Over the past half-decade, the District’s most touted program for easing family homelessness — an approach called “rapid rehousing” — has become the centerpiece of the city’s effort to move parents and children out of crowded shelters and into apartments. Officials laud the $31 million-a-year program as vital to their oft-stated goal of making homelessness “rare, brief and nonrecurring” in the nation’s capital.
Yet as the D.C. Council reviews Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s budget proposal for the next fiscal year, several advocacy groups for the homeless have urged the council to block even a modest spending increase for family rapid rehousing. They argue that the program is failing and that officials are masking its problems with misleading statistics.
“For years, our organizations have witnessed the pain and trauma caused by this deeply flawed program,” they said in a letter to the council’s human services committee.
Under family rapid rehousing, the District provides temporary rent subsidies, typically for four months to a year, to homeless parents, allowing them to move into apartments with their children. The idea is to give them time to get back on their feet financially so they can keep the apartments after their subsidies are terminated.
The D.C. Department of Human Services contends that the program has an 85 percent success rate, but a new report from the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless calls that figure “an illusion.” In gentrified, high-rent Washington, with its critical shortage of affordable housing, the report says, a large number of families in the program wind up in apartments that are far too expensive for them to keep without rent subsidies.
As a result, when the subsidies end, many of the families “go over the cliff,” plunging back into homelessness, according to the report, titled “Set Up To Fail.” It cites numerous other problems with the program, including lax case management, bureaucratic snarls, sudden subsidy cutoffs, inadequate tracking of families after they leave the program and weak rules that leave families in rapid rehousing at the mercy of “slumlords.”
After the report was released last week, four other organizations — Bread for the City, Children’s Law Center, D.C. Law Students in Court and the D.C. Legal Aid Society — joined the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless in calling for the program to be phased out, with the cost savings redirected to help create more long-term affordable housing.
From 2002 to 2013, the number of “low-cost” apartments renting for less than $800 monthly in the District fell about 42 percent, from more than 57,700 to 33,400, according to the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute.
The advocacy groups said that the city, in the meantime, should make family rapid rehousing more workable by enacting an array of reforms suggested in the report.
“Our attorneys have worked with scores of families living with severe housing code violations, or facing eviction because their rapid rehousing subsidies ended and they could not afford the market rent,” the groups said in their letter. Instead of “setting families up for stable long-term housing,” the program “cycles many of them through short-term and often substandard housing before sending them right back into homelessness.”
In an interview, the District’s human services director, Laura Zeilinger, defended the Family Re-housing and Stabilization Program, as it is formally known. She called the report “misguided,” saying it is based largely on information from “a subset” of participants in family rapid rehousing “who are seeking legal help” from the groups “because they feel like something isn’t going well for them. It is not reflective of the entire program.”
The concept of rapid rehousing, which emerged nationally after the 2008 financial crisis, was introduced in the District in 2012 under Boswer’s predecessor and fellow Democrat, former mayor Vincent C. Gray. As of last week, 1,367 families with more than 4,000 children were taking part in the program, paying 40 to 60 percent of their incomes toward apartment rents. The D.C. government covers the rest of the cost.
Zeilinger, a Bowser appointee, said that critics of family rapid rehousing, including the author of the report, judge the program unfairly, as if it were designed to be a long-term solution for homeless parents and children. She pointed out that rapid rehousing is meant only to buy time for them, in better living quarters than a packed shelter, while they try to gain enough financial stability to survive without the program’s help.
Some are able to keep their apartments when the rapid rehousing subsidies end, Zeilinger said. Others move to lower-priced apartments, she said, while some are fortunate enough to get long-term federal housing vouchers or find apartments in public housing, requiring them to pay only one-third of their incomes for rent.
The city measures the effectiveness of the program by counting how many families return to the city’s homeless-services system after participating in family rapid rehousing. Zeilinger said that over the years, about 15 families out of every 100 have ended up back in District homeless shelters, meaning the program’s success rate is 85 percent.
“Most people succeed,” she said. “And the alternative — having all of those families with their children just sit in shelter — is worse by a lot.”
But the author of the report, lawyer Max Tipping, a longtime legal advocate for the poor in the District and elsewhere, said “the frequently cited 85 percent figure leaves out most of what is actually happening after families exit rapid rehousing.” He said in an interview that the success rate “is closer to 40 percent, or 50 percent at best.”
Tipping noted that the city, in coming up with its 15-out-of-100 figure, counts only families that end up back in D.C. homeless shelters. The calculation assumes, incorrectly, that the remaining 85 families became self-sustaining, he said.
After reviewing more comprehensive data than the city uses, Tipping concluded in his report that “the program’s success is illusory, with only two out of every five families able to maintain their housing independently after the subsidy ends.”
The computer program that Zeilinger’s department uses to gauge the program’s success is called the “homeless management information system,” or HMIS.
“HMIS only tracks whether families that exit rapid rehousing come back to [the District’s] shelter program,” Tipping wrote. “It does not track whether a family was evicted, whether they are doubled up with friends or family, whether they are sleeping in their car [or on the streets] rather than return to a shelter, whether they enter a domestic violence shelter, or . . . whether they are homeless in another jurisdiction.
“As a result,” his report concludes, “the standard measurement system for rapid rehousing success is guaranteed to overestimate the program’s effectiveness.”
Tipping, who helped start a family rapid rehousing program in Gainesville, Fla., in 2010, when he was director of the Alachua County Coalition for the Homeless and Hungry, said the effort was successful there because rental prices were relatively low.
But in the District, where gentrification has driven up rents, including for low-end apartments, many families in the program wind up in substandard housing, coping with mold, broken utilities and rodent infestations. Because their incomes typically come from welfare payments and disability checks, and because they have to pay 60 percent of their rents, they tend to find apartments only in dilapidated complexes.
And even those places become unaffordable when the subsidies end, Tipping said. In an interview, he said, “Right now is the time that D.C. has to think critically about whether we want to keep investing resources in this program that just doesn’t make sense for the District, or start shifting resources toward longer-term affordable housing.”
The national rental search website Zumper said this month that Washington is tied with Oakland, Calif., as the sixth most expensive rental market in the country, with a median price of $3,040 a month for a two-bedroom apartment.
Family rapid rehousing is managed day-to-day mostly by a roster of nonprofit groups under contract with Zeilinger’s Department of Human of Services. Zeilinger acknowledged that the agency does not closely track families after their subsidies end, even though doing so would provide a clearer picture of the program’s effectiveness.
“We unfortunately are not able to fund all of our providers to do that,” she said. “But one of our providers, Community of Hope, does do that with the people they work with, and they show that 90 percent of their families don’t return to homelessness.”
But Zeilinger agreed with Tipping about this:
“The larger issue is, there needs to be a greater supply of affordable housing in the District of Columbia,” she said. “There needs to be an opportunity for people to grow their wages so they can earn a living wage and afford to pay rent.”