Photo of Jessica squatting down to hug her daughter in the middle of a mostly empty room.
Jessica Crawford embraces her youngest daughter in a room that she has mostly packed up. Photo by Will Schick

Throughout the pandemic, Antonia Hickerson — like many other participants in the District’s rapid rehousing (RRH) program — has lived largely without the fear that she and her 3-year-old daughter would be forced out of their home. 

RRH, a subsidy program that requires its tenants to contribute a portion of their income to the rent they owe every month while the city pays the remainder, normally functions as a short-term housing solution for families and individuals experiencing homelessness. People participating in RRH generally have between six and 12 months before they have to leave the program, with the possibility of a six-month extension.

During the pandemic, however, families in RRH have not been required to leave the program nor have they been subject to “quarterly reviews,” the process by which participants are evaluated for their progress in the program. As a result, the number of families in RRH staying beyond the 18 months has ballooned. In its last count, the D.C. Department of Human Services (DHS) reported 3,200 families in the program as of June, of whom roughly 1,000 have been in the program longer than 18 months. There were only 1,500 families staying in rapid rehousing units in early 2020, slightly more than the city’s strategic plan expected would be funded.

With the mayor’s public health emergency over as of July 25, landlords will be able to file new nonpayment of rent eviction cases starting Oct. 12 for any tenant in arrears who has not applied for STAY D.C., the city’s emergency financial assistance program for renters. While the D.C. Council’s proposed budget includes funding for more permanent options for homeless families, there is no guarantee that families already in rapid rehousing will have access to these expanded vouchers or subsidies. Thus far, neither Mayor Muriel Bowser nor the council has increased funding for rapid rehousing vouchers for families in the fiscal year 2022 budget.

Table showing Permanent Housing Investments for Family Housed, FY16-FY2020. The chart shows that Homeward D.C. estimated 1,067 unites of rapid rehousing would be needed in fiscal years 2016-2020. 1,222 units were actually funded for those years, slighlty more than the estimated need.

Chart courtesy of Homeward DC 2.0

[Read more: Bowser’s office announces Homeward D.C. 2.0 with revamped goals toward ending homelessness]

The end of the public health emergency has called into question what will happen to the approximately 1,000 families who have stayed in the program longer than what is typically allowed. When will the city ask them to find a new place to live?

Even as the Department of Human Services has decided not to enforce time limits for families staying in RRH, how long this practice will continue remains unclear. Changing public health guidance will likely affect the way the city adapts its policies and how it approaches the families living in rapid rehousing. According to a source familiar with DHS plans, agency officials will decide sometime after the city’s budget is finalized and approved.

While she has relied on RRH for more than 20 months, Hickerson would not be immediately affected by the program’s time limits until December. She said her timeline for the program was reset when she had to move due to terrible conditions in her first unit. However, long-term, she still cannot afford rent without the subsidy despite having found employment. 

After living for nearly a year in a family shelter placement received through DHS’s Virginia Williams Family Resource Center, Hickerson moved into RRH on Aug. 13, 2019, and settled down with her daughter in a one-bedroom apartment in Southeast D.C. It was the first unit she ever rented.

For Hickerson, the home proved a nightmare. 

“The place was really nasty. It was worse than a shelter. It was really worse than a shelter,” she recalled during a recent interview.

Soon after moving in, Hickerson found it was infested with mice and rats that regularly scurried across the floors. And the walls were blotted with mold that fed on the regular flooding from her bathroom. Worse yet, her landlord was unresponsive.  

“When you’re in a situation where there’s mold in your apartment and you have a child, you’re going to do everything you can to get out of that place,” Hickerson said. So, she sought to move.

But finding a new place was not easy. According to Hickerson, she had little idea as to where she could turn for help, having received little assistance from her case manager at the time.

[Read more: One mother on the impossible search for affordable housing]

Families and individuals living in rapid rehousing are expected to contribute up to 40% of their income toward the market rent for their home. Over time, tenants are expected to contribute a greater proportion of their income to apply to the rent. The maximum rent the subsidy will cover is established by guidelines from the D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA) and varies depending on the size and neighborhood. DCHA can change the approved rents for any submarket at any time, according to its portal. Participants in RRH are supposed to be paired with a case manager to help them navigate the journey to becoming independent. 

DCHA Fair Market Rent
Infogram

Landlords are legally required to accept the subsidy as payment, allowing recipients to rent anywhere the DCHA value guidelines will cover. But tenants with no rental history or an eviction on their record may struggle to pass a credit check despite the D.C. government’s responsibility for the payments. Some recipients also face illegal discrimination in the form of additional fees or no callbacks once the landlord learns they are relying on a subsidy. 

