The Department of Public Works recently removed homeless “tent” camps from D.C.’s NoMa neighborhood. Homeless women and men were living in tents, surrounded by construction and signs of development in the shadow of a store selling tents costing hundreds of dollars. This striking imagery highlights the gaps between rich and poor in our nation’s capital. It also suggests that D.C.’s leaders must do better by creating programs that are effective and economically sustainable, moving people out of society’s fringes and into safe and affordable housing.
I am grateful that D.C.’s mayor and council members believe that they have a responsibility to help low-income and homeless families find affordable housing. But that plan is too focused on spending government resources to tout short-term gains. Ignored are the long-term and chronic ailments plaguing many Washingtonians who move from one calamitous situation to another.
Evidence of this willful shortsightedness by our elected leaders is the “rapid rehousing” program, which provides housing vouchers to low-income families for four months to a year. However, the program creates a cycle of despondency by failing to address the underlying problems that typically lead to these families’ situations in the first place: drug and alcohol addiction, mental-health issues and, often, a lifetime of living in unstable family environments lacking love and good, fundamental parenting.
In the District, housing advocates have taken notice that rapid rehousing misses the mark. The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless admonished leaders for setting up voucher recipients to fail, often cycling them back into homelessness. Despite this criticism, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and the D.C. Council are going to pump millions more taxpayer dollars into the program.
I am unwilling to blindly scorn private landlords who accept rapid-rehousing vouchers. Far too many private landlords avoid these tenants at all costs.
Private landowners who accept vouchers have been called “slumlords” and accused of profiting off the poor, failing to provide safe and sanitary housing. Instead of facing the constant threat of litigation and media vilification for accepting tenants in challenging circumstances, private landowners who welcome atypical tenants transitioning out of homelessness should be viewed as key partners in the housing solution.
Unfortunately, many private landlords are in the same situation as residents: set up to fail by the District. When rapid rehousing vouchers expire, formerly homeless residents are no more able to pay rent than they were before they received the benefits. D.C. laws also shield tenants from eviction for months or years for nonpayment of rent. Finally, tenants use their right of first refusal of sale, known as the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, to block the sale of the buildings and keep living there with low rent or none at all.
The result of vouchers and D.C.’s tenant-friendly laws is that landlords own unprofitable buildings. Private landlords are in business, not operating a charity. They do not have the unlimited tax coffers of the D.C. government. If landlords are losing money on a property, it is unreasonable to expect them to spend more money keeping up the property. Safety should never be forsaken, but the reality for a business is it must make a profit.
The most vilified of D.C. landlords, Sanford Capital, owns a number of large apartment buildings in the District. While it is easy to target and condemn it for the terrible housing conditions in some of its properties, such attacks reek of sanctimoniousness; it is offering a service that the city is not willing to provide. If not Sanford, who?
I applaud those willing to serve the needy. It is not an easy problem, nor an issue that can be solved by pointing fingers or spending money. The root causes of homelessness and despair are matters that often require repairing the soul, which the government and progressives are uncomfortable addressing. Still, they must be acknowledged to help people improve their own lives and the lives of their loved ones.
The writer, a minister, is executive vice president at the Center for Urban Renewal and Education in the District.
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