DC government halts family exits from beleaguered Rapid Rehousing subsidy program until Sept. 30
But Wilkins’ joy quickly turned into a nightmare. Her apartment was riddled with maintenance problems, she said in an interview, and her landlord was unresponsive when issues arose. On top of that, Wilkins said she received limited assistance from RRH case managers, who frequently turned over and played a limited role in helping her find permanent housing.
Such complaints — inspiration for pending reform proposals in the D.C. Council — have long bedeviled one of the District’s key initiatives to assist families experiencing homelessness so that they do not have to rely on emergency shelters or transitional housing.
RRH, a subsidy program that usually pays a portion of a household’s rent for up to one year, has also spawned controversy over when, or whether, to resume enforcing 12-month enrollment time limits that were waived at the start of the pandemic.
Earlier this year, in March and April, the D.C. Department of Human Services (DHS) terminated housing subsidies for 447 families who had remained in the program over 18 months. Meanwhile, DHS matched over 700 RRH families with longer-term housing vouchers through the Targeted Affordable Housing (TAH) and Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) programs, the agency said in an email to Street Sense Media.
Now, DHS has decided to pause exiting any additional families from the program, which means those who received a letter of intent to exit or a notice of cessation in April and May will remain in the program, at least for now. The termination pause is only for the current fiscal year — which ends on Sept. 30 — and only covers families (not individuals) on RRH, the agency confirmed in an email. Families living in Rapid Rehousing experienced a similar scenario at the end of the last fiscal year when DHS sent out conflicting letters about their status in the program.
DHS’ decision comes ahead of potentially substantial changes for the beleaguered housing subsidy program.
This fall, the D.C. Council is expected to consider a bill to overhaul RRH. The draft legislation, which D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson introduced in July with the initial backing of eight colleagues, would remove mandatory case management and cap the amount of income that program participants must contribute toward rent at 30% (as opposed to the 40% to 60% currently required in some instances). The bill would further establish a six-month time limit for DHS to determine whether newly enrolled participants in RRH are eligible for long-term housing vouchers.
In April, nearly 70 housing organizations and experts submitted a letter to the D.C. Council arguing that RRH, as currently implemented, offers a short-term fix without addressing the need for permanent housing.
Upon introducing the bill, Mendelson tweeted that RRH is “a failed program” desperately in need of the reforms included in his legislation.
Rapid Re-Housing is a failed program and this bill would forge a new path forward. Homeless families entering Rapid Re-Housing should have an exit plan to stability, which is the goal of this legislation. 🧵 (1/5)
The Bill: https://t.co/kPuHfy01Oo
Quick facts about the bill ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/fREw3Rco5b
— Phil Mendelson (@ChmnMendelson) June 30, 2022
“The goal with our homeless services is that we either get people placed into subsidized housing or we get them back on their feet. But not that we perpetuate a cycle of homelessness. And Rapid Rehousing, basically as it’s been used, is part of the cycle,” Mendelson told DCist and WAMU.
A hearing on the bill is scheduled before the Human Services Committee on Oct. 20.
‘Setting up people for failure’
RRH was developed as a targeted, temporary measure to help people who had lost their jobs and needed a bridge until they found new employment, said Kathy Zeisel, a senior supervising attorney at the Children’s Law Center, a legal nonprofit that advocates for children to access health care and education.
Local D.C. regulations say a family residing in D.C. can qualify for RRH if it “is currently experiencing homelessness” or “is at imminent risk of experiencing homelessness.” However, the regulations also provide 10 “relevant factors” to consider, including a household’s current income, expected future income, rental history, and employment potential based on job skills.
A January 2022 report from the D.C. Office of the Inspector General found that DHS has contributed to long wait times for RRH case management services because it “focused only on the minimum eligibility criteria” and “seemingly ignored many of the relevant factors listed” in the regulations. The report explained that DHS has created a “two-track approach” within RRH, with some families “who are temporarily homeless and have a strong chance of regaining employment” and others that “have no realistic chance of independently achieving stability in housing.”
The lack of distinction between the two groups has led DHS to apply “a single set of policies for groups that should have distinctly different goals and a single measure of ‘success’ for groups that should be measured using different criteria,” the inspector general’s report stated.
It is an issue that has long concerned advocates like Zeisel. “We in D.C. use [Rapid Rehousing] as a one-size-fits-all program for any family that becomes homeless,” she said.
The dynamic can force families into a difficult catch-22. Most people are glad to get out of shelters and into long-term housing, but when the subsidies end, they are suddenly responsible for the full rent — which can put people at risk of eviction, lead them back to abusive relationships, damage their credit scores, or drive them out of D.C., according to Amber Harding, director of policy and advocacy at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.
“All the negative outcomes are on the table if you can’t afford your rent,” Harding said. “There is no magic bullet there.”
In April 2021, less than a year after Wilkins moved into her apartment thanks to the RRH subsidy, the bathtub stopped draining and filled with a dark brown sludge, according to emails and photographs Street Sense reviewed.
