Multiple beds are lined up along the wall of a large room.
Photo courtesy of Gawron Turgeon Architects/commons.wikimedia.org

The DC Department of Mental Health (DMH) is currently revamping guidelines for what its clients pay in housing costs in an effort to serve as many as effectively possible. However, some are concerned that the changes will make affordable housing out of reach for some of the city’s poorest residents, many of whom were previously homeless. 

Among the possible changes being considered is a provision that would require consumers to pay 35 percent – a 5 percent increase – of their gross income toward rent, which would result in an annual savings of approximately $160,000 for the DMH. Other possible changes would allow only individuals enrolled in DMH and who are seriously mentally ill to qualify for a rental subsidy and would mandate that anyone receiving a housing subsidy be seen by DMH staff at least monthly. 

“The goal is to get as many people into housing as we possibly can,” said Linda Kaufman, director of Adult Services at DMH adding that asking DMH clients to pay more of their income will make affordable housing available to more people. 

While people receiving subsidies are on fixed incomes, this 5 percent can make a huge difference for some who otherwise would not benefit from the program. 

One potential way to soften the blow would be to phase in the increase gradually. For example, Kaufman said the increase could be timed with social security insurance (SSI) cost of living adjustments so that when a recipient is asked to pay more in housing, he or she would also receive an increased allotment from SSI to cover the difference. 

However, Mary Ann Luby, an outreach worker at Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, said that although people living primarily on SSI are likely to need permanent housing subsidies, another possible change would decrease payments after one year. She added that the national standard for rent is 30 percent and asking poor mentally ill people to pay more than that makes it increasingly difficult for those who are already struggling to pay their rent and cover other basic expenses. 

Luby objected to another provision that makes subsidies available only to those identified as being seriously mentally ill.  But Kaufman said that, with limited resources, DMH has to give priority to this population. Additional services provided by DMH – such as employment support, rehabilitative services, and assistance with activities of daily living – may help the stability needed to facilitate their independence. 

She added that steady housing for people with mental illness is “the most primary initial therapeutic service you can offer anyone” and it serves as a critical anchor to helping people stabilize their lives and is especially important for keeping families intact with as little disruption as possible. 

The DMH waiting list for housing currently has more than 500 people. In the last five years, housing prices have risen steadily while the DMH housing subsidy has remained flat, so many other options are being explored to serve more people. For example, Single Room Occupancy units that opened recently on Rhode Island Avenue cost $500 per month and, ideally, the city will develop many more affordable units like those. “We need to find ways that allow us to respond to need in ways that are safe and affordable,” says Kaufman. 

DMH is working with the DC Housing Authority to model the DMH subsidy programs as closely as possible after the Housing Choice Voucher (Section 8) Program. DMH has held several meetings seeking community input on the proposed changes and will devise a definitive plan of action over the next several weeks. 

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