Housing providers say voucher system needs improvement

A white and red for rent sign in front of a brick wall.

Voucher holders struggle with finding apartments to rent. Photo courtesy of Ashley Brown/Flickr

If you ask D.C. lawmakers why they aren’t pushing to fund more housing vouchers in this year’s budget, the answer is always the same.

“We’ve been to this rodeo a number of times. We put a lot of money into vouchers and then find that there are a lot that have gone out the door,” D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said, referencing the slow distribution of vouchers, in a press conference on May 28.

D.C.’s voucher system has been under strain for several years. In 2022, the city funded 2,400 new vouchers for individuals, a combination of Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) and emergency housing vouchers, after years of demand from housing providers and people experiencing homelessness. But D.C. was unable to quickly process the number of applications, which surged, leaving people waiting for vouchers for multiple years.

PSH vouchers provide long-term rent support and case management to people who have experienced homelessness for over a year and need support to move into housing.

Since 2022, local housing providers have worked to match the allocated vouchers with clients and reduce the number of unutilized vouchers. To avoid a similar strain on the system, according to city officials, D.C. has also funded fewer new vouchers each year, a trend likely to continue as the council and the mayor debate the number of additional vouchers for fiscal year 2025.

Mendelson’s proposed budget includes funding for an additional 477 vouchers, though only 43 would be PSH for individuals, according to the Way Home Campaign. But regardless of how many vouchers enter the system, housing providers say the PSH system needs further reform.

Although the Department of Human Services (DHS) and District of Columbia Housing Authority (DCHA), which jointly run D.C.’s voucher programs, have tackled a handful of systemic reforms in the last year, housing providers say they still have difficulty approving rent prices and recruiting and retaining case managers, which can delay housing for people experiencing homelessness.

In fiscal year 2024, the District funded 230 new PSH vouchers for families and individuals. According to Mendelson, DHS believes all vouchers will be fully utilized by the end of the fiscal year in September. But the pathway from unhoused to on a voucher is time-intensive, according to providers.

“The goal is within 90 days, but we have people that have been waiting for a voucher for over a year,” said Shauna Figueroa, the vice president of housing services for Friendship Place, a housing nonprofit.

The application process is notoriously difficult: Providers have long bemoaned the previous tedious forms, which were nearly 40 pages long and often required hard-to-access information.

The Lab @ DC, a research design team based out of the Executive Office of the Mayor, has been working on streamlining the application process after a 2023 report highlighted several areas for improvement in the current voucher system, including the lack of accessibility in the previous application process.

The new application, which was fully adopted by the District on April 1, is much simpler.

“There’s now a core application that is much cleaner and a minimum of around 13 pages that everyone will complete, and then there’s the supplement, depending on someone’s circumstance,” Karissa Minnich, the civic design manager at The Lab, said.

The team focused on reducing redundancies in the forms, as well as improving accessibility by reducing legal jargon.

According to Minnich, The Lab has seen a decrease in the time it takes people to complete an application, as well as an increase in the number of returned applications.

Providers at Jaydot, which runs a voucher program, noted that the application redesign has quickened the timeline for clients’ application approval. “It’s a shorter, more user-friendly application,” said Nicole Jean, the director of programs at Jaydot. “It’s quicker to get approved and getting the applications to DCHA is smoother for the agencies.”

Despite the positive feedback regarding the application redesign, providers highlighted many roadblocks — some of which were included in The Lab’s 2023 report — that impede housing their clients.

In conversations with Street Sense, several providers discussed issues with rent reasonableness. After a 2022 report by the Department of Housing and Urban Development highlighted several issues with DCHA’s management of the voucher system, such as overpaying landlords and approving vouchers without checking market rates, DCHA began utilizing HUD’s required standard for rent reasonableness in July 2023.

Rent reasonableness requires housing authorities to determine whether rent for subsidized housing — such as for a voucher recipient — is reasonable, or matches that of similar, non-subsidized units nearby.

But despite its goal of creating affordable housing for people using vouchers, providers say the approval process for the rent reasonableness forms, also known as the Request for Tenancy Approval (RFTA), can be lengthy, leaving people unhoused as they navigate the paperwork.

“We’ve had where it’s taken a month to get us a yes or no on whether the RFTA was approved, and that’s frustrating, because every week we’re reaching out [to DCHA],” said Jean. “And now we have to start from the beginning again, and of course, clients are frustrated.”

Jean said clients waited four to eight weeks for RFTA approval. DCHA denied delays, and in a statement to Street Sense said the average processing and approval time for a completed RFTA is five to seven business days.

Individuals are also only allowed to apply to one apartment at a time, and then must wait for RFTA approval or rejection before they apply for another. According to a mentor with the D.C. Family & Youth Initiative (DCFYI), people waiting for approval also must pay for rental applications out of pocket, meaning numerous RFTA rejections can cost several hundred dollars for prospective renters and delay housing opportunities.

“It’s just really unfair,” said Susan Punnett, who is on the board of directors for DCFYI. “People get vouchers and aren’t able to use them.”

Providers also said they’re still having difficulty recruiting and retaining case managers, who are responsible for housing people by connecting clients with vouchers and supporting them through the voucher process.

Figueroa, who oversees case managers for Friendship Place, says that while staffing has improved somewhat, amid compassion fatigue and issues with financial compensation, it’s been hard to manage caseloads.

“People want to see and feel the reward instantly, but it’s not an instant gratification type of job,” said Figueroa. “It’s sometimes thankless.”

At Friendship Place, the caseload for individuals is between 20-25 per case manager and 14 for families, which is largely determined by the number of referrals made by DHS. According to a statement from DHS, the case-to-client ratio varies between 15-25 based on the program type.

The case manager shortage is not a recent phenomenon. For years, D.C. has suffered from a shortage of personnel to process housing claims. The 2023 Lab report emphasized the shortage impacts the caseload, which in turn exacerbates turnover as managers work with a higher number of clients. DHS adopted several strategies to reduce the burden on case managers, including modifying the credentials to reduce barriers to entry, hosting a job fair for providers, and, in 2023, offering hiring and retention incentives. The organization is also in the midst of a collaboration with Howard University to train residents with lived experience of homelessness as case managers.

Case manager shortages have also affected government agencies. DCHA is now restructuring its Housing Choice Voucher (HCVP) program to alleviate the burden on its own case managers.

“The HCVP department is undergoing a reorganization to determine a more equitable workload distribution among our housing specialists and coordinators, who serve as the direct point of contact for HCVP participants,” a DCHA spokesperson wrote in a statement in Street Sense.

According to DCHA’s statement, the reorganization will give specialists and coordinators a caseload size that “will allow them to devote more attention to each participants’ needs.”

Moving forward, housing administrators hope to continue improving the ease and accessibility of the housing process. At The Lab, the next project is standardizing client communications between various providers and government agencies.

“As we started to engage with residents and voucher holders, we started to see how much communication and dignity a better process can provide,” Sam Quinney, The Lab’s director, said. “We keep coming back to our resident researchers about how important these small things around communication can be.”

Providers also stressed the need to center finding housing for people experiencing homelessness.

“This isn’t another homeless person, this is a person and they need a house,” said Figueroa. “If all agencies put the needs of the participant at the center of the work and that was the mission for all organizations, it would make it a lot easier.”

The council will meet on June 12 to consider the budget

Issues |Permanent Supportive Housing|Tenants

Region |Washington DC

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