The three-bedroom home near Elm Street NW has been the pride of Linda White’s family for more than a century, steadfast in its history of housing those who are struggling.
Now, though, she’s confronted with an unexpected choice. She’s kept the same tenant for 12 years, receiving $1,300 each month through the tenant’s housing choice voucher. Between 2002 and 2014, the tenant’s voucher increased only 2 percent. But White’s property value has gone up 200 percent. By helping her neighbor, she’s hurting her pocketbook.
“It’s a terrible situation,” White said. “If I keep her, it does not seem fair to me. I can get more money from Section 8 if I find a new tenant, but then I have to put her out.”
During a time when city officials say they need them the most, landlords and property managers are finding themselves at a tenuous crossroad. If they choose to raise rent costs, they could become beneficiaries of the city’s economic renaissance. If they cater to those at lower incomes, they might be able to help those left out of it.
Their small, individual decisions are likely to shape whether the city can save its depleted affordable housing stock, which is believed to be the cause of the continued rise in the number of homeless families.
On Tuesday, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) announced a plan to close the beleaguered homeless shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital — a plan that depends on persuading landlords and other property owners to free up units and buildings to shelter the homeless. The plan envisions the city leasing about 300 units between a half-dozen buildings sprinkled throughout the city.
In the spring, the Gray administration also began a campaign to entice landlords to rent to homeless families enrolled in the rapid rehousing program, which heavily subsidizes rent in four-month increments for up to a year.
For both plans to work, the administration must go beyond the city’s biggest developers to tap into smaller property owners, such as White.
“We are feeling so much more pressure,” said Rufus Littlejohn, who owns three four-unit properties in Southeast. “They are looking to us to fix their problem. But then, they are giving us more problems by asking us to take more unstable tenants.”
For landlords, enlistment in either program means taking on a tenant who will probably have a spotty credit history or no past experience renting. In more affluent neighborhoods, it could mean bypassing residents who could pay more.
The quandary facing landlords is affecting the city housing agency’s ability to find units for homeless and low-income residents to rent. Adrianne Todman, executive director of the D.C. Housing Authority, which distributes permanent vouchers to low-income families, said that “the circle of places that can be paid for by our voucher is getting smaller and smaller.” She has started a Landlord Appreciation Day and a group for small landlords to help foster goodwill.
The city also has held focus groups, placed ads in newspapers and issued personal appeals to ask landlords to help address the crisis. Michele Williams, the city’s family services administrator, has said in public testimony that the city needs to “appeal to landlords’ hearts” to solicit their help.
“The market is not saturated,” Williams told D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), adding there are still units that can take in the city’s homeless.
In the past six months, the city has found more than 800 units for which landlords have been willing to accept rapid rehousing vouchers. Still, according to an Urban Institute study, the city is more than 22,000 units short of the number needed to house those who make less than 30 percent of the region’s median income, which is nearly $105,000.
Thomas Bateman, owner of Urban City Management, which operates 600 units, mostly in Southeast Washington, was eager to accept rapid rehousing vouchers. His company specializes in managing properties in the city’s most troubled neighborhoods, where he said new residents were afraid to go.
“I’m not a humanitarian, but sometimes it feels like it,” Bateman said.
He’s approved leases for 100 homeless families. He’s had to evict 30 of them.
Some violated occupancy codes by bringing in friends and family members who were looking for housing. Others sold drugs.
“Nine times out of 10, the rapid rehousing tenants aren’t going to have a strong financial background, and they don’t come from the best homes,” Bateman said. “I’ve learned it’s really important to screen the families so you can have a good experience. Starting out, it was rough.”
City officials are working hard to ease the burden for landlords by better preparing homeless families through case workers. According to Beatriz “BB” Otero, deputy mayor for health and human services, many families have to “learn what it’s like to live in an apartment.” Half of homeless families living in D.C. General are headed by mothers who are under 24. In an effort to allay fears, the city has guaranteed landlords up to three months’ rent in the event of an eviction to help tide them over until they can find another tenant.
Still, Otero and others maintain that housing homeless families is a worthy exercise. They note that 85 percent of families who have used the rapid rehousing program do not turn to the government for homeless services in the next year, a figure they call a “success.”
Some landlords question those numbers. Bruce Finland, a partner with MED Developers, which has 350 units, has provided housing for about 30 homeless families through rapid rehousing. None has been able to afford the rent after the government stops subsidizing it, he said.
Finland said he has racked up thousands in attorneys fees and spent months trying to remove them. He’s not surprised if, after year in rapid rehousing, families don’t seek the city’s help; in cases in which he has been involved, he was still trying to get them out at that point.
“I don’t want to make a value judgment, but my experience is that this program really does not work,” Finland said. “I want to help the city out, but the program needs tweaking.”
Dozens of landlords said the city might be able to help by lengthening its commitment to families beyond a year or helping to ease financial burdens by reducing bulk trash fines on their properties.
The concerns make them hesitant to support the city’s plan to close D.C. General, which calls for about a half-dozen properties to provide units that can be used as shelter spaces.
The administration’s proposed budget allows the city to pay an average of $2,000 a month per unit. But a voucher worth $2,000 is unlikely to buy anything bigger than a one-bedroom apartment in up-and-coming neighborhoods, such as Petworth or Columbia Heights. Most families will need more than that.
Todman, the city housing agency director, said that each year poor families have fewer places to go — and are becoming limited to homes in wards 5, 7 and 8.
“And that’s becoming harder,” she said.
Todman said the housing agency is appealing to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to raise the voucher limits, which currently provide $2,150 for a family of three. And Todman is thinking about working with the city to limit increases in property taxes or to find other easements for those who accept housing vouchers, an idea that might be able to help White keep her grandparents’ home in LeDroit Park as a low-income rental.
“I’d just like them to find a way to make the rent more fair,” White said. “I don’t want to come off as mercenary, but I’m doing a service.”
Like many longtime black residents of the District, White remembers her grandparents telling her, “When you own property in the District, you keep it.”
John and Florence Stevens brought their property in the 2000 block of Fourth Street NE in 1912. Their monthly mortgage payment was $18. They were members of the “middling class,” White likes to say — black people who had decent jobs but were not members of the city’s black elite. Back then, they rented out rooms to families who came from the South to start new lives — like they did themselves.
In 2002, White found Cheryl MacAbee, who used a Section 8 voucher to rent the place for herself, her son and her dog, Remy.
“If they ever raised the rent, I’m not sure I could afford any other place in the city,” said MacAbee, 50, a former carpenter who is now unemployed. “I’ve been in this neighborhood and seen it change. . . . And I love walking my dog through our little dog park.”
When White hears MacAbee tell those stories, it makes her laugh. They’ve known each other forever. Around her, properties are selling for upward of a half-million dollars. At least for now, White can’t sell.
“I just can’t put this woman out,” White said. “We’ve always used this home to help. So that’s what I’m going to do.”