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Mayor Muriel Bowser stood over Tremaine Anderson’s shoulder and watched as the then-26-year-old signed a lease in November 2017. Anderson and her two children had bounced from friends’ and families’ couches to living in the now-shuttered D.C. General family shelter. But thanks to the mayor and the city’s rapid rehousing program, Anderson’s family would have a stable place to sleep.

TV news cameras captured the special moment and promoted Bowser’s Home for the Holidays campaign, an effort to place more than 400 people into housing before the new year. (This season’s Home for the Holidays campaign helped 438 households transition from homelessness to housing, as of Jan. 17, 2020.)

The cameras rolled as Anderson gave the mayor and Don Gladstone, the property manager, a tour of her two-bedroom apartment just off Naylor Road SE, less than a mile from the Maryland border.

“Very nice, very nice,” Bowser said as Anderson showed her the master bedroom closet.

Gladstone even got some good publicity out of the deal, telling a Street Sense reporter that he wanted to do his part to help those most in need. He called on property owners to “take a bold step forward and make a difference in the lives of individuals and families across the city.”

“By joining hands and hearts we can work together for endless possibilities,” Gladstone said.

In exchange for appearing as the face of the mayor’s campaign, Anderson says she was promised a permanent voucher at the end of the temporary rapid rehousing subsidy.

Rapid rehousing is the District’s primary tool for moving people from the shelter system and into an apartment. Participants generally get a 12-month rental subsidy with an extension of up to six months. According to Laura Zeilinger, the director of D.C.’s Department of Human Services, a promise like the one Anderson says she was made would generally go against the agency’s policies. She says there are clear rules for who qualifies for permanent housing vouchers; in D.C., they are usually reserved for people with a disabling condition that might prevent them from earning enough money to pay rent.

Within months of moving in to her unit, Anderson says, the dishwasher stopped working and still hasn’t been fixed. The building’s washer and dryer never worked, she adds, so she and her partner take the family’s clothes to a laundromat. Mold is eating a hole in her hallway ceiling, just behind the spot where Bowser stood in 2017 while Anderson answered reporters’ questions. Water leaks into the unit’s smoke detectors and light fixtures, and mice have chewed holes in the back of the kitchen cabinets.

The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs documented the damage, and cited the building’s owner, Muntan Tahar, for housing code infractions.

In September, when her rapid rehousing subsidy ran out, and with no chance of a permanent voucher coming her way, Anderson was left to pay the entirety of the rent on her own. While she was in the program, Anderson earned a special police officer’s license and started working as a security guard, earning about $15 an hour—exactly the kind of progress the program seeks to foster.

But she also had three more children during that time, including a set of twin girls born prematurely in December 2019. The twins spent their first two months in the neonatal intensive care unit at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, and Anderson worries about bringing them home to an apartment with mold and mice.

Also weighing on her mind is the $1,592 monthly rent she now owes. Her $908 in monthly benefits through the Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF) program, plus the money her partner brings in, isn’t enough to cover it, she says. She can’t go back to work until the twins are old enough to go to daycare.

In January, when she fell behind on rent, Gladstone filed to evict her.

From the perspective of legal advocates, Anderson’s story is a typical example of one of the major problems with the rapid rehousing program: When the temporary subsidy is cut off, people often can’t afford to take over the full market rent.

Zeilinger touts the program’s success in lifting people out of shelters and stabilizing them long enough to get back on their feet. The program isn’t perfect but it helps more people than it hurts, she claims.

But success for families in rapid rehousing, known locally as the Family Re-Housing and Stabilization Program, is a matter of perspective and one that officials and advocates have disagreed on since D.C. implemented it in 2012. So why does D.C. continue to use it? And what are officials doing to improve it?

“My hope was this administration would make meaningful changes,” says Damon King, an attorney and policy advocate with the Legal Aid Society of D.C.  “Instead, what we’ve seen is a doubling down on this approach of using time-limited vouchers.” 

***

During her first State of the District address in 2015, Bowser promised to end family homelessness by 2018.

It’s now two years past her deadline, and the mayor has failed to deliver on that bold assurance. But ask the Bowser administration about its progress, and they will say there is reason for optimism.

“Rapid rehousing very much helps us in … an economy where wages have not kept up with the cost of housing,” Zeilinger says. “So people can have access to that safety, and they exit to housing.”

The annual Point-in-Time census for 2019—an imperfect accounting of people experiencing homelessness that’s required in cities that receive federal assistance for homeless services—showed a 12 percent decrease in homeless families in D.C., from 924 families in 2018 to 815 in 2019. The count also shows a 45 percent decrease since 2016, when D.C. identified 1,491 homeless families, a decline the administration attributes in part to the rapid rehousing program.

