can't afford to live here, can find somewhere else to live. They will be replaced by a more educated and more successful population. Its happening now and as it spreads the city only gets better. Gentrification works. Pure and simple.

Can someone please explain to me how this is a bad thing?

Or should we go back to the "old DC." The days of crack wars, record-high murder rates, Marion Barry, Sharon Pratt-Kelly, population fleeing for the suburbs, snowplows impounded in garages in Maryland during a blizzard because the city couldn't pay its bills, corrupt cops hired without background checks, bulletproof windows in the stores and bars on the windows of the houses.

Sorry, but i'll take the "new DC" any day, and so will thousands of others and that is why prices are rising.

by dcdriver on Nov 19, 2012 6:09 pm • linkreport

dcdriver: To be brief, you're drawing a one-to-one correlation between criminals and people who aren't well-to-do. I hope you see the logical fallacy.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Nov 19, 2012 6:31 pm • linkreport

@dcdriver
Hang on, it's OK for affordable housing to be a priority. A functioning city should be able to accommodate all levels of income, and this is necessary because the cooks, cleaners and street-sweepers need to live somewhere too; it's not good policy to expect them to have to commute because that just clogs the roads and increases misery for everybody.

by renegade09 on Nov 19, 2012 6:32 pm • linkreport

I wanted to note that the traffic fines have already been accounted for in DC's budget. They are part of the city's projected revenue, and were passed at a time when the city was seeking additional sources to balance the budget. I do not know whether the goal was actually revenue or traffic calming, and each person can draw their own conclusion.

As a result, any reductions made this year will have to be made with a trade off. The trade off that is being proposed is that future revenue, which was committed to underfunded programs including heavily to affordable housing, will become a lower priority for receiving funds until after the cost of the speed camera reduction.

It's not a question of if it should be a revenue source, it is a revenue source. So the question now is, what should the District do about the fact that they have an unpopular revenue source. We should be clear that this change would impact other programs that are unconnected, but counting on the money that would be deferred to pay for lower fines.

by Falcon on Nov 19, 2012 6:41 pm • linkreport

This entire conversation is kinda ridiculous. DC managed a 240 million surplus this year, a 90 million surplus last year.If DC wanted to fund this ~30 million dollar program, it could easily. Tying affordable housing programs to something like driver fines is beyond ridiculous. Why not increase the alcohol tax in the District and pay for it via that. With the goober hipsters paying 7 bucks for a can of PBR as it is, it isn't like they will miss it. Or add it on to cell phone bills or property tax. Tying it to speeding tickets is completely juvenile.

by affordable housing on Nov 19, 2012 6:46 pm • linkreport

@Falcon
It is not the function of the camera program to provide revenue for the Housing Production Trust Fund or any other program. So it is not fair to criticize reducing the fines on the basis that it endangers funding for these programs.

by renegade09 on Nov 19, 2012 7:19 pm • linkreport

To be brief, you're drawing a one-to-one correlation between criminals and people who aren't well-to-do. I hope you see the logical fallacy.

There are massive negative externalities to having the kind of artificially high poverty rate that we suffer from in DC. Surely you can't be arguing that's not the case?

(I say artificially high because by every measure, our poverty rate is astronomical when compared to the greater region. And we're seeking to artificially bolster it by programs like this. Not saying that's "right" or "wrong", just saying if we're going to be using large amounts of public funds, it's a debate we should have.)

by oboe on Nov 19, 2012 8:44 pm • linkreport

@renegade09: I *think* what you're maybe trying to say is that speed cameras are regressive because they don't take account of a user's ability to pay? But nobody has to pay a camera fine, as long as they obey the law, right?

Right.

Tax regressiveness has little to do with my (albeit obscurely) made point. Who is paying the city bills? Speeders, who's only incentive is to minimize fines, or wage-earning taxpaying residents, who are interested in the well-being of the city? And the civil servants who work for this money -- who are they serving?

Using speeders to pay for a substantial portion of the DC's services to its taxpayers will directly lead to a debasement of those services. Taxes are a moral obligation of citizenship, to pay for schools, transportation, law enforcement, etc. Speeders have no such obligation. The distinction is crucial. When I meet with my children's teacher, I go with the satisfaction that I paid their salaries. Akin to jury duty, squarely understood and paid taxes are an essential part of civil society.

The corrosion will of services will spread to other functions -- for example, it will encourage the government to entrap drivers to boost revenue. Many people have noted a 5 mph drop in the speed limit immediately before a speed camera; revenue certainly would be increased on the inattentive by 10 mph drop. More generally the idea of enforcing traffic laws to promote road safety morphs into a cynical game of cat-and-mouse over excessive fines that are not proportional to the offense.

I don't want to live in such a place.

by goldfish on Nov 19, 2012 8:46 pm • linkreport

Who is paying the city bills? Speeders, who's only incentive is to minimize fines, or wage-earning taxpaying residents, who are interested in the well-being of the city?

