As Pandemic Aid Ends, Struggling Families Face a Housing Nightmare

Covid relief kept Holly Williams and her sons out of a shelter. Now that it’s gone, will they be able to keep their home?

Holly Williams with son DeDe, daughter Imani and dog Smoke at Holly Williams’s home in Washington.
Holly Williams with son DeDe, daughter Imani and dog Smoke at Holly Williams’s home in Washington. (Dee Dwyer/For The Washington Post)

Even after Holly Williams got the keys to her two-bedroom half duplex in the Shipley Terrace neighborhood of Washington, D.C., she couldn’t shake the feeling that something would take them away from her. After opening the door on a sweltering August afternoon in 2019, she surveyed the three narrow levels, including a dirty carpeted basement and a grease-stained kitchen. It didn’t matter that the walls were cracked and that the basement smelled thick with mildew: At least for now, they were hers.

A petite, self-described introvert with amber eyes that look almost feline, Williams and her sons, Kamau, then 16, and DeDe, then 12, had spent over a month that summer living in a motel turned homeless shelter. But that changed when D.C.’s Department of Human Services (DHS) approved the now 49-year-old Williams for the rapid rehousing program, which helps pay a portion of rent for the chronically unhoused, usually for about 18 months. The Shipley Terrace house, in Southeast D.C., felt like the family’s clean slate, their fresh air. “It [was] magical,” Williams says.

Shaky with adrenaline and afraid that something might still go wrong, she waited to tell her sons that the family had a home of their own until she finished moving in their furniture by herself. Under the pretense of driving to their sister’s house, which happened to be just down the street from their new place, Williams drove her boys over to the house, delighted by their flabbergasted expressions when she opened the door. “The way that she did it was pretty smooth,” DeDe says.

Washington is just one of hundreds of municipalities across the country with a rapid rehousing program. The model was created in 2009 through the wide-ranging federal stimulus bill passed in the wake of the financial crisis, as a way to help unhoused families transition into permanent homes. But like most social programs in this country, it positions itself as a hand up, not a handout. Participants start off paying 30 percent of their income — in Williams’s case $174 per month — with the expectation that they pay an increasingly larger share of rent over time, eventually taking over the full market rate after about a year in the program. The idea is that by this time, they will have found better or more-secure job opportunities and the stability they lacked in transitional housing. In D.C., more than 3,400 families currently receive rapid rehousing vouchers.

In the early days of the pandemic, DHS decided to extend rapid rehousing subsidies for those whose benefits would soon expire, including Williams. It would have been inhumane otherwise: The very population it serves — low-income and mostly Black families — was disproportionately harmed by covid-19. There were over 4½ times as many covid deaths in Shipley Terrace’s Ward 8, where the median income is $38,000 and 86 percent of the population is Black, than in Ward 2, where the median income is $115,000 and 66 percent of the population is White. At the same time, a raft of federal relief sought to buoy the most vulnerable through the medical and financial hardships of the pandemic. There was even a modest expansion of the social safety net for broader socioeconomic swaths of Americans, such as parents, via the reconfigured federal child tax credit. The Census Bureau estimates those federal relief efforts helped keep 11.7 million Americans out of poverty during the pandemic’s first year.

But over the past year, with increased political and social determination for life to go “back to normal” — and stay that way, even in the case of future coronavirus variants — lawmakers have allowed America’s covid-era social safety to unravel. The reconfigured federal child tax credit, which provided monthly payments of up to $300, expired in December. A national 15 percent increase to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) expired on Sept. 30, and the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer, a direct cash assistance program available to those who receive food assistance, expired last year in 29 states and D.C.

For Williams, the crushing news she feared the most finally arrived in the fall, shortly after D.C.’s eviction moratorium lapsed. Along with 281 other families, she received a final notice from DHS that her rapid rehousing voucher was no longer being extended and would expire by the end of April 2022.

On an afternoon in the dead of January, I met Williams in the home she was in imminent danger of losing. Dappled sunlight streamed through renter-friendly mosaic window screens, tossing rainbows across the go-go records and books she’s spent decades collecting, and onto the two pit bulls snoozing peacefully next to a heater. The act of homemaking was its own kind of defiance, her way of saying that the family wasn’t going anywhere. But standing under a quote she’d stenciled in cursive above a kitchen alcove — “behold, yours is a healthy soul” — the promise of that hot summer day in 2019 seemed like a distant memory. “I was like: I can heal. I can breathe. My children are safe,” she told me. “And then to get here and have such a great level of uncertainty has been very, very stressful, because this is supposed to be an opportunity for me to get on my feet.”

