Max Tipping
credit: LinkedIn

Hundreds of formerly homeless families are on the brink of homelessness again in 2016 due to new enforcement of time limits for rapid rehousing money provided by the D.C. Department of Human Services (DHS).

Max Tipping, a 28-year-old lawyer and resident of Columbia Heights, is leading a group of housing attorneys from several D.C. legal services to provide guidance to those families. Rapid rehousing is supposed to provide a small cash injection for people who’ve fallen on hard times but could potentially afford rent after their subsidy expires, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Yet, for the past decade, DHS has managed rapid rehousing dollars as a substitute for federal housing assistance because the local waitlist is so encumbered, according to Tipping. The current housing authority wait list for federal assistance is down to approximately 40,000 names from more than 70,000 when it was frozen in 2013.

Until recently, DHS extended subsidies to formerly homeless families in the program indefinitely, even though the official time limit is less than one year. In January of 2016, DHS began enforcing the time limit — which has left many low-income residents facing homelessness again, according to Tipping. DHS did not initially respond to requests for comment.

“Some people have been in rapid rehousing, or some precursor equivalent, for eight years now,” he said in an interview with Street Sense. “All of a sudden the hammer dropped and they decided to start enforcing time limits and started booting all sorts of people off of the program.”

Tipping questioned the legality of cutting families from rapid rehousing who will probably become homeless again without the extra income. Along with filing lawsuits on behalf of such families, Tipping has filed several briefs to the Office of Administrative Hearings, an independent tribunal of judges that decides court cases appealed against District agencies.

“We’re questioning whether it’s legal to terminate families based on some arbitrary time limit without some sort of analysis of whether or not they’ll be capable of finding housing on their own,” he said.

Rachel Rintelman, a lawyer at the Washington Legal Aid Society who defends evictees in landlord-tenant court, said she and other lawyers often match evictees with Tipping because he has crafted “innovative legal theories” surrounding rapid rehousing.

“A lot of this stems from him being a newer attorney — he’s willing to take on a case where others think there’s no more work to be done,” Rintelman said, adding that a far-reaching knowledge of the bureaucratic structures behind rapid rehousing and homelessness services also distinguishes Tipping from most of the other housing attorneys in the District.

Tipping studied rapid rehousing for years, even before he enrolled at the George Washington University Law School and interned at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless and the Washington Legal Aid Society.

As an undergraduate at the University of Florida, Tipping worked at the Coalition for the Homeless and Hungry in Gainesville, Florida. The Coalition’s former executive director, Jon DeCarmine, described Tipping’s early work as jumping from being a “real ass buster” as an intern surveying the homeless population in Gainesville to becoming the coordinator for all homeless services in five counties in central Florida.

When DeCarmine left the Coalition in 2010, Tipping took over as executive director and had applied for several local and federal grants to create a rapid rehousing program for Gainesville residents. Through this process, he developed a deep understanding of the uses and misuses of rapid rehousing.

“The program is a tool for a very discrete subset of people who actually have a shot at maintaining stable housing on their own,” Tipping said. “But for people who don’t have a high school diploma, who don’t have a rent history, who don’t have a work history, who don’t have credit, it can be hard to get into a place and maintain your income to stay there moving forward.”

Underneath his legalese is a person who has cared deeply about homelessness from a young age, according to DeCarmine. “Anything homelessness isn’t sexy work,” DeCarmine said. “I don’t really know that anybody can be steered to do this kind of work without some kind of internal motivation. Max really just went all out and threw himself into it.”

When asked, Tipping couldn’t provide an exact moment when he started to care about homelessness. It has lingered with him for his entire life. “Homelessness has been something that has made me angry for a very long time. It just never really made sense to me. It didn’t seem like something that needed happen.”