Home­less­ness won’t be fixed by vil­i­fy­ing land­lords

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - BY DEREK MCCOY

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 longterm 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, men­tal­health 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.

Un­for­tu­nately, many pri­vate land­lords are in the same sit­u­a­tion as res­i­dents: set up to fail by the Dis­trict.

The writer, a min­is­ter, is ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent at the Cen­ter for Ur­ban Re­newal and Education in the Dis­trict.

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