Rapid re­hous­ing’s poor re­port

Ad­vo­cacy groups call D.C.’s ‘rapid re­hous­ing’ statis­tics ‘an il­lu­sion’

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY PAUL DUG­GAN

Ad­vo­cates say the D.C. pro­gram’s suc­cess rate is “an il­lu­sion.”

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

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, to 33,400 from more than 57,700, 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 changes 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 in­for- ma­tion 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 Bowser’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 longterm fed­eral hous­ing vouch­ers or find apart­ments in pub­lic hous­ing, re­quir­ing them to pay onethird 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 — havshort­age ing all of those fam­i­lies with their chil­dren just sit in shel­ters — 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 self­sus­tain­ing, 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-mos­t­ex­pen­sive 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.”

“There needs to be a greater sup­ply of af­ford­able hous­ing in the District of Columbia.” Laura Zeilinger, D.C. hu­man ser­vices di­rec­tor

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