The District’s booming housing market is shrinking the number of apartments and shelter beds available for victims of domestic violence, even as the number of city residents needing such shelter continues to rise, advocates say.
The rising cost of housing and a loss of private money means nonprofits can subsidize the rent for fewer than 20 abuse victims a year, down from 45 apartment subsidies two years ago. At the same time, the District’s only short-term crisis shelter for abuse victims and their families has shrunk from 22 apartments to 18, and the shelter must relocate because those units are being put on the market come fall.
The scarcity of housing, advocates say, means domestic-violence victims sometimes stay with their abusers rather than impose on friends and family or escape to a homeless shelter or the streets.
“When we ask survivors why they had to stay, one of the top answers is always lack of access to housing,” said Karma Cottman, executive director of the D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “They stay because they can’t afford to go anywhere else.”
Domestic-violence-related calls to D.C. police have risen from a little over 31,000 a year in 2011 to 34,966 in 2015, according to the D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Every year, the number of people visiting the city’s domestic-violence intake centers increases by hundreds. The uptick can be explained by the city’s growing population and increased awareness about the crime, Cottman said.
At the same time, the number of safe beds continues to shrink. Dozens of the 187 shelter rooms and transitional housing apartments dedicated to domestic-violence victims and their children are at risk of disappearing because nonprofits cannot afford to subsidize rising rents or compete with the commercial residential market.
The D.C. government has struggled to find money to cover the higher costs and the end of funding from the Freddie Mac Foundation, which used to allocate hundreds of thousands of dollars to housing for abuse victims every year before deciding to cut back.
One 29-year-old woman says she spent two years looking for an apartment she could afford away from her boyfriend, who was physically abusive to her. But everything was too expensive, and the waiting lists for housing programs seemed impossibly long. In the end, the woman said, enduring her boyfriend’s beatings seemed better than moving her three kids into a homeless shelter.
“I didn’t have my own money,” said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution from her abuser. “Everything relied on him. So I thought I had to ride it out.”
Some days, she thought he would kill her. Worst of all, she said, her oldest son was starting to understand what was going on. “When you see that your kids are afraid of their own dad, you know,” she said. “They shouldn’t have to wipe my tears away.”
She reapplied for the transitional housing program at My Sister’s Place in January and was placed on a waiting list. Since February, she and her children have lived in a cousin’s two-bedroom apartment with six other people.
“I’m so grateful to my cousin, but it’s not easy,” she said. “It’s not your home. You know that at any time, their situation could change and we could be out on the street.”
One of four nonprofits that house domestic-violence victims, My Sister’s Place used to subsidize rent for about 25 families a year. But in the past three years, the average monthly subsidy has doubled from $600 to more than $1,200 to keep up with rents in gentrifying neighborhoods.
The loss of funding from the Freddie Mac Foundation has compounded the problem. My Sister’s Place has accepted only four new families into the subsidy program this year, interim executive director Carol Loftur-Thun said, compared with an average of 25 new families two years ago.The organization cannot fund more subsidies without dipping into the money used to operate its 45-person shelter in which victims generally stay for three months.
“We had to choose between our shelter and our transitional housing program,” Loftur-Thun said. “It has broken our hearts to have to make such hard choices.”
Another nonprofit, the District Alliance for Safe Housing, may end its rental subsidy program altogether, for the same reasons. Previously, that program was able to help 20 families at a time. But the program scaled back to 15 last year, Executive Director Peg Hacskaylo said. Unless the nonprofit can find more money by the fall of 2017, the program will close after the current families leave.
The changing real estate market has forced the organization D.C. SAFE to look for a new location for its emergency shelter — the only short-term crisis shelter for domestic-violence victims in the city — and reduce the number of beds available at the existing facility.
D.C. SAFE began renting 22 units in a condominium complex in the eastern part of the city in 2011. Last year, the developer told the organization that he wanted to reclaim those units and sell them to private buyers once D.C. SAFE’s lease ran out.
The organization surrendered four of the units in exchange for being able to stay in the building one more year. Now it is looking to purchase its own property or lease units elsewhere. But officials say they are having a hard time finding something affordable.
“It’s the city’s responsibility to make sure we can still provide these services; it’s not the developer’s responsibility,” said Abraham Ahern, strategic oversight manager at D.C. SAFE.
Last year, D.C. SAFE housed 429 families in the condo building and in hotel rooms, where the organization places victims when there is no space in the shelter.
“Our advocates are coming up with the most creative options they can,” Ahern said. “But I’m not going to lie, sometimes the solution just doesn’t exist for them to get into stable housing.”
Other cities across the United States, such as Los Angeles, Portland, Ore., and New York, have also struggled with rising housing costs and a shrinking number of affordable places, said Monica McLaughlin, deputy director of public policy at the National Network to End Domestic Violence.
In one day in 2015, more than 7,000 victims across the country requested housing help but were unable to be served, according to the network’s 2015 census. On one night in 2015, 1,304 people in D.C.-area homeless shelters said they were homeless as a result of domestic violence, according to the regional point-in-time census.
The D.C. Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and the Committee on Health and Human Services noted in their 2017 budget reports that the amount of emergency and transitional housing for abuse victims does not meet the need.
“Additional funding and resources specifically to assist survivors of domestic violence secure and remain in safe and affordable housing are essential to ensuring their safety,” the Judiciary Committees’s report reads.
In fiscal year 2016, the District’s Office of Victim Services and Justice Grants gave $4.7 million of its $18.8 million in available awards to the four organizations that provide housing services for domestic-violence survivors, Director Michelle Garcia said. That is an increase of $1.9 million since fiscal year 2010, with most of the additional money going to D.C. SAFE.
The D.C. Department of Human Services reallocated $719,000 in other funds to the District Alliance for Safe Housing, My Sister’s Place and House of Ruth to help make up for the loss of money from the Freddie Mac Foundation, but advocates say it was not enough to close the gap, let alone meet the growing demand.
“The providers are appropriately advocating on their part,” Garcia said. “They recognize that demand is greater than the current capacity. Everyone would benefit from more funding.”
Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said there is not enough money in the city budget to address the needs of domestic-violence survivors. He said the city and nonprofits need to consider applying for more federal money and private grants.
“We’ve been providing as much as we can, but unfortunately, that funding just isn’t enough to help every victim,” he said. “We can’t leave any other option on the table.”
For another domestic-violence survivor, one year in an apartment subsidized by My Sister’s Place was enough time for her to get back on her feet after leaving a husband who had abused her for years.
Now working three part-time jobs, the 37-year-old woman is financially independent, paying the rent on her apartment and supporting herself and her three kids.
“I don’t know what I would’ve done otherwise,” said the woman, who also asked that her name be withheld. “It was the only hope I had.”