This article is part of our 2020 contribution to the DC Homeless Crisis Reporting Project in collaboration with other local newsrooms. The collective works will be published throughout the day at DCHomelessCrisis.press.
Rapid rehousing is one of D.C.’s most controversial homeless services programs. This election season, as candidates battle for two at-large seats on the D.C. Council, some candidates have made changing the program part of their campaign.
“I would like to see rapid rehousing as it exists now ended,” said Will Merrifield, a former attorney with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless and one of 24 candidates on the ballot for the two at-large seats.
The idea behind rapid rehousing is that individuals and families experiencing homelessness can best change their financial situations when they are in their own housing rather than in a shelter or on the streets. The program presents eligible recipients with a short-term rental subsidy so that they only pay 40- 60% of their income towards rent, in addition to providing furniture assistance, care management, a security deposit, and the total first month’s rent. While the program is run by the D.C. Department of Human Services, many of the services are provided by nonprofit contractors.
The District government has emphasized that in order to be eligible for assistance, families must have the financial capacity to pay the full rent for their unit at the end of the assistance period, generally a year or two. But advocates have criticized the program for dropping families off a proverbial rental cliff, fully ending the subsidy after the assistance period is through. If a family hasn’t been able to substantially increase their income, they’re left in a unit they can’t afford.
“Once the subsidy ends and families have to pay market rent in Washington, D.C., market rent is too expensive and the families get recycled back into homelessness. Another round of evictions, another round of traumatizing events for the children of these families,” said Merrifield, whose former employer has also vocally critiqued the program. “Every time a person is put through an eviction, they’re de-stabilized, their job is put at risk, their credit is worsened and they have to dig themselves out of a hole all over again. That is what a program like rapid rehousing promotes.“
His ideal, he said, would be to scrap the program and invest instead in a new model of “social housing,” based off a public housing model from Vienna, Austria. Such a model would provide a public option to residents and allow them to pay 25% of their income no matter what they make. Developers would not be profiting from those rental payments, which would be recycled back into operating costs and repairs.
Mónica Palacio, former director of the D.C. Office of Human Rights and another at-large candidate, has said she similarly has concerns about the rapid rehousing program and would like to change it.
[Disclosure: The author of this article was an intern at the Office of Human Rights in 2018, during Palacio’s tenure as director.]
“From a policy perspective it has to be time-limited,” Palacio said, but doubling the assistance period would be a start. She also expressed concern that once the District’s pandemic-related moratorium on evictions ends, more families will be facing homelessness.
“We’re going to need a fast track to get them into the rapid rehousing program as it stands, and then we’re going to have to look at longer-term investments,” she said, arguing that those families should not have to enter shelter before entering rapid rehousing.
When the moratorium ends, she argued, the District should try to prevent homelessness as much as possible by paying rent for families facing eviction.
“Whatever it might cost, it’s not going to nearly be the cost of a family having to go onto the street [or] having to go into the rapid rehousing program,” she said.
Palacio has also called for the building of 50,000-75,000 public housing units in the next decade.
Advocates throughout the District have expressed concern about the conditions some rapid rehousing recipients face when they are renting through the program. Landlords understand that rapid rehousing subsidies are time-limited and families will be unable to afford full rent once they alone are left to pay it, advocates argue. Thus, many landlords are disinclined to rent to program recipients.
“Because landlords know that the subsidy is going to run out, what I’ve seen up close is that a lot of landlords who are renting expensive units won’t rent to rapid rehousing families. What happens then is the rapid rehousing families are pushed into a subprime slumlord market,” Merrifield said. He previously represented rapid rehousing tenants at a building owned by Sanford Capital, a property management company widely regarded as a slumlord which exited the industry after a series of lawsuits from the District.
“The government was referring families to these slum apartments owned by Sanford Capital because [it] was one of the only games in town that was taking families in this program,” Merrifield said. “The government was actually subsidizing a slumlord, approving units that were substandard and that were in no condition for people to live in safely.”
The Children’s Law Center, which among other roles advocates for tenants whose children’s health has been impacted by housing conditions, has said a significant portion of housing-related cases referred to them were from rapid rehousing.
Palacio’s former agency, the Office of Human Rights, investigates housing and source-of-income discrimination. Finding discriminatory landlords is expensive, she said, but funding those investigations is one way to curb the issues at hand with rapid rehousing.
The incumbent At-Large Councilmember Robert White does not mention rapid rehousing on his campaign website, but has previously voted in favor of extending time limits for the program.
Voices of Support
The District government and nonprofit service providers have defended the program, arguing that it is research-based, humane, and successful for most of the families that enter it. In fiscal year 2018, 90% of the families who entered the program did not seek emergency shelter in the following 18 months, Washington City Paper has reported. That data doesn’t show how many families are couchsurfing, sleeping in cars, or who have left the District. Other data from the Department of Human Services reported by City Paper suggests that nearly half of families who exit the program are faced with an eviction lawsuit, though that does not mean they are officially evicted.
Marcus Goodwin, a candidate and real estate developer, included on his campaign website that he supports the program.
“I think it’s one of the great solutions that Washington has proposed to end homelessness, or to at the very least ensure that homelessness is rare, brief, and nonrecurring,” he said. “Rapid rehousing is one of the necessary social services that the District should frankly increase funding to.”
Goodwin additionally said he’s open to hearing criticism of the program and working to improve it.
“I have an open mind to look at, can we do more than just the first month’s rent and the security deposit? Can we provide a deeper subsidy?” he said. “Additional resources to this program can help provide a better quality unit, which the District has frankly not done enough to ensure is made available.”
Merrifield said he disagreed that an increase in funding could solve the program’s issues around housing quality.
“The issue is with how the program is structured,” he said via email. “No amount of increased funding can fix the flawed model of the subsidy being time-limited.”