Hundreds of homeless families stay at area hotels because D.C.'s traditional shelters are at capacity.
Hundreds of homeless families stay at area hotels because D.C.'s traditional shelters are at capacity. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

A new public-private partnership could increase the supply of apartments available to D.C.’s homeless after they exit emergency shelter and must compete for housing using government-funded vouchers.

On Friday, District officials and their nonprofit collaborators unveiled an insurance fund that will allow landlords who lease to the homeless to recover up to $5,000 for unpaid rent and property damages that exceed security deposits. In exchange, landlords are expected to lower their screening criteria related to poor credit, previous evictions, and other factors that may hinder homeless families from getting housing.

The idea is that, with perceived risk mitigated, more landlords will be willing to rent to homeless residents. Currently, many families who leave the District’s traditional shelters and area hotels that serve as overflow shelters can spend weeks searching for units—with no guarantee that they will find an apartment, even after applying for one.

Although “source of income” discrimination is illegal in D.C., some landlords avoid renting to families who have housing vouchers because they worry that those families will fall behind on the portion of the rent that the families are personally responsible for. The city’s most common subsidy program for these families, called Rapid Rehousing, typically provides between 40 and 60 percent of the rent. Rapid Rehousing is also time-limited, with subsidies expiring after about one year. 

“We can do a lot to transform our system, we can do a lot, as we have done, to make vouchers and other assistance available, but none of that would work if we didn’t have safe and affordable housing for our residents to exit to and rebuild their lives and their families,” said Mayor Muriel Bowser at an event launching the fund that was held at the John A. Wilson Building.

“What we have found is that [homeless families] may not meet some of the criteria of housing providers, which are perfectly reasonable criteria,” she added.

The fund comes after D.C. and its partners ran a focus group that collected input from property owners. They collaborated with downtown law firm Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer to structure the insurance pool.

The District-based Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development is administering the fund, which will not receive any public financing. Rather, private individuals, companies, and organizations can contribute to the fund and write off their donations on their taxes.

The DowntownDC BID is leading the fundraising charge. The BID’s director Neil Albert says donors have already committed nearly $100,000 to the fund, and there is an initial goal to raise $500,000 by the end of 2017.

Other U.S. cities such as Seattle have managed this kind of model and seen success, says Stephen Glaude, who heads CNHED. In the District, a three-person committee will work to ensure disbursements are made within 30 days of a landlord registering a legitimate claim, he says.

Landlords will be able to sign up for the program via an online portal, and CNHED will coordinate with the city’s Department of Human Services to monitor for fraud. Glaude says that in the cities where such programs exist, enrollment was slow at first but grew gradually over time. 

Because D.C.’s housing market is so restricted, property owners often have their “pick of the litter” when it comes to choosing tenants, Albert explains. “Landlords will default to what is known and safe,” he says. “We’re socializing them to the idea [of the fund and] we expect to make reports public.”

Housing providers appear to be reacting favorably to the program. Kirsten Williams, the vice president of government affairs for the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington, praised the District for “thinking critically” about how to enhance options for landlords and residents.

It remains to be seen how many landlords sign up for the insurance pool and make claims. Furthermore, some property owners who accept voucher tenants as of today fail to maintain their apartments to decent standards.

In perhaps the most egregious example, D.C. landlord Sanford Capital has earned hundreds of thousands of dollars each year through the Rapid Rehousing program as its tenants have endured rats, cockroaches, mold, malfunctioning appliances, broken doors, lack of heat and air conditioning, and delayed repairs.

Sanford isn’t alone in this respect: A May report published by the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless found that four in five families who benefit from Rapid Rehousing and whom WLCH surveyed reported substandard housing conditions.

Last week, city officials simultaneously announced a handful of other initiatives to combat homelessness and resolve conflicts that arise between tenants and property owners.

DHS Director Laura Zeilinger said D.C. will roll out a new payment method for the Rapid Rehousing program this month, whereby participating landlords will receive one rent check from the D.C. Housing Authority instead of receiving separate payments from the authority and tenants.

In part, this is intended to reduce up-charges that some landlords who accept voucher tenants tack onto rents, knowing that taxpayers are bankrolling a share of the payments.

“[DCHA] will take on that risk that landlords are absorbing today, but we will ask landlords to bring rents down where they’ve been charging a premium to cover that risk,” Zeilinger explained, adding that DHS knows which families are behind on their rent and can help them come up with plans.

The Bowser administration also publicized an online platform that landlords can use to record complaints or payment issues, which DHS says case managers would address within 48 hours. And the department will soon begin piloting a “flexible rent subsidy” program that will let families draw down a small amount of assistance to cover gaps between their incomes and monthly housing costs, thanks to new funding from the D.C. Council for this fiscal year, which kicked off Oct. 1.