Rapid Rehousing: A Word of Caution

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Something about the proposed shift away from transitional housing (which provides supportive services like job and life skills training, as well as help getting jobs, benefits, and child care for those who need it) toward “rapid rehousing” (“a relatively new program type that provides homeless individuals and families with a short term rental subsidy (usually up to about six months), after which they take over responsibility for paying their own rent,” according to the city’s Focus Strategies report“) reminds me of welfare reform.

Remember welfare reform? (Millennials: “Nope!”) The idea, promoted by Republicans and championed by then-President Bill Clinton, was to get people off cash assistance and into jobs as quickly as possible, by cutting off assistance after two years and most welfare recipients to get jobs. Like rapid rehousing (and Section 8 housing vouchers, which replaced most public housing projects), welfare reform was supposed to be “a hand up, not a hand out.” It was also supposed to include guaranteed jobs for people who couldn’t find employment in the private sector, but the Republicans who controlled Congress in the mid-1990s made short work of that. Ultimately, the number of families receiving direct cash benefits from the government was cut in half (even as need for these benefits increased), and the number of people living in extreme poverty doubled.

That’s the issue with getting rid of, or even drastically reducing, funding for transitional housing. It looks great on paper—rapid rehousing costs a fraction of the cost of transitional housing, $11,507 compared to $32,627 per household—but what happens to all those people who are left to fend for themselves on the private market after three, six, or nine months? Is it realistic to believe that someone who can pay $100 in rent when they enter the system will be able to pay for a $1,500 apartment six months later? The Poppe and Focus Strategies reports, which look at just five rapid rehousing projects in Seattle, conclude triumphantly that rapid rehousing is far less expensive than more intensive transitional housing, but even they have to acknowledge that the rate of exit to permanent housing in those programs, at 52 percent, “is well below what is common in high-performing RRH programs.”

Nationally, even those “high-performing” programs are scarce and graded on a curve. In a survey of the few rapid rehousing programs that are up and running in the US, only a quarter of participants were in the same apartment one year after their subsidies ended, meaning that they couldn’t afford their rent after their subsidies ran out, not surprising since their incomes increased only marginally ($15 a month for every month a family was in rapid rehousing in a Philadelphia survey). The survey does conclude that rapid rehousing reduces the number of people who return to unsheltered homelessness with a year compared to transitional housing, but those numbers were already low: from 9 percent of those leaving transitional housing to 4 percent of those leaving rapid rehousing programs.

And remember, rapid rehousing is “relatively new.” We don’t know that rapid rehousing “works” long term. What we do know for certain is that it’s cheaper.

Cheaper, at least, for the government agencies that fund housing providers. But for renters experiencing homelessness, it can have profound consequences. If circumstances, job loss, family disruption, or other factors prevent newly “rehoused” renters from being able to make their payments, they may face eviction, which will not only render them homeless (or unstably housed) again but will make it much harder for them to rent in the future. (Advocates for rapid rehousing say people who can’t make it on the private market will have access to other options, like permanent supportive housing with extensive—and expensive—wraparound services, but not all families and individuals will qualify for, or need, such intensive care; many just need affordable housing).

“RRH programs should not limit clients’ housing options based on unrealistic expectations about the percent of income they should pay for rent, the types of neighborhoods they should live in, or even whether they wish to remain in Seattle/King County,” the Focus Strategies report concludes.

The Focus Strategies and Poppe reports make clear that when they talk about rapid rehousing, they don’t mean affordable housing, nor do they mean housing that an individual would pick for herself. For all their talk of taking a “person-centered approach,” the reports suggest strongly that individuals and families should be required to accept whatever housing becomes available on a first-come, first-served basis, even if that housing is many miles removed from their community, job, extended family, services, and other support systems. “RRH programs should not limit clients’ housing options based on unrealistic expectations about the percent of income they should pay for rent, the types of neighborhoods they should live in, or even whether they wish to remain in Seattle/King County,” the Focus Strategies report concludes.

Nor does this purely utilitarian view take into account the fact that if we focus on those who’ve been unsheltered the longest (generally older, single men with criminal histories and issues with mental health, addiction, or both), we risk letting other vulnerable people (women fleeing domestic violence, kids who just ran away from home) fall through the cracks. These issues should raise concern for council members considering whether to adopt a purely “performance-based” approach to housing the 4,000-plus people experiencing homelessness in Seattle. Homeless people are still people with preferences and autonomy; they should not be manipulated like chess pieces to satisfy empty promises like “ending unsheltered homelessness through increased efficiency.”

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One thought on “Rapid Rehousing: A Word of Caution

  1. 25% of Rapid Rehousing participants may not be in the same apartment a year after they successfully exit the program but 0% of Transitional Housing participants are in the same apartment a year later.

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