As it stands now, rapid rehousing requires families pay at least 40 percent, and sometimes as much as 50 or 60 percent, advocates say, of their income toward rent, while the government picks up the rest. The city officially counts the program’s participants as permanently housed despite the temporary nature of the subsidy.

From 2016 to 2019, the budget for families in the rapid rehousing program increased from $25.7 million to $51.5 million. In that timeframe, the number of families in the program jumped from about 1,000 to 2,400.

To measure success, the program’s defenders, including Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, tout a 90 percent success rate.

“It’s a successful program for many, many, many people,” Nadeau says. “And that’s why its current form, of it being a temporary program, is important. If 90 percent of people are succeeding, and then you extend it and make it permanent, we’re not going to exit people and then bring more people into the subsidy.”

Out of the 613 families who left the rapid rehousing program in fiscal year 2018, 90 percent did not seek emergency shelter after 18 months, according to DHS’ internal numbers. A separate calculation of the 876 families that left the program between fiscal year 2018 and the first part of 2019 found that 67 percent, or 590 families, live in a unit that they owned or rented. 

Legal advocates and critics of rapid rehousing say those metrics don’t tell the whole story because DHS doesn’t track how many of those families remain in their units after they leave the program.

“DHS defines success narrowly,” King says. “They are really only looking at families who, after rapid rehousing, show up in their shelter system again. And that doesn’t capture all of the ways in which people are in deeply unstable and perhaps dangerous situations.”

The agency can’t say, for example, how many families are couch surfing or sleeping in cars, or whether they were evicted after leaving the program, though DHS recently started analyzing eviction data.

Critics point to other statistics that call the 90 percent success rate into question:

Of the people who exited D.C.’s homeless services system and then returned seeking homeless services during the 2018–2019 hypothermia season, 42 percent had been in rapid rehousing before, according to a report prepared by the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness.

In a sample of 882 families who left the rapid rehousing program between Oct. 1, 2017 and Feb. 28, 2019, 46 percent, or 404 families, ended up with an eviction lawsuit in D.C. Superior Court, according to data DHS presented as part of a task force assembled in 2019 to improve the program. (Even if tenants are not officially evicted, the mere existence of a lawsuit can make it more difficult for them to secure housing in the future, housing lawyers say.)

From 2016 to 2019, the average income of rapid rehousing participants increased only slightly, from $1,285 to $1,435 per month, according to DHS data presented to the task force. Average market rent for a two-bedroom unit in D.C. is about $3,100 a month.

The number of homeless students is trending upward from about 3,000 kids during the 2014 school year to more than 5,500 in 2019, according to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education.

Amber Harding, a lawyer with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, wants to know why Bowser is able to claim progress in reducing family homelessness while student homelessness is going up.

“If Bowser’s goal was to end family shelter stays, she could claim she was succeeding,” Harding says. “Not so much on family homelessness.”

The difference lies in the definitions of homelessness the city and DC Public Schools use. Bowser relies on the Point in Time census, which tracks people living on the streets, in shelters, or in transitional housing. The school system counts kids who are couch surfing or who are “doubled up” with friends or family as homeless.

“All of those people need housing assistance,” says Nan Roman, president and CEO of that National Alliance to End Homelessness. “But it’s not there.”

Roman says the rapid rehousing model, which first came about in 2009 at the federal level as part of an Obama-era stimulus package, is generally considered a success. 

“Would a full fledged subsidy be better for people who are getting rapid rehousing?” Roman asks. “Probably almost universally, yes.” But with too few housing vouchers and a shortage of affordable housing, the quick fix program is the next best thing, she says.

Nadeau says the lack of permanent housing vouchers is mostly a question of local resources, not political will. 

“In theory this government could fund all the needed units of housing. In the past we’ve heard from the executive that if we were to allocate all the funding needed in a particular fiscal year, there wouldn’t be the capacity to implement all the programs in the course of the year,” she writes in an email.

Nationally, research suggests that rapid rehousing can be an effective tool to lift people out of homelessness quickly, though there is little evidence that the program works to stabilize families in the long run.

New York City’s use of rapid rehousing offers the biggest cautionary tale. The city credited the program with moving 33,000 people out of shelters between 2005 and 2011. But, unlike in D.C., the rate at which people returned to shelters after rapid rehousing skyrocketed, costing the city an estimated $1 billion, according to a report by the Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness.

The local program’s flaws are also well documented. Articles in the Washington Post in 2013 and City Paper in 2015 called out many of the same dilemmas the D.C. program faces today. 

