More than 400 families and individuals who are without homes or teetering on homeless have been placed in housing since November as part of a focused effort by the administration of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D).
Bowser launched the "Home for the Holidays" campaign as part of her goal to make homelessness in D.C. — where soaring home prices have led to an affordable housing crisis — "rare, brief and nonrecurring."
The District, which subsidizes the cost of housing for 1,300 families through its "rapid rehousing" program, used the campaign in part to recruit 10 new landlords who agree to accept city subsidies and rent to people exiting homelessness.
"We said to them that the District has stepped up to support families, and now we need you to step up to make quality, safe units available," Bowser said at a news conference where four District residents signed their new leases. "We said we wanted 400 families to be housed during the holidays, and what [the Department of Human Services] has been able to do is to exceed that goal."
Through the campaign, the District identified 60 new units of subsidized housing, said Laura Zeilinger, the District's human services director.
Two-thirds of the families and individuals placed in housing through the campaign were enrolled in the city's rapid rehousing program, which has come under fire from advocates, while the remaining third are receiving vouchers for permanent housing, said Larry Handerhan, Zeilinger's chief of staff.
There were 315 families and 107 individuals who received housing during the campaign, compared to 220 families during the same time period last year, Handerhan said. A comparable figure on individuals was not available.
As of Tuesday night, there were 725 families in shelter in the District, including in D.C. General and motel rooms paid for by the city, Handerhan said. Those families are all waiting for housing subsidized by the city.
To encourage landlords to participate in the rapid rehousing program, the administration created a fund that covers costs associated with property damage and unpaid rent. In exchange, the city asks landlords to relax some screening criteria, including poor credit and past evictions. The District also strengthened its case management systemto "provide better oversight" for those in its rapid rehousing program following complaints from landlords, Handerhan said.
Anything the city can do to recruit new, good landlords will benefit those seeking affordable housing, said Kate Coventry, a senior policy analyst at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute.
"I've met people who have housing vouchers but cannot find a unit," Conventry said. "No matter what kind of assistance we give people, we need more landlords."
But advocates have also raised questions about the efficacy of the District's rapid rehousing program, which cost taxpayers $24 million in fiscal year 2018.
A report last year from the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless found that in the quickly gentrifying D.C., a large number of families in the rapid rehousing program end up in apartments that are too expensive for them to keep after subsidies from the city — which typically range from 40 to 60 percent — run out.
Max Tipping, who authored the report, said he was happy that families were receiving places of their own through Bowser's campaign, but added that it is important to keep in mind what happens when the families' leases expire.
"What are we going to do to make sure that families don't cycle back into homelessness and get retraumatized in the shelter?" he asked.
Zeilinger said although resources limit the number of long-term vouchers available, the year-long subsidies offered through the rapid rehousing program mean "people can do things they never thought possible because they have the stability of housing underneath them."
Antonio Wells, 30, who signed a 12-month lease for an apartment in Meadowbrook Run in Southeast on Wednesday, said he was grateful for the city's help and hopeful about making enough money to cover the $1,010 per month rent when the subsidy ends. Wells, who works part-time as a cook, said his lease stipulates he will start by paying $194 per month, which will vary based on changes to his income.
Wells, a native Washingtonian, said he was living with his mother and four-year-old daughter when his mother's landlord threatened to evict him because he was not on the lease. In September, he went to the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center, where staff helped him into his new apartment, which he described Wednesday as "fresh, new and empty." He said he planned to surprise his daughter with their new home when she got home from school.