Um, both?

Using speeders to pay for a substantial portion of the DC's services to its taxpayers will directly lead to a debasement of those services.

This seems completely specious to me. Maybe you have a compelling argument that this is true, but I don't think you've made it. Having a portion of our revenues generated by scofflaw drivers is as likely to lead to the total breakdown of society as, to use your analogy, calling people up for jury duty every 5 years instead of every 2 years (or 9 months, as the case may be in DC). It's a lot of rhetoric that falls apart on a cursory examination.

by oboe on Nov 19, 2012 9:00 pm • linkreport

@oboe, if you don't like the get-what-you-pay-for argument, consider it as a straight analogy to the bag fee, where after people had time to adjust, the revenue did not meet projections. As soon as people either slow down (and get fewer tickets) or get better radar detectors, the tax revenues will go down. So it falls on the taxpayers regardless.

by goldfish on Nov 19, 2012 9:07 pm • linkreport

As soon as people either slow down (and get fewer tickets) or get better radar detectors, the tax revenues will go down.

Sure, but then it's just a windfall. During the height of the development boom, and when unemployment was at historic lows, we had a massive surplus as well. When the national economy cratered in 2007, we saw those surpluses significantly shrink. Now we're somewhere in between.

In either case it's not the end of the world. We'll adjust. Anyway, it's a nice problem to have. And if the revenue comes mainly from regional non-residents, so much the better. They've been free-riders in the areas of poverty, homelessness, and environmental justice issues for decades now. Nice to be able to recoup some of that.

by oboe on Nov 19, 2012 9:17 pm • linkreport

Don't let affordable housing become a victim of --

* Low real estate taxes *

Property taxes are progressive, whereas speeding tickets are levied regressively. Keeping property taxes low and speeding "taxes" high will disproportionately affect low income people relative to the opposite. The smart way to deal with this is to admit that some taxes need to go up, and go from there.

How high would you like to raise ticket fines in order to fund different programs? Eventually, you reach a point that can't be crossed: ticket fines become too high for a politician to support them and be easily re-elected. Apparently, we're at that point -- or possibly well past it.

There's also a lot of distressing questions related to using tickets as a source of revenue. For one, if fewer tickets are written over the next couple years as people improve their driving habits (we hope), do we then increase the fines in order to recoup revenue?

by cineminded on Nov 19, 2012 9:28 pm • linkreport

Criticizing the fine reductions because it will mean less revenue for the city is the worst argument speed camera proponents could make. This line of argument just serves to validate what camera critics have been saying about the real reason for the cameras in the first place. In fact, it's jaw-dropping to see that argument being made.

by Fischy (Ed F.) on Nov 19, 2012 11:36 pm • linkreport

[This comment has been deleted for violating the comment policy.]

by ceefer66 on Nov 20, 2012 12:33 am • linkreport

affordable housing,

You are 100% correct. Traffic fines should be used simply to punish errant drivers and deter reckless driving. Period.

A fair way to raise revenue for affordable housing would be to tax those responsible for - and benefitting from - the high cost of housing in DC. Increase the real estate and property transfer taxes.

Plus, as you suggested, raise the tax on drinks served in bars and raise the cell phone tax.

Also (and I know I'm stepping on toes here), why not impose a a use tax and registration fee on bicycles? Bike riders should help pay for the bike lanes, if nothing else.

by ceefer66 on Nov 20, 2012 12:51 am • linkreport

@drumz I just fail to see the difference between getting a ticket from a police officer vs. a camera and why one deserves a higher fine over the other. Because in that case why not argue to keep fines where they are but increase them if an MPD officer pulls you over?

There are at least three valid reasons for camera fines to be lower than when a cop pulls you over.

1. The cost of enforcement is less. Fines should ideally cover the cost to society of the infraction being enforced, and one of those costs is the cost of enforcement. If it costs $50 to issue a speedling ticket (the loaded cost of police officer's time and equipent) at $2 for a camera ticket, then the fine should logically be $48 less for the camera ticket--even if the probability of getting caught is the same.

2. Again, fines should cover the cost of the illegal activity being enforced. So if the police are only 10% as likely to catch you as a camera, it would be reasonable for the fine from a cop to be 10 times as great (in addition to the enforcement cost). A $1000 fine would be politically unacceptable, however. (But note: A speeding ticket can easily cost $500-1000 in higher insurance rates.)

3. The nature of the crime. A camera ticket is ultimately an in rem action against the owner of the car, because there is proof that the car committed the crime but no proof about who was driving. So the camera ticket is more like a civil fine while a speeding violation in traffic court is a crime.

by JimT on Nov 20, 2012 9:01 am • linkreport

Back to the point: what is the objection to camera proceeds being used as a revenue item?

