Housing advocates across the District are demanding that the D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA) reform the way it administers housing vouchers so people experiencing homelessness can be matched sooner with a place to live. On Feb. 9, DCHA’s Board of Commissioners took the first step, voting to allow self-certification for people applying for some housing vouchers in the District.
The vote came months after the D.C. Council included a provision in the Fiscal Year 2022 Budget Support Act of 2021 that called on DCHA to establish such a process. The emergency resolution will allow self-certification for tenant applications to the local rent subsidy program (LRSP), including requests for permanent supportive housing (PSH) vouchers available through the program. The resolution will now be sent to the council for review before it returns to the board for a final vote.
DCHA manages several rental subsidy programs, including LRSP and other project-based vouchers. The PSH program — which is administered jointly by DCHA and the Department of Human Services, and which received a substantial funding boost from the council in this year’s budget — provides vouchers to individuals who experience chronic homelessness, with a focus on the elderly or otherwise vulnerable. While PSH vouchers cover the full cost of rent, LRSP subsidies do not. Distributed through developers and nonprofits they cover the difference between market rent and what tenants can afford.
Though the programs differ in nature and logistics, advocates report similar problems with both. People who do not have photo IDs often experience long delays with certification, and applicants frequently have trouble getting updates on their status. Moreover, existing requirements restrict eligibility and can cause confusion, and nonprofits report inefficient or inconsistent DCHA oversight.
Self-certification allows potential tenants to verify their own identity, birthdate, and disability status. Without DCHA’s new regulations, people applying for PSH vouchers must present a photo ID to be reviewed by DCHA. But to get an ID, if those applying don’t already have one, they need other proof of identity such as a birth certificate or Social Security card. Many people experiencing homelessness lack this documentation. To match people to housing quickly, emergency housing vouchers provided through the American Rescue Plan waived this requirement. It worked, according to Interagency Council on Homelessness numbers — reducing the average wait in D.C. from 126 days to nine days.
For PSH applicants who were born in the District, the process to get these documents is fairly straightforward, according to Kate Coventry, a senior policy analyst at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. Coventry’s church, Foundry United Methodist, helps D.C. residents pay for and get a copy of their birth certificates. For someone born out of state, it generally takes about a year to secure a birth certificate — and can take up to three years, Coventry said. This timeline, she added, is with the assistance of a group that has experience requesting birth certificates — without that help, it likely takes even longer.
Though many advocacy organizations are encouraged by DCHA’s move to allow self-certification as well as other improvements they’ve observed over the last year, representatives told a D.C. Council committee recently that poor communication remains a problem within the agency.
“While not every issue has been resolved, DCHA has and is developing a variety of monthly dashboards and updating processes,” testified Melissa Millar, director of policy and advocacy at Community of Hope. “That said, these issues do remain problematic.”
The various chronic delays, housing advocates argue, jeopardize the lives of people experiencing homelessness who have been matched with vouchers — and such lags, by frustrating landlords who are eager to earn rent from their properties, may dissuade them from working with people relying on LRSP. The entire PSH process ordinarily takes about four months, and extra delays intensify the risk to unsheltered residents, especially during the winter months.
Nearly a third of the 69 people who died experiencing homelessness in D.C. last year had been matched with PSH vouchers but hadn’t yet found suitable accommodations to move into, according to Jesse Rabinowitz, senior manager for policy and advocacy at Miriam’s Kitchen.
“People who are matched to vouchers are matched in large part because they’re really sick because they really need housing that will keep them healthy and safe,” he said. “The fact that so many people died before they were able to move into housing just underscores that people experiencing homelessness are at such an elevated risk of dying without housing.”
Communication is lacking, according to service providers
A significant roadblock to matching tenants with housing is a lack of communication, according to many of the advocates who testified at the D.C. Council’s Jan. 27 oversight hearing about DCHA’s performance over the past year. After people submit their voucher applications, they have no means of tracking the status until DCHA contacts them. A solution widely agreed upon by those who testified is the creation of a portal where those applying could track their applications. Christine Goodman, supervisor of media relations at DCHA, told Street Sense and The DC Line that the agency has begun developing such a portal — which would allow those on the waitlist to update their contact information, income, and family size — but doesn’t have a timeline yet for its public launch.
Rabinowitz is pushing the council to ask DCHA to expedite the portal so it’s ready as soon as possible. He also said the system needs to encompass as much information as possible.
Ideally, according to advocates, the portal would allow clients, case managers, DCHA, and landlords to see what clients have submitted to improve transparency and communication, and could be used both for the PSH and LRSP programs.
Currently, some caseworkers said they often don’t know why their clients’ housing applications are denied. Sometimes, they said, applications disappear from the system or documents go missing.
Lynn Amano, director of advocacy at Friendship Place, testified that DCHA needs to improve post-application communication as well. In particular, Amano recommended including caseworkers in communications with clients — especially any that seem to threaten the client might lose housing if they fail to complete a certain requirement — so they can guide the client through the process.