Williams’s case is not unique. Across the country, millions of people who have managed to scrape through some of the worst months of their lives are staring into a future made even more uncertain by the hasty dismantling of the pandemic benefits that helped them get by. The experiences of Williams and other families over the past several years illustrates how the temporary expansion of programs such as rapid rehousing staved off disaster. They also underscore the insufficiency of America’s social safety net, which is growing more woefully inadequate just as it’s needed the most.

For Americans struggling with poverty, ‘the safety net in the United States is very, very weak,’ expert says

Sitting at her dining room table, Williams turns a six-sided block printed with the paintings of Paul Gauguin around in her hand, talking about chess. One of her indelible childhood memories is of an intricately carved wooden chess set her parents, both academics, had in their house in D.C.’s Takoma neighborhood. Williams didn’t learn to play until she was a young adult and doesn’t consider herself a particularly prolific player, but always knew she wanted to teach. After graduating from high school, she enrolled at Hampton University, a historically Black college in Virginia, to study English but left without graduating when her scholarship money ran out. She had her daughter, Imani, a couple of years later. By that time, returning to college wasn’t an option, so Williams took contractor positions in school settings, including as a chess teacher. “I’ve always been interested in individualized, more-focused engagement,” she says. “Me being able to [teach chess], it was just one of those things that evolved, and I love it. And I just feel like I found my lane.”

But it was often hard for Williams to make a living full time as a contractor, particularly when rents in D.C. began to soar. One 2019 study from the University of Minnesota suggests that the District experienced “the nation’s worst gentrification trend” among major cities this century. Williams first put her name on the waiting list for public housing in D.C. when her daughter, Imani, was a year old. Twenty-six years later, she has still not yet reached the top.

Williams spent the summer of 2019 teaching chess through the local chapter of the YMCA and expected the work to continue after school in the fall. But the organization postponed her return, citing financial difficulties. That fall, she sent emails to DHS asking to recalibrate the amount she owed under rapid rehousing’s income formula; she received no response for weeks and says her obligation was never recalculated. (A spokesperson for DHS declined to comment on Williams’s case.)

One 2019 study from the University of Minnesota suggests that the District experienced “the nation’s worst gentrification trend” among major cities this century.

Meanwhile, Williams’s son Kamau, who had set up his bedroom in the basement, began waking up with his eyes swollen shut and rashes across his body. Williams suspected that the patches of mold she could see growing in the basement triggered his symptoms. Moving wasn’t an option: The average two-bedroom apartment in D.C. rented for $3,100 a month at the time, and it was proving hard enough to afford what she had. In addition to her rent, which was set to increase until she paid the entire $1,689 per month rate after about a year in the program, she also needed $200 a month to pay such utilities as cable, water, electricity and gas, plus extra money for food, health care, clothing for her boys, and other essentials.

Williams is far from the only rapid rehousing participant to struggle with both the financial obligations of the program and with poor housing conditions. More than 14 percent of families placed in a homeless shelter in D.C. last year were previously in the rapid rehousing program. Housing advocates also say that the program should be judged through a broader lens than just who returns to a shelter. “For us, we look at it as: Who faces eviction and displacement at the end of the program?” says Amber Harding, a lawyer at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless who represents families in rapid rehousing. “And sometimes that leads back to shelters, but sometimes that leads to families moving out of the city entirely, which we can all agree is a failure of a program that’s meant to sustain D.C. residents.”

Like Williams, 26-year-old Dayshi Green, her husband, Darrine Pelzer, and their two daughters, Hazel and Harmony, were overjoyed when, after three years of living in motel shelters, they received a rapid rehousing voucher. The young couple had moved from New York in 2016 to live with Darrine’s family in D.C., until the relationship became strained and they had to move out.

The same month that Williams and her boys moved to Shipley Terrace in August 2019, Green and her family moved into a two-bedroom apartment on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE in Ward 8. Their apartment was also in disrepair: There was peeling paint, a several-foot-long hole in the living room ceiling from an air conditioning unit that had fallen through the floor of the unit above, knobs that snapped off bedroom doors, and a mouse infestation. “We tried to make it the best we can,” Green said with an exasperated sigh when I met her in February.

Despite those conditions, Green, like Williams, hoped that having an apartment would usher in a period of stability, if not prosperity, for her family. She was employed, her daughters were in day care, and she had developed a close friendship with their next-door neighbor. They were poised to be a rare success story of the program — at least until the pandemic began.