Camera proceeds are revenue. That's a mathematical fact and not the source of objection. The objection is to setting fines and speed enforcement policy in a way that goes above and beyond what's needed for safety.

I understand the argument that speeders are breaking the law and that it's an undesirable behavior, so let's raise revenue from them. That would be perfectly fair if the city also had programs/policies in place to seek revenue from other types of law breakers.

For example, why is the city plugging budget gaps with revenue from speeders and not public drunkards? Public intoxication is an undesirable behavior, a safety issue, and intoxication in general is a health issue. Another source of revenue could be ticketing cyclists riding on the sidewalk downtown. Once again, that's an important safety issue, for both peds and cyclists. Both of those infractions could be enforced in a way that resulted in significant net revenue for the city. So, why is it that speeders are singled out as the misbehaving group that should fund affordable housing?

by Falls Church on Nov 20, 2012 11:33 am • linkreport

I seriously doubt Ms Falcon would object to fines on cyclists or drunkards to pay for affordable housing. She is responding to specific proposed changes from the status quo, not proposing optimal municipal revenue raising. As far as I can tell she is not requesting the higher fines remain in place, but merely that any reduction be deferred until some alternative can be found that does not impact affordable housing. Unfortunately this is not really an issue that can be discussed in those terms in any public forum.

@falls church - I think speeding is because laws against speeding were, pre camera, already a much higher priority for enforcement than the laws you mention - and traffic cameras simply introduced a new enforcement tech, while what you are suggesting is enforcing things that havent traditionally been enforced. The usualy response is that SOME speed limits in DC were not enforced (or at least not with any priority) in certain locations where pedestrians are not involved, and where the limit is, arguably, too low. I think the best approach to that is to raise the limit AT THOSE LOCATIONS to a justifiable level. Once that is done, I think it will be clear why enforcing the speed limit is appropriately a higher priority than the other enforcements you suggest (they can of course be studied on their own merits, but I dont think adding them in to the emotional speed cam discussion helps) and thus, why its a more suitable source of revenue.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 20, 2012 11:47 am • linkreport

"Criticizing the fine reductions because it will mean less revenue for the city is the worst argument speed camera proponents could make. "

And once again, I dont think Ms Falcon is a speed camera proponent. She is an affordable housing proponent, whose preferred program is put on the spot by the Mayors approach to dealing with lost revenue.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 20, 2012 11:49 am • linkreport

@ falls church - the items you propose mostly fall on DC resident. If you believed that non-DC residents who live in the region failed to pay their share of the regional burden of poverty, as clearly some DC residents believe, what alternatives would you suggest that would capture more revenue specifically from non-residents>

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 20, 2012 11:52 am • linkreport

I think it's unfair that scofflaw drivers get away with speeding.

by Mike on Nov 20, 2012 12:49 pm • linkreport

So, why is it that speeders are singled out as the misbehaving group that should fund affordable housing

They aren't singled out. The only reason this has come up is because speeding is so widespread that even though we only ticket a small minority of speeding motorists, it has become a significant credit item on the DC budget. Seriously, the major fault of the camera program is not that the fines are too high, it's that there aren't nearly enough cameras. Hopefully now that we've dealt with the fines issue, the program can be expanded.

by renegade09 on Nov 20, 2012 4:32 pm • linkreport

renegade09: The only reason this has come up is because speeding is so widespread that even though we only ticket a small minority of speeding motorists, it has become a significant credit item on the DC budget.

There are lots of other minor infractions that only a small minority are caught for, for example, littering; jay-walking; eating on the Metro. Not to mention other minor traffic violations that have important safety considerations, for example, not stopping for a right turn on red; passing on the right; failure to signal.

To only reason speeding tickets are a revenue source is because it is catch.

by goldfish on Nov 20, 2012 4:50 pm • linkreport

I know I am jumping on this late, but the point is really this. We live in a city where people are being pushed out because of the increased cost of housing. The city has been cutting affordable housing programs using the excuse that they don't have money to pay for it. Now there is money, and the city is saying, hey lets use this money to lower the fine for speeding rather than to solve the affordable housing crisis. This is a problem because it shows that our leaders have poor priorities. It doesn't really matter what the fine is, it shouldn't be lowered until other, more important problems, like the lack of affordable housing, are addressed first.

This isn't even asking that every person be housed, just that the Housing Production Trust Fund isn't raided for other purposes. Does anyone on here seriously believe that lowering speeding camera fines is a higher priority than making sure tenants have a fair chance to purchase their building before a developer turns it into luxury condos they could never afford?

by Mike on Nov 20, 2012 9:15 pm • linkreport

@Mike

The problem is that taxes still have to go up to fund affordable housing. Affordable housing isn't a one time thing.