Emails show the same thing happened again that August — when Wilkins also reported that her sink had overflowed with a vibrant electric-blue liquid as a water bug scurried across the surface. When she reached out for help, Wilkins said her case manager told her to shower at a nearby homeless shelter.
That month, the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs assessed Wilkins’ landlord over $11,500 in fines and penalties for unsafe and substandard housing conditions such as broken smoke detectors and a missing fire extinguisher, according to Wilkins and a notice of infraction Street Sense reviewed.
These types of problems and violations are routine for RRH participants, and that is all the more so because housing inspectors may not be able to document the issues through virtual inspections, according to Zeisel.
“The landlord controls quite a bit of what they actually see in the unit,” she said.
Wilkins’ problems continued despite the fines. In October 2021, she said, the trash in her building’s backyard piled so high that it attracted rats. In November, a drive-by shooting left her walls and windows filled with bullet holes while temperatures dropped below freezing, photographs show.
Wilkins said her landlord refused to fix the apartment damage for weeks, which forced her to put her possessions into storage and move in with cousins in Baltimore.
She is not alone in her frustrations. Sandra, who asked that her real name not be used to protect her family’s privacy, enrolled in Rapid Rehousing in March 2020. She said she found a one-bedroom apartment on her own, where she and her young daughter lived for over a year before she ever connected with a case manager. When she became pregnant with her son, the case manager found a three-bedroom apartment for the growing family, Sandra said.
But the new apartment was hardly the kind of home she imagined. “I’ve just been having issues from the time I moved in,” Sandra said. The unit had rodents and mold, yet it lacked heating and air conditioning. Sandra said she bought her own space heater to keep her family warm over the winter.
The apartment failed housing inspections three times, Sandra said. “I was told by one of the inspectors that my apartment should have never passed inspection from the beginning.”
“Luck of the draw”
Wilkins said she feels stuck in limbo.
While she is eligible for a TAH voucher in D.C., Wilkins said it would be too difficult to uproot her son and move again because stability and a set routine help to manage his ADHD and autism. She has to travel back and forth between her cousins’ home in Baltimore and Washington to pick up her son’s medication because his health insurance only covers pharmacies in D.C. and his doctor is located there.
Meanwhile, Wilkins said she has shifted among four case managers during her two years in the RRH program. For over a year, she had trouble accessing her case file, she said, and much of her paperwork was missing when she eventually obtained it.
“Rapid Rehousing is acting like, ‘Whatever,’” she said.
Shortcomings in how cases are handled account for many of the complaints about RRH, according to advocates such as Zeisel.
“Case management has been a real issue throughout the life of Rapid Rehousing,” she said. “There’s a lot of different organizations that do it, and the quality really varies between organizations.”
It can take months for families living in shelters or on the brink of homelessness to meet with case managers. The inspector general’s January 2022 report found that RRH participants who entered the program in fiscal year 2019 waited an average of 70 days before meeting with a case manager — a delay that grew to an average of 169 days after the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020.
One issue is that RRH case managers have a limited role, handling tasks like requests to transfer housing but unable to assist in other needed areas such as improving credit, finding employment or teaching financial literacy, according to Zeisel. Another problem, she said, is that RRH has mandatory case management, unlike the voluntary services available via D.C.’s other homelessness services.
Mandatory case management makes people feel like they have no choice over decisions that impact their lives, Zeisel said. In contrast, offering voluntary services — as Children’s Law Center advocates — “respects people as people and their human dignity.”
In an email to Street Sense Media, DHS said that it plans to “transform” Rapid Rehousing starting this October, when the new fiscal year begins. Among other reforms, the agency will “directly contract case management services”; introduce a “2-Generation” approach to case management that “focuses on economic mobility and housing stability”; and provide “life skills trainings” for families.
Meanwhile, the council’s proposed bill would make case management optional, though the current draft would not establish a right to quality case management or to appeal a subsidy termination due to poor case management — two provisions some advocates had recommended.
“A lot of clients describe [case management] as a not very consistently helpful service,” Zeisel said. “Some of the nonprofits are really great, and some of them are not really great — it totally depends on luck of the draw.”
Sandra and her children temporarily relocated to a hotel while workers replaced her water heater, which had burst and caused extensive water damage to her walls and floor. The family is now back in the apartment and waiting for permanent housing through a PSH voucher.
Despite the repairs, Sandra said the poor housing conditions have affected every part of her life. Her children have persistent coughs and breathing problems from mildew and have each visited the emergency room twice in the past week and missed school and day care because they were sick. Sanda had to take time off work to care for them, and her mental health has deteriorated from the strain of dealing with her housing situation.
Sandra said she has always sought to follow the rules and do everything the right way. She added that policymakers must understand that RRH’s impacts extend far beyond housing issues and manifest in how she cares for her kids, maintains a job, and tries to make ends meet.
“I feel like the system failed me and my children. I feel bad for trusting the system — I really do,” Sandra said. “It was the worst decision I’ve ever made.”
This article was co-published with The DC Line.