Rapid rehousing: The problems with this solution

Several families who have received rapid rehousing subsidies marched with advocates on May 9, 2019 to voice their concerns about the program. Meeting at the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center on Rhode Island Ave., they marched nearly two miles in the heat to the headquarters of the Washington D.C. Department of Human Services (DHS), where they delivered a letter to DHS officials. Photos By Reginald Black

In 2014, Reginald Black found himself in stable housing for the first time after nearly a decade of homelessness. Through Friendship Place, a homeless services provider based in Tenleytown, he qualified for assistance from the D.C. government to help pay his rent. But by 2016, he was back in the shelter.

“From the beginning, it wasn’t an appropriate solution,” Black says. “And I kinda knew that, but that was the only thing available to me.”

Rapid rehousing is a national model that the D.C. Department of Human Services (DHS) has used since 2008. Several nonprofits like Friendship Place are contracted by DHS to implement the program, which places homeless families and individuals into houses or apartments in the D.C. area and offers them rental assistance for up to one year. Though a share of the rent is paid by the government, residents are obligated to pay 60 per cent of their income to the landlord. The program’s goal is to provide enough stability for residents to address issues other than housing, such as employment and health care, so that they can eventually take full responsibility for the rent.

Black was given a one-month extension to stay in his room inside a shared house after being awarded the initial year-long subsidy, and he found part-time employment working for DHS. But it wasn’t enough income for him to pay market rent in the District. He, like many other rapid rehousing customers, feels that his issues with the program were rooted in a lack of so-called “wraparound services.”

“There weren’t any viable resources to go along with the program,” he says. “No real channels to employment. It’s more like a 90-day probation than anything else.”

Rapid rehousing has come under fire from program participants several times in the past five years for allegedly not providing the necessary support to program participants to become self-sufficient. The Department of Human Services claims that 85 per cent of rapid rehousing clients do not move back into homeless shelters. However, according to Amber Harding, a lawyer with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, the program has several issues that make it “the biggest driver for families re-entering shelters.” 

According to a Washington City Paper report in June, 42 per cent of families who left D.C.’s homeless services system but returned again for help were those who had used rapid rehousing vouchers.

A broken ladder to self-sufficiency

In 2017, the Washington Legal Clinic released a report based on interviews with rapid rehousing customers in D.C. titled, Set Up to Fail. It identified several recurring themes based on the interviews, including a lack of protections in cases where landlords refuse to carry out repairs and against raising rent prices, in addition to identifying the need for better wraparound services. 

The biggest issues still encountered today, according to Harding, revolve around difficulties with rent and employment. 

“There’s still a time limit that is not connected to whether or not they can afford the rent,” she explains. “Of course, people are going to become homeless again if that’s how it works.”

According to the report, the average rent for a rapid rehousing unit two years ago was around $1,200 per month. This was more than twice the average monthly income for families in the program, which was $500. This includes income from part-time work and from benefit programs, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. On top of this, Harding said, there are not enough resources to help residents find higher-paying, full-time jobs before their subsidy ends.

“The way things are now, most of the families aren’t able to earn the income needed to afford these places,” she says. “As a result, people are being dropped off the cliff back into homelessness.”

Nkechi Feaster is a prime example. Though she was working a temp job when she started the program in 2012, she knew she’d need a permanent position soon to be able to stay in her apartment. “I reached out to my case manager for help, but I never really got anything out of it,” she recalls. 

Feaster started overpaying her rent while she still had money coming in. Though she was never able to find full-time employment, she was dismissed from the program because her part-time job paid her enough to maintain the rent. 

“By the time I was put out of the program, I only had 30 days left at my job,” she says. “There was no possible way I’d be able to pay for everything, and I was mad because no one had helped me.” 

Feaster said her case manager knew she’d be out of a job soon, but the program still deemed her a success story for being able to pay for rent during her initial subsidy period, and for technically being employed once the subsidy ended. A month later, she was unemployed and expected to pay market rent for her apartment.

“[After exiting rapid rehousing] I was able to stay there for about three months,” she tells me. “Since then, I’ve just been renting rooms in different places with the goal of just not re-entering the shelter system.”

Even when customers are able to get employment help, they are not always offered useful advice.

Ashley Rhodes, who started in the program in June of 2016, said the jobs her case managers suggested were unrealistic. “My rent is around $1,800 a month,” she explains. “They were only finding and suggesting jobs at places like Walmart and McDonald’s, even though I’ve worked at better-paying places than that before. They acted like I was being snooty, like I was above working those jobs, but I literally couldn’t do them. I wouldn’t be able to afford rent or childcare, and I’d have no benefits.”