The author's complaint here was that receipts from property-related taxes went down, no longer allowing for affordable housing to be funded in DC. We had a once-in-a-lifetime credit bubble that created this problem -- an unexpected surge and then dropoff in tax receipts. Going forward, we will be able to rely on real estate taxes to fund government programs.

Another way to look at the speeding ticket revenue is as dirty money -- a bald grab for revenue. The politicians were too weak to pursue what was needed -- a tax increase -- so they instituted a backdoor tax on speeders. It wasn't about safety to them -- they just used that argument for political cover. The pro-camera people lobbied for this cause, and in effect supported a tax that most heavily impacts low income people. Now, the politicians are experiencing pushback from the voters -- these fines were clearly too high for most of their constituents to afford. Unaffordable fines are an injustice... just like unaffordable housing.

Hence, it's misbegotten money. We should effectively give that money back. Heck, we should never have fined people making $20k/year $150 for going 55 on a highway to begin with. Then we institute a rational policy that brings in the revenue we need every year for affordable housing.

by cineminded on Nov 20, 2012 10:35 pm • linkreport

@cineminded

The Housing Production Trust Fund did not dry up because of a decrease in property tax revenues, it was drained because our elected officials chose to take money from it and use it for other purposes.

The speeding camera fines may be a back door revenue grab and not a way to make the streets safer. But the fines are what they are, and people are still making a choice to change the fines before they pay back the Trust Fund.

I agree that there should be higher taxes on high income earners in this city, I in fact worked for a long time to get the city council to pass higher taxes, and they eventually did pass a slightly higher upper income tax, with a sunset. We need to do better. Regressive fines, fees, and other back door revenue generators are not the answer.

But again, the issue here is, there is some money, there are lots of options on how to use it, our elected officials are saying it is more important to use it to lower speeding fines than to fund affordable housing. This is wrong. Its not that complicated.

by Mike on Nov 20, 2012 11:08 pm • linkreport

@Mike

The HPTF was funded in the boom years, during the economic bubble. It's on the chopping block now as a result of lower/uncertain economic expectations. It wasn't budgeted for this year... which -- wrong or right -- shows where the political consensus is.

We'll see where the pols go in the next year. "The Republican" AKA Jack Evans, is likely to push for continued lower tax rates. Not a bad idea to grow the city's high earners in the short term... but not nearly as effective as creating good school options for folks who might otherwise live in Fairfax.

Given the hardship imposed by the fines, I can't say I agree with you. I like the idea that the fines were almost a commuter tax, but they went way too far -- and it doesn't change the negative impact they had on people's lives. We have to staunch the bleeding. Two wrongs don't make a right.

Also, consider the fact that this may just be bookkeeping at work -- the council doesn't want to or can't fund affordable housing this year. At the same time (coincidentally), they want to put this speed camera revenue on next years' books -- essentially paying it forward, as it were. This may just be fiscal prudence.

To spend the extra revenue this year means that we go into greater debt next year, as camera fine revenue decreases. In a worst case scenario, we spent the $25 million this year on affordable housing, and take out $25 million in debt next year to pay to lower the fines -- all the while leaving affordable housing unfunded next year and moving forward...

by cineminded on Nov 20, 2012 11:47 pm • linkreport

@cineminded

You could just as easily say that the speed camera fines were set at what they were set for, that shows what the political consensus is. That doesn't make it right, just like it doesn't make taking money from the HPTF for other reasons right.

I originally said that I didn't think that anyone would argue that lowering speeding camera fines is a bigger priority than funding affordable housing. Apparently I was wrong. Again, I think a better argument is people are being displaced because of housing prices, bigger bleeding that needs to be staunched. And yes, two wrongs don't make a right, but when you have to pick which wrong to make right first, you should pick the one that is a bigger problem, in this case, I think that housing and displacement are bigger problems than speed camera fines.

The council could fund affordable housing. The money is there in the surplus, and they are using it to reduce speeding camera fines. This is not fiscal prudence. It is a choice about how to spend money that shows the priorities of our elected officials.

Again, this is not that complicated. We are freeing up $25 million. We could spend it on anything. The Mayor wants to spend it on reducing speeding camera fines. This is wrong when people are being displaced due to a lack of affordable housing.

by Mike on Nov 21, 2012 12:01 am • linkreport

@Mike @cineminded
You two have framed this question really well. I think @Mike has captured the sense of injustice that the OP was trying to bring up with her article. But I have to agree with @cineminded that the camera fines have to be seen to be fair and that this is a greater priority than restoring funding to the Housing Production Trust Fund. This is partly because I don't have confidence that the DC government can successfully manipulate the housing market using HPTF and I don't think it's the government's job to 'fund affordable housing'.

by renegade09 on Nov 21, 2012 10:30 am • linkreport

I think the best approach to that is to raise the limit AT THOSE LOCATIONS to a justifiable level. Once that is done, I think it will be clear why enforcing the speed limit is appropriately a higher priority than the other enforcements you suggest

I agree with that approach.

