Photo of an open door with keys hanging out of the lock. The background inside the doorway is blurred.
credit: Håkan Dahlström / Flickr

Robin Hall hopped back and forth between emergency shelters, rental-assistance programs, transitional housing and the D.C. General family shelter for five years after she first became homeless in 2006. In 2011, she entered the District’s rapid re-housing program.

The program is meant to allow homeless families and individuals time to stabilize in an apartment or house, instead of in shelter, while they address the crises that led them to homelessness. The residents pay 60 percent of their income to the landlord for rent, and the rest is covered by the government. The initial subsidy lasts up to one year, but many families stay in the program for longer if they appeal for extended funding.

When the D.C. Department of Human Services terminated Hall from the program, she was responsible for paying the full rent and utilities for her unit — and found she was unable to. “For almost a year, I went back and forth from eviction court, trying to cover the bills,” she testified before D.C. Council at a Dec. 14 public-oversight roundtable on the program. “I eventually got evicted. I stayed in a hotel for one month and then stayed with family and friends for one year.” In 2016, Hall’s son was assaulted, and she entered shelter again.

The Department of Human Services reports that the rapid re-housing program’s success rate is 85 percent, meaning that 85 percent of recipients do not return to shelter over the following year. Hall is considered one of these success stories because it took her over one year to return to shelter.

“Rapid re-housing is a great idea in theory,” Lori Leibowitz, a housing staff attorney at Neighborhood Legal Services, said at the roundtable. “Living in an apartment is better than living in shelter and should promote stability, but rapid re-housing is not working that way.”

Trayon White is the D.C. councilmember for Ward 8, where most of the rapid re-housing recipients have been placed. “The culture among the residents there is that they don’t even want to go into rapid re-housing,” he said. White had proposed amending a recent homeless-services bill to extend the maximum possible time in the rapid re-housing program to two years. The amendment was voted down by D.C. Council.

[Read more: D.C. Council passes HSRA amendment but withholds $8.9 million from a rapid re-housing extension]

Rapid re-housing is one of the District’s most criticized homeless-services programs. Witnesses testified to D.C. Council for over six hours at the public-oversight roundtable in December. As the city’s affordable-housing crisis intensifies, the debate over the program is reaching a head between those who think it has been wrongly maligned and those who think it has failed.

“The families in the D.C. rapid re-housing program have been set up to fail,” attorney Max Tipping wrote in a May 2017 report by the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. When he testified at the Dec. 14 roundtable, he referred to the housing instability of recipients as an “open secret.”

Tipping went on to describe one of the families he had met through his research. “Their income is not enough to cover the market rent, and as a result, they now owe the landlord nearly $9,000. They haven’t left the unit because they have nowhere else to go,” he said in his testimony. “The sense of being trapped, that eviction and a return to homelessness are inevitable, hangs over them like a fog of anxiety and depression. So, too, does the debt, which will remain on their credit indefinitely, undermining their chances of securing another apartment.” He said this family nonetheless is counted as another rapid re-housing “success story,” part of that official 85 percent success rate

“Data is meaningless, or downright misleading, if you don’t ask the right question,” Tipping said.

Recipients of rapid re-housing assistance sign a lease and then pay 60 percent of their income toward rent. The government pays the rest, until it doesn’t. When the government subsidy for rehousing ends after one year, tenants become legally responsible for the full rent, often double what they had been paying before.

The average monthly income for a family in the program is $500, but the average full rent for a rapid re-housing unit is $1,200 per month, according to Tipping’s report. Only 10 percent of families in the program were able to increase their income in fiscal year 2016. According to the

Department of Human Services information obtained by Tipping, only 22 percent of families who exited the program in fiscal year 2016 no longer needed assistance.

Many families who can’t afford the rent are evicted or stay in their unit after the landlord cuts off utilities. For some, this leads to a ruined credit record and the inability to get approved for a lease in the future.

“Eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty,” said Amanda Korber, of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia. “We hear regularly from tenants who wish they had never gone into the rapid re-housing program.”

Evictions, Korber added, can be traumatizing for parents and children, who lose the time and money they invested in setting down roots.

Keisha MacDonald entered rapid re-housing in 2013 with her three kids after living in shelter. Once she found a job paying $12 per hour, her rent payments more than doubled, from $250 to $600 dollars per month. “I ended up going to eviction court with the property manager because the rent was unmanageable, and I was ultimately evicted after spending about six months in that apartment,” she testified at the roundtable.

By October 2016, one in eight families in shelter had gone through rapid re-housing at least once, according to the Legal Clinic report.

As a result of the tendency of rapid re-housing recipients to falter when they become responsible for the full market rent, some landlords are reluctant to rent to them, according to Korber, of the Legal Aid society. Tipping’s report agreed and also provided anecdotes claiming that some landlords had raised the price for rapid re-housing renters, knowing that the government will be footing the bill.

A spaceship, representing the upward mobility and potential that may be associated with stable housing, is depicted with a person being ejected mid-flight. This illustration was drawn by Reginald Black, a Street Sense Media vendor and artist who went through the rapid re-housing program several years ago and currently resides in the 901 East men’s shelter. “They didn’t offer me any job support. That’s one of the problems. No job support. None” Black said of the program at the time he went through it “[The Department of Human Services’ can crank out all the money it wants to for rapid re-housing, but if you don’t have a strong employment piece, then you’re going to fail every time, period.” Illustration by Reginald Black

Once a family moves in, housing conditions may be unclean or unsafe. Landlords have less incentive to maintain the premises when the Department of Human Services is far removed and paying for the unit. “Almost 20 percent of the housing-conditions cases pediatricians and medical professionals have referred to us since October 2016 are for clients living in units funded by rapid re-housing, largely in Wards 7 and 8,” testified attorney Diana Sisson, of the Children’s Law Center, which represents tenants whose children have been threatened by housing conditions. “The housing conditions cases involving rapid re-housing programs have been some of the worst housing conditions we see.”

