So far, DC’s housing vouchers aren’t stopping homelessness

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DC had a plan to become the city that would end chronic homelessness.

Boosted by revenue from a controversial tax hike on high earners, the DC Council last year budgeted millions of dollars to permanently pay housing for the city’s hardest-to-house residents, including those who suffer from mental illness and years of homelessness. Defenders rejoiced, predicting the hundreds of housing vouchers would be enough to permanently house almost everyone in long-term need in the district.

Ten months later, however, that has not happened. While the city distributed an unprecedented 2,400 permanent vouchers, only 555 people managed to use them to move into apartments, stuck by a tight housing market and delays from the DC Housing Authority. Most of them, the program was designed to help them stay homeless.

“When the budget was passed last year, I had a moment of thought that we could clean up the encampments [and] shelters. You could have a system that has so few people that you could really start getting more individual attention and better services. You could really change everything,” said Amber Harding, an attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. “It’s really frustrating that we don’t deliver on the promise.”

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Housing vouchers permanently pay a person to rent an apartment, usually on the private market, while requiring them to contribute only a fraction of their income towards the monthly rent. But many of those who received them nonetheless struggled to find apartments.

The Department of Social Services said the average voucher recipient takes four to five months after receiving a voucher to sign a lease, a decrease of about a month from a year ago.

“We’re housing more people than ever before,” DHS Director Laura Zeilinger said, calling the results “all very positive.”

“It would be unrealistic if we could just double the size of our single adult program…and rent 100% of our vouchers and do it well in a year,” she said.

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Still, the district’s solutions are taking longer than advocates had hoped.

“I used to think there was a magic bullet, one thing would fix everything. And the deeper I dig, the more I realize: instead of one glaring gap, there are many small gaps, all of which add up,” said Way Home campaigner Jesse Rabinowitz, who advocated for the increase in vouchers. “It is no longer a problem of resources. We have the [money] enable thousands of people to find housing. It is purely a matter of bureaucratic administration.

The city made several revisions this summer to try to speed up the use of vouchers.

The DC Council heard from case managers that many people who were offered housing vouchers struggled to get apartment leases because they had lost their identity documents while homeless. The council passed emergency legislation last month allowing a tenant with a voucher to self-certify their credentials, meaning they can move into accommodation while continuing along process of replacing a lost ID.

And the city agreed to address another case manager complaint: While their clients could pay rent using their housing vouchers, many large apartment buildings charge an “amenity fee” that vouchers don’t. would not cover. Recently, the district revised its policy to allow case managers to use city money to cover these costs so tenants can move in. move-in fees or garbage collection fees, which the district will now pay.

Obstacles remain. Some potential tenants, Zeilinger said, have had applications denied because of their criminal history, income level or credit score — all legally permissible reasons for a landlord to reject a tenant, although the law prohibits landlords from firing people just because they plan to pay for their accommodation with a voucher.

Helping a voucher recipient move into an apartment is a painstaking process, said Christy Respress, who runs the nonprofit Pathways to Housing. Someone interested in getting a voucher can take an admissions interview and then wait for the city’s algorithm to say they’re next in line. At that time, the city assigns the client’s name to a case manager at Passport or another organization.

“‘Mr. Smith has been assigned to you. He’s eligible. Then we start the detective work,’ Respress said. “Is he staying in a shelter? … We pound the pavement, go out to the street where they’ve spent time in the past. It’s a very laborious initial piece. Some people have a phone, but maybe they’ve run out of minutes, or don’t have nowhere to charge their phone, or they lost their phone, or it was stolen while they were sleeping outside.

With more vouchers available, Respress said, his organization needs more staff to assign to the growing number of cases. But hiring is tough nationwide. “We look forward to continuing to grow and grow rapidly to meet the needs. But we can only grow as fast as we can attract people,” she said.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) last month announced bonuses for many city jobs, including positions related to the homeless services system. And Zeilinger said that starting this month, the city will also cover the costs of nonprofits that provide case management for permanent residents in supportive housing, such as Pathways to Housing, to pay premiums. signing bonuses of $1,500 and retention bonuses of at least $2,000 to their case managers, to help associations increase the size of their staff. (Rabinowitz praised the bonuses but noted that they are much smaller than the $20,000 signing bonuses for the new cops that Bowser strongly advocated earlier this year.)

The district has also relaxed its hiring qualifications for case managers, Zeilinger said, allowing job applicants who don’t have a relevant degree to apply if they can demonstrate relevant work experience instead.

Once a case manager helps a voucher recipient find an apartment, the DC Housing Authority must approve the use of the home voucher, including conducting a housing inspection. Advocates complain that DCHA delays largely explain the divide between people who received vouchers and those who were actually able to use their vouchers to move into housing.

“There’s nothing that requires a landlord to wait for someone with a grant, if someone else has cash on hand ready to go,” Respress said. “The law is that you cannot refuse a voucher holder. It doesn’t say you have to keep the accommodation for someone who is still waiting for the housing authority to inspect it.

Zeilinger said that as the district tries to improve the speed of voucher redemption, DCHA is considering inspecting some units before a voucher holder even identifies the apartment as a place they want. to rent out.

Respress and other advocates are optimistic the city is fixing the system’s many problems. If DC manages to use those 2,400 vouchers, they still believe the city’s homelessness scourge would improve dramatically.

Maybe, they say, DC could still be the city that will end chronic homelessness.

“When I started doing this work in DC in the late ’90s, we weren’t really talking about ending homelessness,” Respress said. “For the first time in my career in homeless services in this area, I see it coming to an end. It’s powerful. It is enormous.”

About Jermaine Chase

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