If you believed that non-DC residents who live in the region failed to pay their share of the regional burden of poverty, as clearly some DC residents believe, what alternatives would you suggest that would capture more revenue specifically from non-residents

I don't believe that's the case. Frankly, I think Arlington/Montgomery/Fairfax's poverty alleviation strategies are better than DC's. DC should be looking to learn from them rather than asking them to pay into their less-good strategies. It should come as no surprise that the strategies developed by say, Walter Tejada on Arlington's Board are better than the strategies, say developed by Marion Barry at DC.

by Falls Church on Nov 21, 2012 12:03 pm • linkreport

while I would certainly vote for Walter Tejada over Marion Barry, I am skeptical of the impact of local govt strategies on moving people out of poverty. AFAIK the differences between Arlington and DC in their current poverty rate are due to the original poverty rates decades ago - higher in DC than Arlington has ever had - and possibly differences in the rate at which poor people leave each jurisdiction - and possibly due to differences among the poor (not to hit a hot button, but IIUC many black people had already left poverty by the early 1980s, and those who were still in poverty, were in effected selected to be those harder to help. While new immigrants have moved quickly out of poverty whatever jurisdiction they live in.

In any case, it sounds like you agree with me that IF you beleive that DCs high poverty rate is NOT due to District policies, nor the suburbs low poverty rate due to superior policies at alleviating poverty (it may be due to OTHER policies) then attempting to tax suburbanites may be justified, and speeding cams are one way - perhaps the only way - to do it.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 21, 2012 12:19 pm • linkreport

Prince Georges County has the highest poverty rate of all the suburban jurisdictions, while the most notorious revenue-raising speed cameras are on roads that lead into the county. So the idea that speed cameras have been set up to more equitably fund poverty programs is laughable.

Actually, the entire premise of the post, well argued by Mike toward the end of this discussion, is quite strange. CM Wells and the Maryor are not proposing to "spend money by lowering speed limits." They are simply proposing limit the increase in revenue from fines that would otherwise occur as more cameras are installed.

It is reasonable to talk about choices. But even if a law specifically funded public housing with traffic fines, it would be a misleading use of language to say that reducing the fine is "spending money". But in this case, there is no specific tie between the fines and poverty spending.

In effect, the post assumes that a policy is being repealed that was never enacted to begin with. The straightforward approach would be to directly advocate: "Let's tax speeders to pay for public housing" and then see whether that policy gets enacted. Then, a reduction in fines could legitimately be presented as a cut in funding.

But until then, the purpose of the fines must be presumbed to be a deterrent to speeding, and the revenues generated (if any) are a windfall.

by JimT on Nov 21, 2012 6:21 pm • linkreport

@renegade09

Thank you for acknowledging the choice. I don't agree with you that reducing speeding fines should be the priority. You can say that the HPTF manipulates the housing market, but it really just gives tenants a loan, that they have to pay back, so they can purchase their building. The fact that banks wouldn't lend to them I think says more about their manipulation of the market lending practices then anything else.

You could also make the argument that speed limits are an unsuccessful market manipulator because they are often ignored and if they weren't there people would just go what ever speed they could safely go. I don't think many people agree that means you shouldn't have speed limits.

@Jim T

The flaw with this thinking is that the DC government creates a budget, they project revenues and they project expenditures, they have to balance the two. What is happening is that the last several times they made a budget they said, sorry affordable housing programs, we don't have enough revenue to cover our expenditures, you are getting cut. Now they brought in more revenue then expected, and they are saying, nope, I guess we weren't that sorry about the whole cutting affordable housing thing, we are just going to use this revenue to decrease the amount of future revenue we have to bring in. Guess what, still not enough revenue for affordable housing.

Yes, this money is gathered in a way many people don't like and think is unfair, but it is still money that is coming in, and, projected or not, we have a choice on what to do with it. We are choosing not to spend it on affordable housing.

Sadly, to me, it sounds like many people commenting here just don't think affordable housing should be a priority.

by Mike on Nov 24, 2012 7:18 pm • linkreport

Hi Mike,
I imagine that you must feel as if you are confronting something akin to whack-a-mole as your efforts to secure funding for an affordable housing program are met with the "slow maybe" of "if only we had some extra money". So when you see something that looks like extra money, you feel as if this is the contingent funding that you had been promissed.
But your efforts to secure the money that you feel you were promissed leads you to, in effect, assert that the City has a policy that it has taken great pains to say that it had not adopted: The City has always said that speed cameras are for safety, not to raise money. Of course the city will spend what it receives, but if possible plans for the money factor into a decision on whether to reduce the fines, then raising revenue is the objective, rather than a beneficial but secondary effect. Thus it follows that you are asking the City to adopt a policy the officials swore they were not following.
It is not helpful for you to take away the lesson that because many people disagree with your proposed funding source, they must not think that affordable housing is important. Nor would it be helpful for people to conclude that you and Ms. Falcon do not think that that governmental honesty about traffic enforcement is a priority.
I personally think that speed cameras should raise revenue, equal to the damages from the infraction being enforced. The funds should logically go to compensate those who lose from those damages, such as the victims of uninsured and underinsured drivers. Because bad drivers make it less safe for many people to ride their bikes to work or school, it would be reasonable for some portion of the funds to be spent on transit subsidies for lower income people to get to work or school.

