Seattle Goes All In on Rapid Rehousing. D.C. Already Tried That. Here’s What Happened.

Since declaring a homelessness emergency in 2015, the city of Seattle has gone all-in on an a set of recommendations based on a report by Ohio homelessness consultant Barb Poppe called Pathways Home. The strategy, based on the laudable principle that people need housing before they can deal effectively with the other problems that may be keeping them homeless, relies heavily on so-called rapid rehousing—rental assistance vouchers that help formerly homeless people rent market-rate apartments. The idea is to give individuals and families some time to stabilize and, if necessary, find employment before releasing them into the regular rental market. The strategy has been successful at reducing homelessness in other cities, like Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Houston, and those successes have frequently been cited as evidence that rapid rehousing can work in Seattle, too.

Critics, including this blog, have pointed out that Seattle is different from those cities in one key respect: Rents here are a lot higher—about double—what they are in Houston, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City If the city provides a voucher for a four-person family to live in an typical $2,700-dollar two-bedroom Seattle apartment, and that family is earning $500 a month when they move in, that means their total income will have to rise by $8,500 a month for that apartment to be affordable under federal affordability guidelines, which stipulate that tenants should pay no more than 30 percent of their income in rent.

Or let’s assume a much cheaper, smaller apartment—say, a $1,500 one-bedroom, shared by that same four-person family—and change the definition of “affordable” to assume that family will pay 40 percent of their income on rent, their income would still have to rise by $3,250 a month to pay the full rent when their voucher runs its course in three, six, or 12 months.

Looking at those numbers, it doesn’t seem like a huge leap to conclude that many of those new renters, still getting their feet under them after weeks, months, or years on the streets, would end up homeless again once their vouchers expired. And in at least one city with housing prices very similar to Seattle, that’s exactly what has happened. A new report by the D.C.-based Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, “Set Up to Fail: Rapid Rehousing in the District of Columbia,” concludes that D.C.’s $31 million-a-year experiment in rapid rehousing has failed. The program, which provided up to 12 months of rental assistance to formerly homeless families, left many families worse off than they were before they entered the program. Although D.C. says the program has an 85 percent success rate, the study’s author, attorney Max Tipping, says that number is illusory—all it indicates is that only 15 percent of the program participants have ended up in D.C. homeless shelters, and does not account for whether clients were evicted, ended up living with friends or family, moved into their vehicles, or ended up homeless in another area.

The problem, not surprisingly, is that families that start out with almost no income are usually unable to start making enough to afford market rents within even 12 months, especially in a very high-cost area like D.C. On average, the report concludes, only about 10 percent of families in the D.C. program increased their income at all—by an average of $68 a month. The result was that families in the program only had enough income, on average, to cover 40 percent of the market rent when their subsidies expired.  Tipping calls this the “rapid rehousing cliff”—the point when a rapid rehousing subsidy ends and a family is left unable to fend for themselves.  “After being  terminated from rapid re-housing, many return to homelessness, now with an eviction or rental debt on their record,” the report concludes.

D.C. and Seattle’s housing prices are roughly comparable; according to the tracking website Rentjungle,  the average two-bedroom in the District is $2,741 a month (compared to $2,734 in Seattle) the average one-bedroom, $2,081 (compared to $2,004 in Seattle).

“The unfortunate reality is that temporary housing subsidies are not a solution to family homelessness in the District’s expensive housing market. The math simply does not add up,” the report concludes.

As Seattle moves toward requiring that homeless service providers follow a rapid-rehousing model, and the dollars the city spends on combating homelessness shift toward temporary vouchers and away from more expensive transitional housing, program planners will encounter many of the same challenges as Washington, D.C., such as the need for more intensive case management, attempts by landlords to abuse the system, and the potential that short-term vouchers will exacerbate segregation. Many of those problems are solvable through targeted spending and regulations. But one factor that’s unlikely to change is Seattle’s rental market, which, like D.C.’s, grows less affordable every year. Perhaps one of the lessons for Seattle is that we shouldn’t divest from long-term housing assistance and permanently affordable housing until we’re sure that the short-term “hand-up” programs we’re relying on to reduce homelessness don’t leave families worse off.

(Seattle Human Services Department spokeswoman Meg Olberding said HSD director Catherine Lester was aware of the D.C. report, but “has not had time to read” it.)

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