The subsidy is too short; people can’t begin to make enough money to afford market rate rents on their own, and when the subsidy ends, they cycle back into unstable situations; landlords are reluctant to rent to people with the temporary vouchers; and many of the units are substandard and in need of repairs.

A stinging 2017 report from the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, titled “Set Up to Fail,” argued that D.C. relied too heavily on the program and that despite the District’s claims of success, only about 20 percent of families were able to continue paying their rent after the subsidy ended. The report also found that 45 percent of families in the program ended up in eviction court while still in the program, 

More than 90 percent of rapid rehousing participants live east of the Anacostia River, the Washington Legal Clinic’s report found, where there are fewer grocery stores, accessing health care is difficult, and average income is lower, unemployment is higher, and life expectancy is shorter than in the rest of the District.

Just this month, the Post reported again on the program, profiling Karmaletha Johnson and her three children. The family had moved six times in the past three years, but at the end of the 12-month program, the family was earning too much money to qualify for an extension and not enough to afford the $1,897 a month to stay in their apartment. In the end, Johnson moved her family to a cheaper place in Maryland.

Does DHS consider that family’s story a success?

“I don’t think it’s that black and white,” Zeilinger says. 

On the one hand, Johnson is now supporting her family without a government subsidy, even if she has to put 42 percent of her monthly income toward rent, as the Post reported, to do so. HUD considers a family “cost burdened” if they pay more than 30 percent of their monthly income in rent.

On the other hand, Johnson and her family no longer live in the District, and as Maryland residents, they don’t have access to D.C.’s more robust homeless services, should they fall on hard times again.

They are now among the tens of thousands of African Americans displaced from a jurisdiction that ranks among the highest in the country in “intensity of gentrification,” according to a study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition. More than 20,000 African American residents in D.C. were displaced between 2000 and 2013, the study found.

“[Johnson] is not homeless, her family has stability, and while it’s far from ideal, it’s also much better than (where she was) without the program,” Zeilinger says. “It’s so important that she’s achieved what she’s achieved, and we’re proud of the success she’s had in doing that.”

Nadeau, despite her praise for the program, disagrees. “I don’t think that’s success. I think it’s something that happens in D.C. every day. It’s something we as a city are working hard on,” she says.

Success or not, families in the rapid rehousing program continue to struggle. Zeilinger doesn’t deny that. That’s why, she says, the agency assembled a task force last year to come up with solutions.

***

In September 2019, all of the voices involved with rapid rehousing assembled at a common table: Program participants, landlords, lawyers, service providers, legislators, and members of executive branch agencies that address homelessness, housing, and employment came together to talk about what’s wrong with rapid rehousing and figure out how to fix it.

For some, like Shonnie Jones, that DHS was open to listening to people who had been through the program was positive.

Jones participated in the rapid rehousing program for less than a year before she received a more permanent housing voucher largely due to her son’s disability and with a lawyer’s help. But, she cautions, she was one of the lucky ones.

“If you hear advocates for [the program] talk about it, it sounds great, but the way it’s implemented, other dynamics are left out, including families with mental health issues and behavioral health issues,” she says. “A lot of the case managers know they’ll be back in the shelter, too. And they still push it. It’s so much money wasted.”

Zeilinger’s opening remarks at the task force’s first meeting impressed even her most persistent critics. The DHS director told the task force members that the agency was willing to be self-critical, acknowledged the racial inequities in the program, and said the agency wanted to listen, and was willing to make changes, according to those in attendance.

That was a marked difference from the praise that Harding, of the Washington Legal Clinic, previously heard Zeilinger give the program.

“It seemed like we had the right people in the room, and there might be some political will to make change,” says Harding, who for years has been vocal in her dissatisfaction with the District’s homeless and housing policies. “And dammit, I did have a little bit of hope.”

But the shared optimism quickly faded.

After the second meeting, Zeilinger sent out a memo putting restrictions on the discussion going forward.

Any recommendations had to be cost neutral, according to the memo, which says the “City Council has cut [family rapid rehousing] funds in the last several budget cycles, and there is a strong likelihood that any enhancements to the program would be eliminated in the budget process.” Zeilinger’s explanation is undercut by a chart embedded in the memo showing the program’s budget for families has increased, from a budgeted $30 million in 2017 to a budgeted $35 million in 2020. The memo also required any recommendations to maintain the program as a time-limited subsidy and to further the District’s goal of moving people out of the shelter system quickly, according to Zeilinger’s memo.

“It was very on brand for the Bowser administration’s version of soliciting community input,” Harding says. “It was very controlled at every point along the way.”

