Yesterday, the Washington City Paper published a provocative piece focusing largely on the District’s Rapid Rehousing program, which has been heralded in some corners as a solution for chronic family homelessness. However, as my colleague Shirley Horng recently testified, the clients we meet -- like many of those featured in the article -- tell a very different story.
The Rapid Rehousing program in the District of Columbia provides four-month rental subsidies, which can be extended for up to one year. After the conclusion of the subsidy, the family is left to pay the market-level rent on their own, without further support. The idea behind the program is that with this short-term assistance, the family can increase its income or take other steps to achieve financial independence. The idea is attractive, and the goal is laudable, but the reality is that Rapid Rehousing simply does not work for most families.
Rapid Rehousing may be an effective model for a small subset of the population, including individuals and families who have experienced temporary setbacks due to family illness or temporary job loss, and who already possess the necessary job skills, education and resources to quickly transition back to economic stability.
But, in our experience, those families experiencing truly short-term homelessness are the exception, not the rule. The vast majority of families that enter shelter will need more than four to twelve months of assistance before they can afford market-level rent on their own. Indeed, affording market rent may be forever outside of the reach of many low-income families: to afford the average fair market rent of a two-bedroom apartment in the District of Columbia, an individual would need to earn $28.25 per hour, 40 hours per week. This is almost three times the $9.50 minimum wage in DC, meaning that a family would need income from three full-time minimum wage jobs just to afford market rent.
Moreover, in our experience, Rapid Rehousing participants receive little or no assistance in identifying job training or placement resources. This is counter not only to best practices, but also to what any advocate knows intuitively: a program that is based wholly upon the expectation that a participant will transition to economic independence within a short timeframe must provide some support to help make that happen. Of course, if it were easy for families to secure high-wage employment without any job training or outside assistance, most of them would not have been in shelter in the first place.
For many of the families we meet, Rapid Rehousing is a recipe for failure. Rather than having secured permanent housing, these families are evicted and cycled right back into homelessness. In such cases, families are actually significantly worse off than before they entered the Rapid Rehousing program, because now they must contend with negative landlord references and evidence of an eviction on their rental history record and credit report.
If the District is to succeed in permanently ending chronic family homelessness, it must find a way to support those families who, despite their best efforts, simply cannot afford market-level rent after twelve short months. Though short-term subsidies may be appealing, most families living in shelter will need longer-term support before they can truly achieve housing stability. By continuing to rely heavily on the Rapid Rehousing program, rather than longer-term affordable housing programs, the District will persist in undercutting its own purpose by cycling people back into homelessness and creating barriers to securing stable housing.