When covid hit in March 2020, Williams’s first concern was how to protect her family’s health. She pulled DeDe out of school in early March, about a week before his Northwest D.C. school announced it would close, not wanting him to risk exposure on the Metro. But it didn’t take long for her to face pandemic-related financial hardships.

Covid threw America’s income inequality crisis into stark relief and made it even more acute. While many financially secure families were able to work from home, those who live paycheck to paycheck were more likely to work essential jobs that exposed them to the virus. Lower-income families also struggled to buy supplies like masks in bulk or pay for grocery deliveries. As hordes of residents cleared store shelves of toilet paper and canned food, Williams thought of her meager savings. “Wasn’t like I could go buy stuff and stock up,” she says. “I just couldn’t.”

She spent the first terrifying weeks of the pandemic online looking for jobs, but with schools closed across the region and in-person instruction shuttered, contract positions were on hold. “Bottom line, for what I do, no one was hiring,” she told me.

March 22 was DeDe’s 13th birthday, and Williams wanted so badly to give him something special. Most birthdays, the family gathered with friends in a hotel for a large dinner and a party, or at the very least cooked a special meal together. But all she could afford at the pandemic’s outbreak were a few two-liter bottles of his favorite pineapple soda. “He was happy. I was just like … I felt so bad,” she told me, shaking her head. “He said, ‘Mom, no. We’re good.’ ”

Williams eventually found work in April assembling furniture for a vendor at a nearby Home Depot. For over a month, she put together showroom items like grills and wheelbarrows. “I loved it,” she says. “I knew people were dying [from covid]. So the fact that I could be outside all day in the fresh air and I wasn’t engaging with customers seemed like a win-win situation.”

But before she even received her first check, she realized she wasn’t being paid an hourly rate. She was instead working for a subcontractor receiving pennies on the dollar per item she assembled, many of which were priced from $700 to $1,000. She cut her losses and quit. Throughout May and June, she applied for a smattering of other jobs — as a contact tracer in D.C., an Amazon fulfillment center worker, a literacy consultant — but they all fell through.

Meanwhile, a leaky toilet mounted to a surprise $550 water bill that nearly wiped out her savings. In July, she lost access to her car, so every errand now required her to take public transportation or walk, neither particularly desirable options during a pandemic and in a neighborhood that straddles two of the District’s largest food deserts. The pandemic also prompted some of the markets by Williams to close. She found the stores that did remain open charged a premium for basic goods and fresh produce; she recalled paying $7 for a carton of eggs. She hid the shrinking contents of the fridge from her boys, to the extent that she could, and leaned heavily on lentils, rice, beans and plenty of seasoning. “I taught myself, let’s say, how to not express or act out the fact that I was terrified,” she told me. “I would find ways to keep it to myself, so they never knew exactly.”

But DeDe could sense that his mom was trying as hard as she could to stay positive for him and his brother. “[Her] optimism was a really good way of staying motivated to keep going,” DeDe said during a phone call. He and his brother had challenges of their own. Since they no longer attended school in person, they were stuck near the home’s mold issues all day long. By October 2020, Kamau’s symptoms had grown so severe that Williams took him for treatment at Children’s National Hospital, where his doctor referred Williams to the Children’s Law Center to find an attorney who could compel her landlord to repair the house.

Across the ward, in her apartment complex off a hilly stretch of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue with a view of the Washington Monument, Dayshi Green was also struggling to put on a brave face for her family. While 4-year-old Hazel and 2-year-old Harmony ran around the apartment, Green worked remotely for a vendor contracted by Ohio’s unemployment office, processing claims. But in November 2020, the vendor laid her off because, she says, colleagues could hear her daughters carrying on in the background while she was on the phone. It left the family with only Darrine’s income from a job at a local lumber company to rely on. (A spokesperson for the vendor denied Green’s account but declined to comment on personnel matters.)

Then a tragedy reoriented their lives. In April 2021, the family decided to travel to South Carolina to celebrate Darrine’s 28th birthday at a family cookout. While he was in the front yard, a driver sped by and shot him, paralyzing him from the waist down. At the time her husband was shot, Green was several months pregnant with twin boys. The couple couldn’t afford an in-home health aide, so the physical labor of caring for her husband fell to Green. Their apartment sat up a short flight of stairs and wasn’t wheelchair accessible, so any time Darrine needed to leave the building for physical therapy or the hospital, Green had to call the fire department to help move him in and out. With no income, the family spent the majority of 2021 relying on food assistance and a Temporary Assistance for Needy Families subsidy to help make ends meet. “I’m just like, I can’t win. I mean, what do I do?” Green recalls thinking.

