Here was the kitchen where her mom had made spaghetti for her birthday; the bedroom where she had posed for first-day-of-school photos; the living room where she had Cardi B dance parties. Here was her home, the place her family had moved to after more than two months of homelessness. Now Kamiyah was about to move again for the sixth time in three years.
At the end of 2018, the Johnsons were living in one of the seven hotels the District was using as a shelter for families. Kamiyah told a Washington Post reporter at the time that the place smelled like feet and weed.
City officials were in the midst of relocating homeless families into smaller facilities across the city. They had already closed the District’s biggest family shelter and were about to close three of the hotel shelters, including the one Kamiyah and her family were living in.
So just before Christmas, the Johnsons were offered a way out, the same solution that the majority of families exiting shelters receive: a “rapid rehousing” voucher.
Kamiyah’s mom, Karmaletha Johnson, was told she would pay 40 percent of her income toward rent. The government would pay the rest. She would be assessed every four months to determine whether she still needed the subsidy, and after a year, she would need to pay all the rent on her own.
There are more than 2,300 families getting by this way in the District at a cost of $51.5 million annually. As the city grows more expensive, rapid rehousing has been praised as a lifesaving opportunity for parents to get back on their feet — and heavily criticized as an impractical quick fix that sets vulnerable people up for failure in apartments they can’t afford.
Eight years after the program began, city officials and housing advocates are still debating the question each family given a voucher must face: Does this actually work?
Kamiyah’s family spent 12 months finding an answer.
After they moved into their small two-bedroom, Karmaletha Johnson got a job cleaning at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery for $14.71 an hour. She picked up as many overtime shifts as she could. She bought a used Nissan, rescued a dog named Astro and started taking groceries to her mother. The twins, Kha’Mirrah and Brahson, were almost potty-trained. But her proudest accomplishment was the change she saw in Kamiyah, who was now excelling in math class, surrounding herself with new friends and cheerleading with a team of girls she called her sisters.
The family was, in so many ways, a picture of the program’s success.
But in October, Johnson, 30, learned what that would mean for their future. Her case worker informed her, she said, that she made too much money for the program to extend her subsidy once the initial 12 months were up. Come the new year, she would be responsible for the entire rent, $1,897 per month.
Johnson knew she couldn’t afford it. And she knew her credit score wasn’t good. She began to apply for new apartments, only to find that in the District’s rental market, where Zillow estimates that the average rent for a two-bedroom unit is around $3,100, she didn’t make enough. Her application to her first choice was denied. Three more denied her after that.
The city does not keep track of how many families receiving vouchers stay in their homes after their subsidy ends. But in the past four years, 11 percent of those families have ended up back in shelters.
By December, Johnson began to question whether her family was going to be one of them, a picture of the program’s failure.
Then on New Year’s Eve, she got a call from another apartment complex she had applied to. They offered her a two-bedroom unit — three miles outside the city, in District Heights, Md.
That would mean living farther away from work, her parents and the twins’ dad, Brandin Ellis. It would mean being yet another black family getting priced out of Washington.
Johnson accepted anyway, without going to see the place.
Kamiyah was at her grandmother’s when her mom texted the news. She called her on FaceTime right away.
“Ma,” the sixth-grader said. “Grandma says we got an apartment. Did we get approved?”
“We got approved,” Johnson said. She looked at her daughter, knowing what living in Maryland would mean for her. Kamiyah would have to leave her school, the cheer team and all the friends she’d made.
Johnson decided this part of the news could wait.
“Guess what,” she told Kamiyah instead. “It has a pool.”
When Johnson went to sign the lease for the apartment a week later, she saw what else their new place had.
A yellowing tub. Broken tile in the kitchen. Two dead cockroaches in the fridge.
She tried to make it clear to the landlord that these things needed to be fixed. Then she signed the lease. She said she was told she needed to pay $100 more before they would give her the keys.
While Johnson was at work that night, her sister went to the apartment to pay the money for her. Right outside Johnson’s front door, her sister told her, there was a big group of guys smoking weed.
“Oh no,” Johnson said. “We are not going to be living like that.”
She thought of Kamiyah, who she still hadn’t told about changing schools. Kamiyah’s father was incarcerated before she was born. Ever since, it had been just the two of them.
Her daughter was always telling her, “It’s okay,” especially during all the times when things hadn’t been okay: when they moved from the District to Tennessee in 2016, and Johnson learned she was pregnant with twins. When they moved to Georgia in 2017, and Johnson realized the relationship she’d uprooted their lives for wasn’t what it seemed. When they moved back to the District in 2018 and slept on the floor of Johnson’s father’s apartment. When they moved again, into the shelter, and rode the bus 45 minutes each way to Kamiyah’s school so she wouldn’t have to transfer in the middle of fifth grade.
Now Johnson called her new landlord. She asked to change to a different unit in the sprawling complex, closer to the rental office, so they wouldn’t be near the loiterers.
The landlord said it was too late to change units. She’d already signed a lease. The apartment was hers, for $1,300 a month.
That was around 42 percent of Johnson’s income, if she included the cash assistance she was still receiving from the government. When that assistance ended, as she knew it soon would, the rent would be half her income.
She downloaded a credit score app on her phone and did the math in her head. The other half would go toward groceries, gas, day care, bus fare, laundry and paying off her credit cards.
Anything left over, she planned to save. One day, she promised herself, she was going to buy her children a house.
'I want my friends'
Kamiyah was doing math in her head, too. It was her favorite subject. By the time she walked through the front door of the new apartment, she was using it to explain the situation.
“Sometimes, moms can’t afford things,” she said. “That’s why we had to move.”
She oohed over the plush gray carpet and the size of the closets. She did cartwheels across the living room and played hide-and-seek with the twins. She ate her chicken dinner on the floor and asked her mom whether they could stay the night, even though their beds hadn’t been moved yet. The four of them fell asleep under piles of blankets on the floor.
The next day, Kamiyah went back to the sixth grade. She didn’t tell her classmates about the new apartment.
Her mom didn’t have to tell her what was coming. She had already figured it out on her own.
“When I move, I go to new schools,” she explained later. “I want my friends to move with me, but they have parents and homes, too. They can’t just go everywhere you go.”
Instead, she came up with a plan. She confided in her cheerleading coach that afternoon. Even if she had to leave, she said, “I can still come back for cheer practice after school.”
Then it was time to go home, to her new home. She would tell her mom how much she loved it.