The Children’s Law Center has seen at least two families living in units that are too small to be legally occupied by the number of tenants in the family under the D.C. Housing Code, or that do

not qualify as a legal standalone unit. The rapid re-housing program approved the spaces for them to live in anyhow. Sisson said that in one rapid re-housing unit, the bedroom wall collapsed because of severe mold and moisture. The family continued to live there for months.

Some supporters of the program believe that the focus of the conversation has been derailed and the original design of the program overlooked. The administration emphasizes that the program is meant as a temporary tool and not the permanent housing support some would like it to be.

“There are many things rapid re-housing cannot be expected to do,” testified James Burden of Community of Hope, a nonprofit that provides rapid re-housing case management. “It cannot insulate families against all other possible housing instability. It cannot be expected to lift families out of poverty. It cannot be the answer to the District’s affordable-housing demands. If the homeless-assistance program is expected to be responsible for more than moving people from shelter into safe housing, stabilizing them and connecting them to resources, then it will be viewed as unsuccessful.”

Kally Canfield, division director at Friendship Place, which is contracted by the Department of Human Services to administer a rapid re-housing program, emphasized that the program can be a good fit for many people. “While long-term supports are essential for some, the majority of people are able to succeed with the shorter-term, cost-effective rapid re-housing, allowing more people to receive services and become housed,” she said at the oversight roundtable.

Naomi Saforo is one true success story.

Saforo entered the rapid re-housing program in February 2015, when she lost her childcare support and, subsequently, her job. Nearly three years later, she is stable in her Northeast apartment, where she lives with her three kids. Because of her credit history, she doesn’t think she would have been able to find housing without the program. Through the case managers and the employment specialist at Community of Hope, she was able to reexamine her interests and find a job in food service, which she knew she would enjoy. Community of Hope helped her learn budgeting skills so that she was able to save her money and have a safety net for the future. Saforo is now a location supervisor at Starbucks and says she feels optimistic about the future. “It’s been one of the best experiences of my life,” she said. “It changed my life for the better. I don’t know where I would be without that program.”

Still, proposed improvements to the rapid re-housing program have been wide-ranging.

Tipping noted in his report that rapid re-housing programs in other jurisdictions use stringent screening to select recipients who are most likely to be able to raise their income enough to afford rent without assistance. He contrasts this with D.C.’s “one-size-fits-all” use of the program.

However, better targeting could result in stratification of services based on class, where those with a college degree, who are more likely to raise their income quickly, are placed in apartments and those with fewer job skills placed in shelter.

The most divisive issue among service providers and advocates has been the time-sensitive nature of the program. Critics say that cutting off a rental subsidy only on the basis of time is cruel and irrational.

“A family should not be terminated from rapid re-housing unless there is a plan for the family to be able to cover rent either with a longer-term subsidy or a job that pays enough to cover their rent,” Leibowitz, of the Neighborhood Legal Services Program, said at the roundtable.

But proponents of time limits emphasize the number of people in need of assistance.

“If we could give 40,000 families a voucher, a permanent voucher, that would be wonderful, and I think most of us would be in favor of that,” Burden, of Community of Hope, said in an interview. “But that’s a multibillion-dollar solution to the problem.” Burden said that with the current funding, a program with no time restrictions would serve some families very well and leave others with no help.

At-Large Councilmember Robert White acknowledged that the administration’s position is that eliminating time limits on subsidies would be prohibitively expensive.

Leibowitz suggested that recipients should pay 20 percent of their income in rent instead of 50 to 60 percent and enter a joint lease with the housing authority and landlord. A three-way contract could give the department more leverage with landlords to maintain conditions, and families would not be held liable for the department’s portion of the rent. The nonprofit also recommended that housing units be inspected to meet the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s quality standards. “Right now, the D.C. government is paying for my clients to live in apartments that are making them sick and putting them at risk of freezing or fire. That simply doesn’t make sense,” Leibowitz said at the hearing.

Tipping suggested that the District focus its efforts instead on permanent supportive housing. “Given the serious limitations of the rapid re-housing model when used in the District, policymakers should scale back their reliance on this program and refocus on funding long-term, deeply affordable housing programs in a manner that matches the need in the community,” he testified.

Councilmember David Grosso said in an interview that he believes more resources could go toward D.C. housing programs. “It’s frustrating to me as an at-large councilmember in the District of Columbia that we use the excuse that we don’t have enough money in this city,” Grosso said. “At the same time that we’re narrowing the door into our homeless-services program, we did a $36 million giveaway to developers in Union Market, which is certainly not going to be a place where the poor always feel welcome.”

Data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development suggest that longer-term housing vouchers may indeed work better than rapid re-housing. A department study released in 2015 showed not only that families with vouchers typically fared better than those offered other assistance, but that vouchers were comparable in price or cheaper to provide than other forms of assistance.

The most extreme recommendation came from the Legal Aid Society.

“The Council needs to begin the process of abandoning rapid re-housing as a program altogether and make greater investments in permanent housing subsidies,” said Damon King. “[The program] is only a dilemma if you accept the premise that it has to exist.”