Shortly after their return home, Hazel and Harmony started to develop breathing issues whenever the air conditioning unit was on; Green, who has asthma herself, had trouble too. When she took her girls to the hospital for their breathing problems, a doctor explained that their symptoms were likely triggered by mold. A maintenance worker, who finally visited the apartment after many covid-related delays, discovered extensive mold in the unit’s HVAC system.

In March 2021, nearly a year to the day after D.C.’s mayor declared a public health emergency, Holly Williams filed a complaint in D.C. Superior Court’s housing division over the mold, water damage and rodents in her home. An inspection of the property completed that spring by a Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs employee cited the home for 29 property code violations, including a rodent infestation, holes in the basement wall, water damage in the ceiling, absent smoke detectors and suspected black mold.

Williams couldn’t afford to buy groceries and turned to drinking tea in lieu of meals, so that her sons could eat.

Weeks later, in April, Williams’s landlord sent her a notice that she planned to withdraw the home from participation in the city’s rapid rehousing program and would consequently be dissolving their lease agreement at the end of June. Williams’s attorney sent the landlord a letter pointing out that her action was illegal at the time under the city’s eviction moratorium. “There was a lot wrong with the house,” Elizabeth Bowker, another lawyer on Williams’s case, told me. “And so I think that that was [the landlord’s] way of just trying not to deal with that anymore.”

According to inspection data reported by DHS, 1 out of 4 of the roughly 1,300 units identified for families failed its initial inspection last year. Because of how cumbersome it is to oversee inspections on that scale, and given how little affordable housing exists in D.C., families are still allowed to move into units that fail inspection, even more than once. Other cities, like Houston, also tout reductions in homelessness while piling low-income residents into substandard apartments subsidized by rapid rehousing vouchers. “They’re facing the overall problem of housing [in America]: It’s too expensive for what it is,” says Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “And, you know, in cities where that problem is very severe it’s going to be severe for people who go through rapid rehousing too.”

Ingrained in American life is the belief that bad things happen only to those who didn’t work hard enough to will themselves out of poverty. The welfare reform movement of the mid-1990s, and the work requirements subsequently attached to many social programs, relied heavily on the trope of lazy overreliance on the government dime. This attitude toward the poor persists despite the fact that families are enduring the highest rate of inflation seen in 40 years — a tightening that has left some unable to pay for basic goods. It also fails to account for how strained and technologically insufficient benefits programs have become, a problem that only worsened during the pandemic.

‘Survival mode’: Inflation falls hardest on low-income Americans

In September, when Williams tried to recertify her applications for food assistance and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, a glitch in Williams’s recertification left her without any income or food assistance for about three months. She couldn’t afford to buy groceries and turned to drinking tea in lieu of meals, so that her sons could eat.

Beverley Wheeler, director of the nutrition and anti-poverty organization D.C. Hunger Solutions, says many families ran into similar technical issues: “You’ve got a lot of new people trying to access programs and not enough staff. This covid thing and staffing is really, really hard.”

Between glitches and staffing issues, funding for social safety programs should have been scaled up in the fall of 2021, not cut back. But instead, just three months after she temporarily lost her food subsidy and as the omicron wave was beginning in December, Williams received her voucher termination notice from DHS. Her caseworker began barraging her with emails about when she could start making full rent payments. Williams had lined up contract work as a chess instructor and substitute teacher, but just before Christmas the whole family tested positive for the coronavirus. Williams and her sons spent weeks with a raspy cough and fatigue. Short of breath and physically unable to work, Williams knew it would be weeks, if not months, before she’d be able to return to a classroom.

Dayshi Green’s voucher termination notice arrived three days before Christmas and four months after the birth of her twins, Legacy and Legend. She, too, was gutted. Even though she took a job at a Starbucks in January, she couldn’t figure out how the family would find a three-bedroom, wheelchair-accessible apartment on one minimum-wage salary. “I’ve been living in an apartment that’s not livable for almost three years and paying rent, and y’all are going to kick me out? It doesn’t make any sense,” she told me.