by JimT on Nov 24, 2012 9:26 pm • linkreport

@JimT

It does feel like whack-a-mole, that is an excellent description.

I understand your point, if the speed cameras are about safety, then shouldn't the fines just be at a level that keep people safe, regardless of the income that brings in. Ideally yes. But speed cameras, and the revenue they generate, what ever the reason the fine was set at the level it was, are part of a larger city budget. In the context of that budget, if the fines are too high and the money going to affordable housing is too low, and money is going to put somewhere in the budget, I still think you have to look at the whole budget picture.

I don't think that speed cameras are an ideal way to raise money, I think we should create a real progressive income tax system that generates the revenue we need. I also don't believe politicians who say they are putting speed cameras everywhere for any other reason then revenue generation. But we have to live in reality. And the reality is, the revenue is there because of a program that was created, under the guise of safety, to raise revenue. Now we are saying, reduce the revenue stream, when we don't have the money to pay for important expenditures.

Ideally, I agree with you, speeding fines should pay for the harm that speeding causes. When we get to a point where other, more important things, like affordable housing, are addressed, I'll join you in advocating for that.

by Mike on Nov 24, 2012 10:10 pm • linkreport

I understand this may be a revolutionary idea to some people (it certainly was to King George III), but governments DO derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.

It seems to me this is a case where the Mayor and various members of DC Council may have heard from constituents that the fines were too high. There has been particular concern expressed about a speed camera enforcing a 45 mile per hour speed limit on an Interstate Highway east of the river. Folks who live over there tend to have lower incomes and often struggle to make ends meet. And limited transit options may force many of those folks to drive to work or to shop.

GGW's nemesis, Courtland Milloy, made a big deal about it in the Post, and it is possible that others echoed Milloy's opinion. If you've ever had a hearing for a ticket (I have contested parking tickets), you may hear other people in your group pleading for leniency because they can't afford the fine. What's chump change to some of us may be food on the table or rent money to others. These fines are regressive, and they hit DC's poor and working class hardest of all.

In the final analysis, the money is not the District's. It's not affordable housing's money. It comes from those who broke the law. And some of them are DC taxpayers and voters. The government's just power to fine them whatever amount comes from the governed. And if enough DC residents and voters complain loud enough, the Mayor and Council are justified in responding to the grievances of the people.

And no - I've never been busted by a speed camera and have no grudges to settle and no dog in this fight.

by Mike S. on Nov 25, 2012 9:59 am • linkreport

@Mike,

Or that many question whether "affordable housing" is a priority. DC has the highest per capita number of poor people in the region. Those poor people are, by definition, living in DC. Both of those facts taken together is pretty strong evidence that we already have a lot of affordable housing for DC residents.

Now, we can talk about workforce housing, homebuyer subsidies for qualified buyers, etc, etc... But I think it's understandable that some people are going to be skeptical about policies that are interpreted as increasing or maintaing the already disproportionate amount of housing for the very poor that DC provides in comparison to the rest of the region.

by Housing on Nov 25, 2012 3:37 pm • linkreport

@Mike S

They are listening to the tax payers/voters who are concerned about speed camera fines over the tax payers/voters who are concerned about affordable housing. They are making a choice about which is a higher priority and they are choosing speed camera fines. I disagree with them, you and others on here agree with them. Once people violate the law, the fine they pay becomes the DC governments money to spend how they see fit. Tax dollars are also not DC's money, or affordable housing programs' money until the tax is paid. I also have been busted by speeding cameras on a few occasions, but like many DC residents who drive, I have just learned where they are, so I slow down when I go near them.

@Housing

DC has poor people who are living here, true. Unless we want them to be forced to leave, we need to preserve and develop affordable housing. There isn't enough of it, people are being forced to leave by rising prices. I think this is a huge problem. I want to live in a city that includes people of diverse incomes.

I would also again point out that all the HPTF does is loan people money so they can buy their building. It preserves affordable housing, it doesn't create it. It gives people an opportunity to stay in their homes and become owners instead of renters. Even Jack Evans supports this one. I would hope that most people think that keeping people in their homes is more of a priority than lowering speeding camera fines. Maybe I'm wrong about that.

by Mike on Nov 25, 2012 5:24 pm • linkreport

Perhaps we need a thorough (and balanced) post on the objectives and methods for affordable housing. Subsidies for the lower middle class are very different from assistance to the poor.