In addition, Rhodes said the jobs that are often suggested for rapid rehousing customers put extra strain on the children, and by extension, the parents. “So many of the jobs have nighttime hours only,” she says. “If you can’t afford daycare, you have to ask friends or family to take care of your kid, and they don’t help him with his homework or watch him closely the way you would if you were there.” 

Rhodes says that she had a night job at one point but quit because her son was struggling in school without her around. 

When her subsidy ended in December of 2017, Rhodes appealed through the Office of Administrative Hearings, saying that she should be able to maintain her funding due to the lack of employment and education help she felt she received. “The judge ruled that Community of Hope can’t transfer me,” she says. “They still fund my place. DHS and [The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness] have told them to terminate me, but they won’t because the court order specifically says they can’t.” 

DHS representative Tamitha Davis-Rama says that while she cannot speak on specific clients’ cases, DHS is committed to working with clients to extend their subsidy if needed. “[Rapid rehousing customers] are eligible to apply for a more long-term permanent housing subsidies like [permanent supportive housing],” Davis-Rama says.  “And we work with our providers through the process of submitting applications for their identified customers.”

Despite this, many customers feel like improving employment services is crucial to making rapid rehousing function for them and others. 

“There has to be a focus on finding jobs that people can retain and that will allow them to take over the rent after some time,” Black says, while reflecting on his experience. “I feel like the connections to those jobs were lacking … There should be a safety net to catch you and help you up on your feet.”

Lack of support

While employment seems to be the biggest issue, many tenants have had other challenges during their time in rapid rehousing. Many of these are related to landlord discrimination, Harding says. She has regularly dealt with landlords who refused to rent to people in rapid rehousing or refused to make repairs on units occupied by tenants in the program.

“We’ve also heard – and I don’t know if this has become more or less frequent – of landlords trying to raise rents for rapid rehousing tenants,” Harding says. “This is very difficult for tenants, because, once their subsidy ends, they have to pay above market rate to stay in their homes.” 

DHS has attempted to combat this in the past with a “mitigation fund”, which was established in November of 2017. The fund insures landlords for up to $5,000 for any damages incurred or unpaid rent lost to rapid rehousing tenants.

By the time she’d been in her apartment for a year, Nkechi Feaster said her landlord had stopped coming to repair anything for her. 

“At one point, my refrigerator was spoiling food really fast. And I’m an insulin-dependent diabetic, so I needed it fixed,” she recalls. “I submitted a lot of requests and reminders, but it took them forever. So I was wasting money on food and risking my health.” 

Feaster says that by the time she left her apartment, the dishwasher, washing machine, and dryer had all stopped working and no one had responded to her requests to repair them.

While Reginald Black had no problems with his property owner, he had several issues with his case managers. 

“The turnover rate is a big problem,” he says. “I had three different case managers, and I only saw the second case manager once. She never came to do a single house visit, and then suddenly I was assigned to someone else.” 

Black said his case managers were not supportive whenever he went to them seeking help for solving a problem. “They would just tell me, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing,’ and I would say ‘Okay,’ even though what I was doing wasn’t working.”

According to Jamey Burden, an employee for rapid rehousing case management provider Community of Hope, there’s often a gap between when tenants move into their apartments and when they’re assigned a case manager, which makes it difficult for them to receive the help they need in their transition to non-shelter housing.

“One thing I think is really important is making sure that once families move out of the shelter and into their apartment, that they’re provided with their rapid rehousing manager as soon as possible,” says Burden. “This means that there isn’t a huge gap between when they move in and when they start to actually receive those services.” 

In recent times, Burden says, Community of Hope has been able to start working with clients very quickly. Despite this, he acknowledges that this hasn’t always been the case and can be a significant problem for people in rapid rehousing.

DHS began an “enhanced case management” initiative in 2016 in part to solve this problem. The development has lowered the client to case-manager ratio to a maximum of 125 to 1, allowing case managers to allot more time to each individual client.

A starting point, not a finish line

Supporters of rapid rehousing say most criticism of the program is rooted in misunderstandings of what it is meant to do. While rapid rehousing lacks the structure to be a permanent solution for homelessness, providers maintain that this is because it was always meant to be a temporary fix.

“There is a much greater need for affordable housing that rapid rehousing, transitional housing, or any other type of homelessness program is not going to be able to fill,” Burden states. “Rapid rehousing is a good tool and a lot of communities don’t have these types of resources. I think there’s always room for improvement, but, at the same time, we’re unable to take care of all the housing instability issues in D.C.”

According to the DC Policy Institute, there are at least 40,000 households in the D.C. area that severely struggle with the cost of housing. Burden thinks it’s unrealistic to expect that rapid rehousing could solve such a large problem. He maintains that the focus should be on the program getting families out of shelters and connected to resources that will further their progress, not on whether it can alleviate every obstacle that a family faces.