And beyond that, advocates are asking for overall data sharing, so the public can see each month how many people submitted applications, how many people signed leases, and how many people remained in the search process. Both Amano and Rabinowitz also asked that DCHA clarify their organizational structure online and make it clear who the point people are.
Nonstandard requirements create confusion
When the D.C. Council approved the Budget Support Act that pressed DCHA to start accepting self-certifications, it included another request raised in the past by advocates — that the agency change its rules so no one is excluded from vouchers because of immigration status or past criminal convictions. Though the new DCHA regulations incorporate this change for PSH and other tenant-based vouchers, existing restrictions would still apply to other LRSP programs, according to Martin Mellett, vice president of external affairs at Jubilee Housing.
DCHA’s spokesperson said the matter is pending. “We received the LRSP eligibility recommendation and it is under consideration,” Goodman wrote to Street Sense and The DC Line in an email.
Jubilee provides much of its housing through LRSP — a program funded by local money, allowing D.C. to set its own eligibility rules. When the program was created, however, it adopted federal restrictions, which prohibit vouchers for unauthorized immigrants, certain sex offenders, and anyone who has been convicted for meth production in public housing.
Since then, D.C. has eliminated the immigration requirement for one arm of the LRSP program — sponsor-based vouchers. Additionally, applicants for sponsor-based vouchers with a meth production conviction are no longer categorically denied and can receive a voucher if they can show a degree of rehabilitation. Meanwhile, the other two arms of LRSP — project-based (which Jubilee utilizes) and tenant-based — have retained virtually all of the federal requirements. While the new DCHA regulations will waive most of those requirements for tenant-based vouchers, they remain in place for those that are project-based.
This system can create a lot of confusion, especially as organizations like Jubilee often house tenants under all three standards. Mellett said it also unnecessarily blocks some people from qualifying for subsidies, especially undocumented immigrants and returning citizens who are already more likely to struggle with securing housing due to systemic barriers.
“It creates confusion for the tenants, it creates confusion for us, and we would argue there’s no real need to have three standards,” Mellett said. “We want to be a city that’s inclusive — and we’re trying to deal with racial equity issues and mass incarceration, so we’re trying to reduce barriers.”
Even once residents are in housing, the inconsistencies among the programs can cause difficulties. Jubilee’s residents receive many types of subsidies, including some administered by the D.C. Department of Behavioral Health. Sometimes, multiple subsidies apply to the same unit. And all of those programs have different standards — as does the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, which provides capital funding for some of Jubilee’s projects. This means that each year, many units must undergo multiple inspections, disrupting the lives of residents.
Mellett wants all the programs to establish one set of standards to simplify the process and reduce the burden on staff as well as tenants.
“It’s just an intrusion on the lives that’s unnecessary,” he said.
Nonprofits cite issues with LRSP administration
Advocates point to another problem with LRSP vouchers in project-based housing: DCHA does not always make payments on time. While the speed of these payments is improving, they’re often still late, Mellett said.
Millar testified that Community of Hope has encountered numerous instances when landlords did not receive rent payments from DCHA, or when the agency delayed its rent payments for several months.
Project-based providers testified that they get a fixed subsidy under long-term contracts with DCHA that can last 10 or 15 years. This presents issues with inflation since prices increase almost every year for costs like electricity and labor, Mellett said. As a result, providers sometimes have to reduce the number of people they can serve, or limit the choice of units they can offer tenants. With many of these contracts up for renewal in 2023, Jubilee and several other organizations plan to propose new language that will allow the subsidy amounts to go up with inflation. According to Goodman, DCHA officials are reviewing possible changes to the contracts.
The failure to account for inflation has concrete impacts on the tenants those programs are serving, Millar said. “This flat funding limits our clients’ choice for relocation,” she testified, saying the issue is especially severe for those looking for multi-bedroom units.
Another provider, Pathways to Housing, will be asking that the new contracts include an administrative rate, Executive Director Christy Respress testified. This rate is called for in the District’s recently passed Nonprofit Fair Compensation Act of 2020, which says nonprofits must be compensated for indirect costs in contracts with the District. Over 13 years, Pathways has had to raise almost $3 million to cover these costs on its own — money the organization would rather put into providing services for its clients, Respress said.
Finding financial solutions to these issues would allow nonprofits to serve even more people, which Rabinowitz from Miriam’s Kitchen says is the ultimate goal.
“When we get the money out the door, when people do get housing, it works,” Rabinowitz said. “By working together with all of the stakeholders and the community, we can ensure all of the vouchers are used efficiently and effectively for their intended purpose, which is to end homelessness.”
This article was co-published with The DC Line.
Annemarie Cuccia covers DC government and public affairs through a partnership between Street Sense Media and The DC Line. This joint position was made possible by The Nash Foundation and individual contributors.