This week, the Housing Complex exposed the troubles DC is having placing homeless families through its Rapid Rehousing program. The director of the Department of Human Services (DHS) is quoted in the article, opining that the biggest obstacle for placing families is the lack of affordable units that families could afford on their own after the program stops helping them pay rent. We think Rapid Rehousing could be a valuable part of the affordable housing spectrum if it were tailored to meet both the needs of homeless families in DC and, perhaps more critically, the realities of DC’s housing market.

If the District had available a multitude of apartments that were reasonably priced to residents who work one, two, or even three minimum wage jobs, much less those on public assistance, DC wouldn’t have the family homelessness crisis it has today. Instead, the loss of affordable rental units is a major cause of homelessness for families. We sympathize with Director Berns’ sentiment that allowing families to rent units with higher rents than they can afford once they stop receiving a subsidy sets them up to fail—but this is evidence of a design flaw in DC’s Rapid Rehousing program. The central problem is that DC has designed a program broadly targeted to homeless families, and then based it on the presumed availability of units that will be affordable to these families without a subsidy.

This isn’t to say that Rapid Rehousing is destined to be a failure in DC. It just can’t be the primary solution to family homelessness without some major changes. It is certainly possible to improve the program’s placement success by looking to practices employed by housing programs that work well in this rental market, such as the Local Rent Supplement Program (or its federal equivalent, the Housing Choice Voucher Program) and DHS’ Permanent Supportive Housing program. Both of these programs are designed to help level the playing field for their participants while also responding to DC’s specific housing market realities by:

  1. Allowing participants to select units with reasonable rent as determined by a neighborhood-specific market analysis of rental units (performed jointly by expert federal and local authorities.) This greatly increases the chances of finding units to rent. Just as importantly, it reduces the likelihood that families will be limited to accessing apartments that are priced below market levels for a reason, i.e. they are in terrible condition or are in dangerous neighborhoods; and
  2. Lowering the perceived risk to landlords that they won’t get paid rent if they lease to families of limited income by guaranteeing the government portion of the rent for longer than four months and by indicating what services tenants will receive during the length of their subsidy. The letter that landlords currently get in the Rapid Rehousing program states that the program will pay a portion of the rent for four months and mentions nothing of any services provided to the tenant to help them increase income and retain housing. Landlords are wary of renting to applicants with poor credit or rental histories and limited income with such a limited promise of support from DC’s Rapid Rehousing program. We do not see this same wariness in other affordable housing programs. Director Berns has said that the government will continue to extend support if families need it in Rapid Rehousing beyond four months. If DC assured landlords of that commitment, we think they would increase the number of landlords willing to rent to homeless families.

Finally, DC’s Rapid Rehousing Program could benefit from employing housing locators to assist applicants in finding homes. The families staying in hotels have been assigned to at least three or four different caseworkers, all funded by DC tax dollars, but none of whom have specialized training in finding housing. This staffing structure seems both duplicative and ineffective. In fact, many families have reported to us that they rarely hear from their workers and when they do the message is often that it is entirely on the family to find a unit and negotiate with the landlord.