In a settlement earlier this year between the property management company Bozzuto and a prospective tenant who was charged a higher price once a company employee learned he was relying on a housing voucher, Bozzuto pledged not to consider the credit score of a prospective tenant who would be using an income-based subsidy to pay rent and agreed it would not impose minimum income requirements on applicants using an income-based subsidy. While those terms only apply to Bozzuto, the settlement illustrates what subsidy recipients are up against and what the District might require of other rental companies. The settlement also reaffirmed that Bozzuto must follow the law and will not charge higher rates to exclude tenants based on their source of income, which is a protected trait under the D.C. Human Rights Act.

[Read more: Anti-discrimination law to protect people experiencing homelessness dies in D.C. Council, again]

In Hickerson’s case, exasperation over the poor conditions in her first apartment led her to Facebook. There, she connected with a housing activist who helped her lobby her case manager to find a new place to live. But even with the activist’s assistance, Hickerson found the months-long process difficult. And given her inexperience with renting, she did not quite know how to go about securing a new lease. To make matters worse, most of her belongings were destroyed because of the conditions in her previous apartment. 

By Dec. 22, 2020, Hickerson moved into a comfortable two-bedroom apartment in Northwest D.C. where she pays $185 a month toward $2,800 in rent.

“That was my greatest blessing for Christmas, honestly,” she said.

Even though Hickerson and her daughter had no furniture and no belongings to speak of — meaning they had to sleep on the floor — she said she was thankful that the nightmare had come to an end.

D.C.’s service providers often measure the success of RRH by examining whether families exiting the program end up returning to a shelter system within two years, something Hickerson says has been a constant worry despite her new job working at a local check-cashing business. 

“For a single mom with one child, that’s a lot of money. I don’t even make that working,” Hickerson said of the market rent she would have to pay in order to remain in her apartment absent the RRH subsidy. According to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, the “two-bedroom housing wage” in D.C. is $33.94, more than double the minimum wage.

Finding reliable child care during the pandemic has also complicated the family’s situation, she added. Hickerson mostly relies on her boyfriend and relatives to help watch her daughter while she’s working.

She dreads the day she will have to leave the RRH program. 

“In a few months, I don’t know where I’m going to end up at. I might end up on the street. I will [not] know until they make a decision and give me an extension or something like that,” Hickerson said.

Of all families who returned to D.C.’s homeless services system between November 2019 and March 2020 after leaving it, 58% of them had last used rapid rehousing vouchers — up from 42% during the same period the year before

[Read more: Problems with DC’s rapid rehousing program remain after years of concerted reform efforts]

Even with the city’s moratorium on requiring families to move out of RRH, some families have found luck and charted their own paths out of the program. 

According to Simone Boyd, the program director for rapid rehousing at D.C.-based nonprofit Community of Hope, the majority of families who exit RRH do not end up returning to shelter within two years. She shared data with Street Sense Media and The DC Line showing overall success rates of 89% to 94% for families at Community of Hope exiting the program during different time periods from 2018 to present. The more recent numbers skew a bit higher but include the additional people who stayed in the program beyond the time limit for the subsidy.

Families not returned to shelter within two years of program exit
January 2018 – December 2019 87% 181/208
July 2018 – June 2020 89% 169/190
January 2019 – December 2020 91%  

151/166

July 2019 – June 2021 94% 135/144

Varying date ranges show how the pandemic exemption affected the measurement. The data displayed reflects only families who worked with Community of Hope. Data courtesy of the Community of Hope

Boyd added that even without quarterly reviews, case managers have been regularly meeting with their clients throughout the pandemic, connecting them to resources such as emotional or mental health support and advice on how to create a more balanced personal budget.

DHS partners with local nonprofits such as Community of Hope and Everyone Home D.C. to administer the RRH program and provide program participants the support they need.

Hickerson does not know which agency or service provider her case manager works for but she said she has not been connected to other services nor has she received help finding employment. 

“They’ll help you and then they’ll just leave you stuck,” Hickerson said of her experience. 

Boyd, who has helped run rapid rehousing programs for more than six years, said that while the District’s program is not perfect, it has become more effective over time. 

“When I first started, it was a very hard cutoff [at] a year. … There was no such thing as extensions in the program,” Boyd said.

In her view, the flexibility to provide families with an extra six months in the program has been a boon to those who need the additional time. But Boyd cautioned that her clients still encounter problems — often caused not by the program but instead by the general cost of housing in the District.

“I think one of the things that I would kind of highlight about rapid rehousing … is [the] lack of affordable housing, which really impacts our clients’ [ability] to afford their units,” she said.

Still, even with some families successfully moved into permanent housing, advocates remain concerned about the program participants who have not been fortunate enough yet to find secure, permanent housing outside of the program.

[Read more: Bowser’s $400M for housing could be a game changer, but the program struggles to produce for those most in need]

Jessica Crawford, a single mother with two young daughters under 3, has been in RRH since January 2019 and is terrified of what will happen to her and her children as the eviction moratorium ends. 