Green, Williams and the other 280 rapid rehousing families whose benefits end this spring will have to find their footing in a nearly unprecedented rental market. Rents for a two-bedroom in D.C. are 9 percent pricier than they were a year ago, averaging $3,500 a month, and the median home price is $725,000, an all-time high for the city. According to DHS, rapid rehousing families in D.C. need to make 3½ times their average income in order to afford rent. That tracks with national trends: The leading home price index estimates that housing prices rose nearly 19 percent last year, the highest jump in 34 years. Rapid rehousing participants from Seattle to Missoula, Mont., have consequently struggled to successfully transition back to paying for market-rate housing.

Williams and Green are two of only 21 families who have filed appeals to their terminations, according to documents presented by DHS in February to a panel of housing attorneys and providers. Few beneficiaries are aware of the appeal policy and know how to navigate the process. Families have 60 days to appeal a voucher termination but only 15 days to do so if they want their benefits to remain intact while their case is under review. “They can still appeal [after 15 days], and they might get back in the program,” says Williams’s lawyer, Bowker. “But it puts them at great risk of eviction.” Green made the 15-day deadline and will remain in her home as long as her case is under appeal. Williams maintains that her termination notice isn’t valid because a DHS employee never signed it.

This spring, DHS notified more than 630 additional families that their voucher extensions will end by September. A spokesperson for DHS declined my multiple requests for an interview with director Laura Zeilinger for this story. In written testimony provided to the D.C. Council this spring for the agency’s annual performance oversight hearing, staff denounced what it called “over reliance on the [rapid rehousing] program to ameliorate the effects of poverty and the affordable housing crisis.”

That overreliance exists at least in part because there just aren’t any other relatively accessible housing programs like it. The waiting list for public housing in D.C. closed to new applicants in 2013 with more than 70,000 names on it. Only 51 families last year received vouchers for Permanent Supportive Housing, a program that functions like rapid rehousing but doesn’t have a time limit. Unlike other federal benefit programs like SNAP, the food assistance benefit that is disbursed to anyone who qualifies, housing is not a proper entitlement program, and not everyone who qualifies for a housing subsidy gets one. Instead, cities are left to independently solve one of the great crises of our time: how to build a massive supply of affordable homes, and fast.

“As a country, we have woefully underinvested in our housing safety net. And that hasn’t changed post-pandemic,” says Mary Cunningham, vice president of the Urban Institute’s Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center. Low-income families “will continue to face rising rents, eviction, housing instability and, for some, homelessness,” Cunningham says. “And I think that we’re just kind of back to where we were, but probably in worse shape than the beginning of the pandemic.”

Standing in her basement, Williams shows me where she keeps all of the cardboard boxes she receives from Amazon and breaks down, in anticipation of packing up to move who knows where. She’s been thinking about contingency plans: how DeDe could live with his sister, at least until he finishes high school; how she could help support her older son. “And if I just have to grind and be in the street, then I’ll do that,” she says. “I don’t want that for myself, of course. No one does. But I do know that if it comes down to it, I’m going to do whatever I have to do to provide.”

What Williams grapples with in D.C. is happening across the nation, as we return to a system that wasn’t working before and that is especially insufficient during a global pandemic that isn’t yet over. The only real attempt to reimagine our social safety net fell victim to politics: President Biden’s scuttled Build Back Better bill would have maintained the child tax credit’s pandemic-era increase and allocated an additional $24 billion toward housing vouchers, with $7 billion earmarked for families at risk of homelessness like Williams’s and Green’s. Already there have been dire effects of the current rollback. A recent study by the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University estimates that 3.7 million children fell into poverty between December 2021 and January 2022 — a 41 percent increase — after the expanded child credit expired at the end of the year.

In March, Williams was able to return to the classroom as a teacher for middle school science and language arts classes. She spends free time mapping out a long-term plan for her chess business with the help of the Washington, DC Women’s Business Center and thinking about the curriculum she’d like to develop, which centers on chess and Black history.

But she’s concerned that her newfound financial stability won’t resolve her housing concerns. While she has paid several thousand dollars toward her rental debt, which she accrued because her income was never properly readjusted, she is reluctant to drain her savings for a house she’s on the cusp of losing. And just over three weeks before her voucher’s termination date, Williams received a notice from her property manager that the owner of her home plans to list the house for sale in early May. As is required under D.C. law, the property manager gave Williams the first opportunity to submit an offer, but she feels this is hardly something she can take seriously. Meanwhile, the fish tank she bought for DeDe last year — a birthday gift meant to make up for his year of pineapple soda — sits empty on his bedside table. He didn’t want to buy a fish for it, she says, if they’ll have to move it to a new house.

Morgan Baskin is a D.C.-based reporter who covers housing policy and poverty.

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