“We need to do the best we can as a city, but we also have to acknowledge that the homelessness assistance system is a very small piece of the much larger solution of housing affordability,” Burden concludes. 

According to the Urban Institute, the cost of housing a family through rapid rehousing is about $880 per month. The Legal Clinic’s Set Up to Fail report states that over 1,350 families were actively in the program as of 2017, making the annual cost of the program roughly $1,188,000. 

Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, who also chairs the Committee on Human Services, views rapid rehousing as a stepping stone on the path to self-sufficiency.

“One of the things that’s important to remember is that rapid rehousing is our Housing First program,” she says. “That doesn’t mean that’s where everyone is gonna end up.”

According to Nadeau, the primary purpose of rapid rehousing is to get families out of shelters and stabilized as quickly as possible. After that’s taken care of, she says, the program may conduct deeper assessments to determine what long-term issues are contributing to a customer’s situation. Addressing these problems may require a different assistance program or moving into permanent supportive housing. 

“I think the Legal Clinic is doing a really good job of highlighting cases where it just isn’t working and I think it’s important to focus on those scenarios because that makes the program better as a whole,” Nadeau says. “But my sense is that it’s not the majority of people who are in rapid rehousing.”

Change is coming

Washington City Paper reported in June that 42 per cent of families who left D.C.’s homeless services system but returned again for help were those who had used rapid rehousing vouchers. However, DHS continues to report that 85 per cent of people housed through rapid rehousing did not re-enter shelters. 

It is difficult to tell how long former rapid rehousing customers are monitored by DHS in order to for them to calculate this data. While Harding says it only lasts for one or two years, DHS representative Tamitha Davis-Rama says there is no cutoff to how long they follow up with residents. 

“We don’t continue tracking families unless they present for ongoing need after they exit our program, but this is something that we’re continuously looking at,” Davis-Rama says. 

She goes on to say that DHS has made progress in at least three of the problem areas identified by the Legal Clinic’s 2016 report. Davis-Rama cites three “major achievements” made since 2016: the rental partnership initiative, enhanced case management, and the landlord partnership fund. 

The first is meant to “streamline payment structure” by having the D.C. government pay the entirety of the rental payments for rapid rehousing units directly to the landlords. This is the department’s way of both ensuring consistent rent payments, which used to come separately from both the customer and DHS, and protecting customers from neglect or abuse.

“When there are issues where we feel like the landlord is not responding appropriately regarding maintenance repair, that’s where we as an entity can withhold rent so it’s not impacting the customers,” Davis-Rama explains. 

The second development aimed to lower the client-to-case manager ratio. Davis-Rama claims that the maximum number of clients assigned to any case manager has dropped to 125. DHS plans to increase efforts to make sure customers are “fully engaged with TANF employment and education providers,” which they are meant to work with as part of the program.

Lastly, the Landlord Partnership fund, announced by Mayor Bowser in October of 2017, was created to cover any costs incurred by landlords who are housing rapid rehousing customers. If there are significant damages that a tenant’s security deposit will not cover, DHS will finance the landlord for the repairs. 

Councilmember Nadeau remains hopeful that DHS will continue to make progress to resolve all of the systemic struggles the Legal Clinic’s report.

“We’ve been talking to DHS about how we can get to a place where the services that people are provided as part of rapid rehousing are happening at each step,” she says. “We really can do better in a lot of areas and I think we’re getting better, but it’s incremental.”

Is there a solution?

DHS may be making efforts to improve the program, but some rapid rehousing customers fear it may not be enough.

“I think the program altogether needs to die,” says Nkechi Feaster. “The government has developed its own complacency. It will always be unsuccessful because there will never be enough wraparound services.” 

Amber Harding says that while DHS has been getting more input from families, she doesn’t think they are using those insights to improve.

Instead, Harding and the Legal Clinic have urged DHS to put more emphasis on permanent affordable housing.

“The cliff still exists. The emphasis on this as a solution to homelessness still exists,” she explains. “The city is not funding permanent housing at nearly the rates that they need to. On the outside, it looks like they’re taking the idea into account, but it’s not like they’re saying ‘let’s move massive amounts of money around into permanent housing subsidies and decrease rapid rehousing.’”

In the mind of Jamey Burden from Community of Hope, rapid rehousing just needs to improve its working partnership with permanent housing. 

“I don’t see them as competing against each other,” he says. “In a more perfect world, we would be working better to try and integrate them. Rapid rehousing is helping people get out of shelters quickly before we move on to more permanent solutions. Ideally, it’s not a panacea. It’s only the beginning.”

Courtesy of Street Sense Media / INSP.ngo



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