For task force attendees who often represent people on the receiving end of rapid rehousing’s flaws, the effort was a wasted opportunity.

“The conversation was not as robust as we had hoped in terms of thinking about the big picture about rapid rehousing being the only tool for families,” says Kathy Zeisel, a lawyer with the Children’s Law Center and a member of the task force. “It really isn’t the right tool for every family, and we were not really ever able to have that conversation as part of the task force.”

The task force’s final report is expected next month, but a draft of its final recommendations is currently posted to DHS’ website. It suggests improvements to virtually every aspect of the rapid rehousing program, including the screening process, case management, and data collection.

One recommendation, which concerns legal advocates, calls for DHS to look into the possibility of working with landlords in Maryland and Virginia.

“We’ve seen in case management notes, for planning the end of the subsidy, that clients are advised to look for housing in Maryland and Virginia,” Harding says. “People can’t afford to rent here anymore. It’s a slow displacement tool.”

The draft report imagines two pathways out of the program. The first, known as the “Bridge Model,” is for families who qualify for a longer term voucher—usually those who are chronically homeless or have some sort of disabling condition that prevents them from earning enough money to pay rent.

The Bridge Model allows rapid rehousing to act as a holding station for 12 months for those families until a permanent voucher becomes available and requires families to pay 30 percent of their income toward their rent. If no voucher becomes available, they’re entitled to up to 18 more months of help paying the rent.

A feasibility study determined that about 20 percent of families in rapid rehousing would qualify for the Bridge Model, and that DHS would have to find an extra 170 vouchers to accommodate them.

The second path, known as the “TANF Model” is for everyone else—families in the assistance program or who are working but can’t afford market rent. In the TANF Model track, families can receive the rapid rehousing subsidy for no more than 30 months.

In the final six months of the program, families will shift from paying a percent of their income in rent to a percentage of the total rent.

For King of the Legal Aid Society, the 30-month cliff makes little sense considering the District’s reforms to TANF benefits, which eliminated an arbitrary time limit.

“The result is we actually ended up with the same program at the back end of the task force, and not the look at the role of the program that we really need,” King says. “If you are structuring your homeless services system in a way that it’s supposed to be a bridge to permanent housing, but the permanent housing investments aren’t sufficient, is that success?”

For Zeilinger, one of the most significant revelations to come out of the task force was that the services that usually come along with participation in the program should be more nuanced.

Some families may need more help with job training, health care, or child care, for example, she says. Others may want a lighter touch.

But, she emphasizes, any conversation about rapid rehousing should also include a discussion about the District’s severe lack of affordable housing.

“We need to focus not on the debate of whether we need to be the Housing Authority and the homeless services continuum at the same time,” she says. “We’ve done that five years, and it doesn’t work.”

***

Tremaine Anderson rattles off a list of available nearby apartments one afternoon last week while her kids are at school. Most are two-bedroom units that cost $2,000 or more a month. She and her partner, Harvey Martin, might be able to afford that, she speculates, if she were working.

Anderson has been through this process already. Before she signed her lease at the end of 2017, she lived in a different apartment with help from the rapid rehousing program, she says. When the subsidy ended, she had to leave and landed back in the shelter.

Now, on her second time through the program, she’s looking at another eviction and possibly another cycle through the shelter system.

Her eviction case was delayed until Feb. 4, when she could argue that the housing code violations in her unit are a defense against the eviction, according to her attorney, Dan Hofman.

Gladstone, the property manager, says he has tried to address the issues but his maintenance workers couldn’t get into the unit. He suggests Anderson may be intentionally preventing the issues from getting fixed.

“They will not allow us to go in, and it creates a negative situation for the landlord,” he says. “We’ve seen that in a couple cases and we feel this case is suspect. I can’t say that it is, but I feel quite confident that it’s suspect.”

Anderson says she has been at work when the maintenance workers knock on her door and that she hasn’t been given enough notice in advance.

In the meantime, she says, she went to DHS headquarters seeking help. She says an employee there scrolled through her phone while Anderson explained her situation. The only option, the employee told Anderson, was to go back to the shelter.

She also reached out to Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White’s office, and a member of his staff came to her apartment to look around. Wendy Glenn, White’s constituent services director, emailed DHS to ask about moving Anderson and her kids to another place to live. Only after Glenn reached out, Anderson says, did someone come to address the mold and holes in her unit. She says just this week an extension of her rental subsidy was approved, but her eviction case is still ongoing.

“I’m doin’ the best I can do for my kids to have a roof over their heads,” she says. “Even having a job working it’s still not enough to afford full market rent in D.C. So I’m just like, what now? What else am I gonna do?”