A basic question is often whether it is best to subsidize specific needs (housing, food, medical care, transit) or provide cash. One argument for cash is that some poor people have family members that would be more welcoming if they they have money to pay for non-housing costs, and it is often possible to barter chores and childcare for a room.

An argument for providing housing and other specific needs is that some people are less able to manage affairs than others. Direct provision of housing (and other needs) sets a floor for one's lifestyle (and children, if any) that might not be obtained providing cash.

There are alot of apartments that, in the past, have been dirt cheap--barely more than the rent charged by public housing to someone near the top of the income eligibility. Rent control maintains that situation to some extent, but people eventually grow up or otherwise move around, so market forces indeed can force people out of neighborhoods.

by JimT on Nov 25, 2012 8:54 pm • linkreport

@Mike,

DC has poor people who are living here, true. Unless we want them to be forced to leave, we need to preserve and develop affordable housing. There isn't enough of it, people are being forced to leave by rising prices. I think this is a huge problem. I want to live in a city that includes people of diverse incomes.

But this is a fallacy. We have a huge number of poor people living in DC. No other municipality in the region comes close per capita. And yet you imply there isn't enough. When is enough enough?

I want to live in a city that includes people of diverse incomes as well. Are we in danger of hitting that point now?

110,000 DC residents live below the poverty line. The Census Bureau's Current Population Survey had the poverty rate a 20%. For kids that's 30.4%. This is all massively concentrated poverty. Even if we were to implement policies to spread the poverty around, DC is a tiny city.

I don't think we should be fighting as hard as we can to corner the market on the region's poor population. I think MD and VA should be doing their fair share.

I believe that we shouldn't be trying to displace current residents, but we need to figure out policies that will put us on a sustainable path in 20 or 30 years. And just saying "DC will unilaterally eliminate regional poverty" doesn't cut it.

by Housing on Nov 26, 2012 10:43 am • linkreport

@Housing

My argument is not that there isn't enough poor people living in the city. My argument is that there is not enough affordable housing in this city for people, some of whom are below the poverty line, to continue to live here, and I think it should be a priority to make sure those people are not forced to leave.

If you are not fighting for more affordable housing, you are, in effect, allowing displacement to happen. Because it is happening, and if we aren't trying to stop it, it will continue to happen.

Saying it should be a regional problem is not helpful, unless you are trying to figure out ways MD, VA, and/or the federal government are going to work with DC to help end the displacement problem. Otherwise the argument is, we have a lot of poor people, its fine if they move and become MD and VAs problem. My argument is that poor people are not a problem, they are residents, voters, and part of our community, we should have policies that help keep them here, not force them out.

by Mike on Nov 26, 2012 11:11 am • linkreport

My argument is that poor people are not a problem, they are residents, voters, and part of our community, we should have policies that help keep them here, not force them out.

And if the population of poor people were static, you might have a point. But there's been a lot of evidence in recent years (posted here on GGW, in fact) that poor populations are transient--that people move into poverty, and out of poverty. And when they move out of poverty, many move out of they city, voluntarily. And when people in the region fall into poverty, they move as well, often into the city.

Sorry, I believe DC taxpayers have an obligation to help the poor get back on their feet. But I don't think our obligation is any greater than that of MD or VA residents. And if you look at the numbers, we're already doing vastly more than the suburbs

If you are not fighting for more affordable housing, you are, in effect, allowing displacement to happen. Because it is happening, and if we aren't trying to stop it, it will continue to happen.

Again, I think we have more than enough affordable housing. There's little evidence that there's mass displacement, at least of the involuntary kind. And I have no problem with the percentage of DC residents who are poor going down by anti-poverty programs *and* attrition.

The goal of DC public policy should not be to ensure that 20% of DC residents are below the poverty line in perpetuity.

by Housing on Nov 26, 2012 12:27 pm • linkreport

@Housing

People who are poor, like all people, should be able to live where they want to live. If they choose to move out of DC, that isn't a problem. If they choose to stay here, that shouldn't be a problem. If they choose to move here from somewhere else, that also shouldn't be a problem

If people choose to live in DC, they should not be forced to live on the streets, or move to another jurisdiction by housing prices. There should be enough affordable housing. You think we have more than enough in DC, despite the fact that people with low incomes, not all of whom are below the poverty line, are being forced out because of rising prices. If people are being forced to leave because they can't fine affordable housing, this means there is not enough affordable housing.

