For more than a year, DC has experimented with giving rental subsidy recipients control over their spending. It’s working.
This article is part of our 2019 contribution to the DC Homeless Crisis Reporting Project in collaboration with other local newsrooms. You can see all of our collective work published throughout the day at DCHomelessCrisis.press and join the public Facebook group to discuss how to act on this information and add context to areas we may have overlooked.
Housing instability is a continuously growing problem in the United States, and the District of Columbia is no exception. As of 2018, more than 40,000 families in the Washington Metropolitan area, which includes small parts of Maryland and Virginia, were on the waitlist for federal Housing Choice Vouchers, the Urban Institute reported.
When John Briscoe Jr. and his wife applied for and were denied a housing voucher in 2016, they struggled to make ends meet for their three sons. Briscoe, who had re-entered the workforce after 21 years in prison, was experiencing difficulty finding full-time employment. So when he received an email in 2017 inviting him to participate in D.C. Flex, a new flexible rent subsidy program, he accepted immediately.
“Once we got approved, it only took a few weeks for the payments to start up,” Briscoe recalled. “They walked us through every step of the process and reassured us that our rent would be paid. It’s a beautiful program.”
The Briscoe family was one of 125 families recruited for the pilot program. Launched in September of 2017, D.C. Flex was developed by the D.C. Department of Human Services and Capital Area Asset Builders as an individualized housing assistance strategy. The program provides families living in apartments in the District with a subsidy that can be used to assist with rental payments or other household needs.
DHS did not respond to a June 18 request for comment or any subsequent follow-ups. It is important to us to give organizations and agencies ample time to comment when we write about their work.
The goal of this type of program is to provide families a sense of self-sufficiency and allow them to adapt their assistance to their specific needs. While short-term emergency assistance programs are able to stabilize families quickly, they aren’t structured to provide security in the long-term. On the other hand, programs with a longer subsidy period often have fixed payments regardless of whether a family’s needs change.
“This program is special because we’re really giving authority to the families,” said Leitmann-Santa Cruz. “They get to decide how to use the program in the way that is best for them.”
The concept of flexible subsidy assistance is not a new one. It was recommended by the National Alliance to End Homelessness as early as 2016. However, the idea has been gaining recent prominence in the political arena with 2020 presidential candidates like Andrew Yang and Bernie Sanders discussing the idea of universal basic income. Similar programs exist in cities like Los Angeles and Chicago, but most have a much smaller participant pool. D.C. Flex is the only program of its kind that caters specifically to families.
The target participant pool for the District’s program is very specific: families that are on the cusp of housing stability, whose income may fluctuate from month to month. In order to qualify, a family must have a valid lease in a registered apartment within D.C., have previously applied for or received emergency housing or homelessness assistance, be employed, and earn at least 30 percent of the D.C. median income.
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, only 25 percent of families eligible for federal assistance make that amount of money. But as is implied by these requirements, D.C. Flex is not meant to fulfill the needs of those in severe poverty. It’s primarily a safety net, and a small amount of money to help make ends meet.
“This is a program meant to help families who have skin in the game,” said Joseph Leitmann-Santa Cruz, the executive director of Capital Area Asset Builders “They’re working, they’re trying to maintain the rent, but from time to time, they may come short.”
When a family qualifies for D.C. Flex they receive $7,200 a year via a program-specific bank account. That annual assistance remains available for four years. On a monthly basis, families can withdraw any amount of money less than or equal to the full amount of their rent. This allows them to save money in times where they don’t need as much, as well as providing a full month’s rent in times of financial strain.
“With the little amount of money I have leftover, my wife and I can use that to buy our children needed clothes and accessories and help with the upkeep of the house,” Briscoe said.
At the end of each year, families can withdraw up to $500 of leftover funds for household expenses. They then receive all remaining savings after their four years in the program is up.
D.C. Flex provides a much-needed fallback in case of emergency, said Briscoe.
“Our first year in the program, our [earned income] tax credit was garnished from us,” he said. “We took a major hit because I needed to pay for repairs on my car and we needed to keep up with the rent. I don’t know where we would be if the Flex program hadn’t kept the rent going for us.”
In addition to the subsidy, D.C. Flex holds financial training sessions through Capital Area Asset Builders. Following an initial mandatory orientation, families can voluntarily arrange to review their finances with CAAB employees at any point during their four years. Leitmann-Santa Cruz said these sessions are a way to continue saving money and are important for “empowering the families.” A primary goal is helping the families open a bank account.
“Being able to have a bank account here in D.C. saves a family an estimate of $800 on an annual basis,” Leitmann-Santa Cruz said. “Just by being in the program, they’re saving more money outside of the full $7,200.”
Briscoe appreciates that the sessions aim to help lower-income families that may not know much about financial upkeep.
“They’re really helping poor people and walking them through,” he said. “And they’re really open about scheduling meetings to talk about whatever, making sure you have what you need.”
The greatest benefit of all, Briscoe says, is being able to check his credit score.
“It’s very important. It’s how I keep up with what bills need to be paid,” he said. “They teach me what to pay off when to make my score go up, so I might be able to move into a better place someday.”
While Briscoe values the help D.C. Flex has provided him, he feels there’s still room for improvement, particularly in the form of job assistance. He currently works part-time at the University of Maryland making $12 an hour, but would like to find a better employment opportunity.
“Anytime they ask me, ‘What can we do better?’ I say ‘Help me get a job,’” he said. “It means a lot having my rent paid for but I want to work hard and be able to do it myself. I don’t want to be dependent on the program if I don’t have to be.”
D.C. Flex is still in its early stage and there is a strong possibility the program will be modified as the Department of Human Services and Capital Area Asset Builders work to expand it. The initial cohort will not complete the program until May of 2022. Leitmann-Santa Cruz hopes that in the time leading up to this point, the program will continue to improve.
“This is a pilot program, so we’re still learning how to make things work best for these hardworking families,” he said. “I would hope that as we all learn and grow, there are additional components added to expand the program to better help not only these families, but other D.C. residents as well.”