Crawford, who has been in RRH for over 30 months, lives in a two-bedroom apartment where her portion of the monthly $2,895 rent (excluding utilities) is $185. Originally from southern Virginia, Crawford describes herself as “second-generation homeless” since her mother had also struggled with long-term homelessness. After moving to D.C. in 2009, Crawford said, her lack of stable housing made her a target of abuse while working in the sex entertainment industry to make ends meet.

Photo of Jessica standing in a small white room, leaning on her sink and looking down toward something visible off screen.

Jessica Crawford recalls the time when her ceiling collapsed in her bathroom causing damage to her bathtub. Photo by Will Schick

In 2018, while she was eight months pregnant, Crawford turned to the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center for help, where she said she was asked why she couldn’t just go back home. The question rattled Crawford because, as she explained, she did not have a place she could call home. 

“When she said that to me, it really hurt my feelings because I had a lot of trauma in my childhood. Obviously, if I could just go home and have some place to be … I would do that,” Crawford said. Pregnant women with no children often struggle to receive adequate shelter from the city because family shelters are not accessible until a woman reaches her third trimester.

[Read more: Low-barrier singles’ shelters are the only option for pregnant women in their first and second trimester if they do not have other children]

Eventually, the center connected Crawford with a case manager who placed her into RRH. On one of her first days in the program, Crawford recalls sitting in a classroom while a lecturer droned on about the rules for the program.

“I remember sitting in a room for over an hour listening to this woman about how ‘You better not have any alcohol. You better not do any drugs,’ like all these rules,” she said.

While Crawford said she considered parts of the lecture condescending, she found at least one aspect appealing. The speaker said participants would need to be ready to meet regularly with a case manager, who would show up unannounced for spot checks from time to time.

“I wanted that support and I felt like it was going to keep me on my toes and help keep me clean and focused on accomplishing the goals that I had set,” explained Crawford, who said she is in recovery after past stuggles with drug addiction.

[Read more: DC’s first transitional drug treatment program for women opens]  

But soon after moving into her apartment, Crawford said, she stopped hearing from her case manager. And the program stopped paying rent on the apartment in March 2020, accusing Crawford of having moved away to both her and her property manager’s complete befuddlement.

Documents Crawford shared with Street Sense Media and The DC Line reveal an ongoing dispute between the city and Crawford’s property manager. According to the documents, Crawford is no longer an RRH participant — she has been recorded as having moved to another state. Crawford and her property manager, however, argue that she has never moved out of the unit. 

Meanwhile, she has been served notices of a cumulative $60,000 in past-due rent, according to Crawford. 

Although Crawford applied for STAY D.C., she said she has not received assistance and remains unclear as to whether her application ever went completely through the system.

Photo of a letter dated 8/12/2020, addressed to Jessica Crawford, noting that she had an outstatnding rent balance of $4,190.00 and that the rental office.

Jessica Crawford has been served notices like this that say she owes back rent. Photo by Will Schick

Widely celebrated by housing advocates, a recently proposed tax increase on high-income earners — which initially passed 8-5 — is expected to bring a huge boost in funding to a variety of programs meant to end homelessness if it remains in the city’s budget for FY 2022. The D.C. Council is slated to take a second and final vote Tuesday afternoon.. 

The tax increase is projected to raise $100 million in FY 2022, growing to an annual revenue of $175 million by FY 2025. The council used the funds to establish a universal basic income program for low-income families, expand support for early child care, and provide enough PSH vouchers to end homelessness for thousands of families within the next few years.

Housing created by tax increase
Infogram

With the council’s revenue increase, families staying in RRH may qualify for some of the 2,530 units newly funded through multiple subsidy and voucher programs: permanent supportive housing (PSH), the city’s targeted affordable housing program (TAH), and the local rent subsidy program (LRSP).  

Amber Harding, an attorney with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, said that prior to the council’s last budget vote, 580 of the families who have lived in RRH beyond 18 months were not going to be prioritized to receive PSH or TAH vouchers. Instead, they were going to receive termination notices in August and September that would force them to leave the program. 

To qualify for a PSH voucher, a household has to have experienced continuous homelessness for at least a year or have had four or more episodes of homelessness in the past three years. In addition, the household must include someone who has a disability. It’s also unclear as to their availability right now;  according to residents of the city’s Pandemic Emergency Program for Medically Vulnerable People program, PSH vouchers for fiscal year 2021 ran out in April.

The council is scheduled for a final reading and vote on the Local Budget Act on Tuesday, Aug. 3; the tax increase and associated spending are also part of the Fiscal Year 2022 Budget Support Act, which will get its second vote on Aug. 10. The budget requires approval from the mayor and Congress before it becomes law.


This article was co-published with The DC Line.

Will Schick covers DC government and public affairs through a partnership between Street Sense Media and The DC Line. Year one of this joint position was made possible by the Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellowship, The Nash Foundation, and individual contributors.