Nothing about making sure housing is affordable ensures that people remain below the poverty line. It does help make it easier for people with low incomes to be able to choose where they want to live. Specifically the HPTF makes sure that if a building owner want to sell their property, the current tenants have an opportunity to purchase it, at a fair market value, before it is sold to a developer who will likely make the building no longer affordable for current residents. This is a program that specifically prevents displacement by keeping people in their homes. What is the problem?

by Mike on Nov 26, 2012 5:16 pm • linkreport

@Mike

What you should be arguing is how affordable housing builds wealth, enhancing the prospects of lower income people, inasmuch as it does. "Displacement" isn't a winning argument; no one has a right to live wherever they want. We all care about making lower income more upwardly mobile, but I think there are more effective ways $25 million could be put to use:

Renovate schools
College scholatships for residents
More cops
Etc

@housing's argument is that there is not enough affordable housing in MD, but there is too much in DC. It's unjust for DC to be expected to shoulder the burden of providing the bulk of affordable housing. A balance has to be struck.

by cineminded on Nov 26, 2012 6:59 pm • linkreport

@Mike

People who are poor, like all people, should be able to live where they want to live.

I think that's a bit too facile. Why should the very poor have this privilege with no strings attached when the middle-class certainly don't?

All people aren't able to live where they want to live. In the absence of generous public subsidies, people are able to live where they can *afford* to live.

Now, it's a question of public policy whether we are going to artificially inflate the numbers of poor people who can live in DC. Few people would argue that that number is "zero". At the same time, few would argue, as you do, that any poor person who desires to has a right to live in DC at the taxpayers expense.

If we're going to subsidize anyone, why not teachers, firefighters, police, etc...?

If people are being forced to leave because they can't find affordable housing, this means there is not enough affordable housing.

That's one definition. Another definition would be "'enough' means as much subsidized housing as is sustainable by our public institutions (e.g. housing, education, police, , etc...)."

Every dollar in housing subsidy we spend is dollar we don't spend on something else; every housing unit we set aside for subsidized housing is a unit that won't be occupied by a taxpaying resident.

Affordable housing advocates portray these policies as some sorted of unalloyed good, but there's an opportunity cost on top of the cost of concentrated poverty on our neighborhoods.

by Oboe on Nov 26, 2012 8:19 pm • linkreport

@cineminded

I think there are many good reasons for DC to invest in affordable housing, in the specific case of the HPTF it can build wealth, which is a good thing. I don't think that is the number one goal. Affordable housing is important because people have a right to housing. And they have the right to housing in the jurisdiction of their choice. I know this is not in law and I am learning that many people commenting on this article disagree, and maybe the affordable housing builds wealth argument would go further with some people posting comments here, but I still believe that DC should invest in affordable housing because it is the right thing to do. And, as you point out, it has side benefits, including sometimes building wealth.

Displacement may not be a winning argument on this comment section, but its still a fact. People may not have a legal right to live in whatever jurisdiction they want, but we should be creating and supporting policies that help people live in DC if they want to, regardless of their income. The fact that MD, VA, or Alaska have less affordable housing is irrelevant.

There is not more affordable housing in DC than people to live in it. I am not advocating creating a glut of affordable housing. People are being forced to leave DC, not because they want to live in MD or VA, but because they can no longer afford to live here. I view this as a problem that the District government should be involved in solving. And should be a priority. We have a huge capital budget invested in renovating schools. College scholarships for residents don't help if your family was just forced out of DC due to rising housing prices. And more cops and etc, well, we just disagree on how to prioritize.

@Oboe

We clearly disagree on this. I will say again that this is not about more people who are poor moving in to the city. There is not enough affordable housing for people living here now. I do believe that it should be a priority for the DC government to make sure people are not displaced. It should also be a priority to make sure people are not living on the streets, doesn't matter if they have lived here for 100 years or moved here 5 minutes ago. That means creating more affordable housing. And, if there is more affordable housing, middle and working class people can live there too. I would again point out that the specific program the article is talking about, the Housing Production Trust Fund, is actually a program that allows people to buy their building rather than have it sold to a developer who may raise rents and force them out. These people could very well be teachers, firefighters, etc.

And yes, I suppose you could argue that we should just keep enough affordable housing in the city so that we have a few people who are poor still living here so we can say that they were not all pushed out, and our public institutions can sustain them. Though I actually don't understand why you think people who are poor require more education or police. And again, in the HPTF situation, they are actually paying the city back a loan, so there is minimal long term cost to the city. Also, please do not claim that people in subsidized housing don't pay taxes, that is just not true, unless they never buy anything in DC, which I guess is possible, but seems unlikely.

These policies are good, though not without flaw. There is an opportunity cost, that is true, but affordable housing also does not equal concentrated poverty, at least it doesn't have to. What it should mean, and what the HPTF specifically helps prevent, is that we don't end up with concentrated luxury condos that only a select few can afford to live in, that is the cost on our neighborhoods I'm worried about.

by Mike on Dec 2, 2012 11:33 pm • linkreport

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