Urban City Washington DC Row Houses

Every month a handful of private landlords meet in a conference room near Eastern Market Metro station. It is here where they discuss ways to find more of their peers who will rent specifically to people exiting shelters and entering D.C.’s increasingly competitive housing market.

One of the constant challenges has been addressing stereotypes landlords commonly have about people experiencing homelessness is that they will be bad tenants, destroy property or be evicted after a short time. The challenge, housing experts say, is encouraging landlords to go out of their way to take “risks” on vulnerable people.

The efforts of these landlords are a crucial part of the city’s housing-focused efforts to eliminate long-term homelessness in the District. The Department of Human Services began to focus on partnering with landlords in 2015 to help pave the way for clients exiting shelter.

There were at least 7,473 people experiencing homelessness in the city during an annual count held in  January 2017. Nearly nine hundred people were found to be completely unsheltered, while the number of those in a transitional housing programs was 1,213. The majority of people experiencing homelessness in D.C., 5,363 of them, were using emergency shelters at the time of the count.

“We have many families, that are currently in shelters, that have multiple barriers to housing such as previous eviction, poor credit history and past involvement with the justice system,” explained Dora Taylor, DHS Public Information Officer, during a 2016 interview.

This is where the D.C. Interagency Council on Homelessness comes in. Their monthly Landlord Outreach meetings are led by Ishan Heru, who works for the nonprofit mental health agency Community Connections. Heru’s team aims to create a central network of housing units to expedite placement of individuals who receive vouchers or subsidies through the city’s various housing programs.

One such program, DHS’s New Lease on Life Initiative, seeks to even the playing field for potential tenants often maligned by the stereotypes Heru encounters regularly by providing financial backing and support services for the tenants their partner landlords lease to.

Families sign a one-year lease for which they pay between 20 and 30 percent of the rent, and the rest is covered by a subsidy from DHS, according to the agency’s website.

Interested landlords, who must be licensed with the D.C. Department of Consumer Regulatory Affairs, simply sign between four and five documents and pass a unit inspection. After that, they are immediately matched with a family.

The team of Heru and the landlords develop strategies for recruiting and retaining landlords. They host meet and greets, establish risk mitigation funds to assuage landlords’ fears of losing money and propose broader policy changes. “We leverage our existing networks because we have been working with landlords for years to place people.”

Despite these outreach efforts, the high-demand housing market means altruism still plays a roll in recruitment for The New Lease on Life Initiative and the locally-funded subsidies are limited by affordability.

DHS is not alone in grappling with market rate housing. Right before President Trump took office, HUD raised the local spending limits that determine how much federal Housing Choice Vouchers — commonly referred to as Section 8 — are worth in Washington D.C. This was done to help people avoid being priced out of the area.

“If you have a section 8 voucher you can get into an apartment on Capitol Hill that costs $2,300 dollars a month. They get that because they have the latitude to keep pace with market rate.”

However, other voucher programs that use HUD and local tax dollars do not have the same flexibility and leave voucher-holders to be priced out of higher rent areas.

The struggle to engage landlords to help end homelessness remains bound by these market forces. From Heru’s perspective, The problem is a lack of vouchers to make that housing affordable.

“There isn’t enough money dedicated to housing,” Heru said. “There aren’t enough vouchers to deal with the homelessness need in D.C.”

Khyeria Ferguson contributed reporting.