DC Rents Out of Control, Despite Rent Control

January 25, 2016

The District of Columbia’s rent control law is stronger than just about any other in the country, I’m told. But it has loopholes that leave lower-income residents vulnerable to rate spikes — and perhaps homelessness.

We generally see “loophole” used to refer to provisions in the tax code that allow corporations and/or individuals to pay far less than they’d otherwise owe — or nothing at all. Everybody who cares to knows about these.

Not so for the loopholes in the rent control law. But some nonprofits, including several that provide free legal services to low-income residents have discovered them. And they’ve developed an agenda to reform the law.

A fact sheet distributed at a recent briefing I attended listed well over a dozen changes. Far more than I can take on here. So I’ll confine myself to a relative few fixable problems that have broad impacts.

Caps on Rent Increases

First off — and to me, the biggest surprise — the rent control law doesn’t apply to units built after the original version of the law was passed in 1975 or to units vacant then. The law exempts other units too, but this seems to me the biggest loophole, if one can call it that.

For units not exempt, landlords may increase rents for most tenants by the percent increase in the Washington metro area consumer price index the Social Security Administration uses, plus an additional 2%.

No extra 2% for elderly and disabled tenants whose incomes don’t exceed $40,000 a year. And no increase greater than 5% when the CPI rises by more. They’ve got to file a form to get this relative protection, however, which means they need to know this much of the law.

When a unit becomes vacant, the cap, whatever it be, increases to 10% or to what a “comparable unit” rents for, provided the increase isn’t greater than 30%. Comparable units are defined by physical characteristics, e.g., overall size, floor plan, equipment, condition.

Lots of units have come into the market in the last 30 years, of course. And lots rent for goodly sums, especially now that more high-earners have chosen to live in the city.

So landlords have an obvious incentive to choose tenants unlikely to stay for more than a couple of years, if that, e.g., students, employees on short-term assignments away from their home base.

Case-by-Case Exemptions

Just because tenants live in covered units doesn’t mean they won’t get hit with large increases. Landlords can petition for exemptions from the caps.

They may, for example, claim that they’ll suffer “hardship” if they can’t collect more than the allowable rent. They don’t have to allege a potential loss — only that they won’t earn a 12% return on what they’ve invested in the property.

They’ve sought rent increases upwards of 100%, the DC Legal Aid Society has testified. And they can get them before the District has audited their paperwork and made a final decision on their claims.

Meanwhile, tenants are likely to leave or to fall behind in their rent, giving the landlord grounds to evict them. Cleaning out the building has advantages I’ve already mentioned.

Landlords have several other options for getting permission to charge far more than the law would ordinarily allow. They can, for example, petition for an annual 20%  increase to cover the costs of capital improvements, i.e., upgrades or renovations beyond ordinary repairs.

Capital improvement increases are supposed to last only until the landlord recovers the costs. Another option allows for a permanent increase when the costs of a “substantial rehabilitation” are considerably higher than the property’s assessed value. The increase in this case may be as high as 125%.

Landlords don’t necessarily rely on the success of these petitions, however. They can instead used the prospects of rent increases to get tenants signed onto voluntary agreements. These protect tenants from all but the usual rent increases, provided they agree to much higher rents for future tenants.

In one reportedly popular scenario, landlords then offer tenants the option of a buyout — some cash to clear out of their units. Every unit freed up becomes subject to the large increase, followed by the usual ongoing CPI-based increases.

Affordable Housing Losses Offset Gains

Even this over-simplified wade into the weeds shows one reason the District lost nearly half its lower-cost rental units during a recent 10-year period. Only about a fifth were still affordable for households with two full-time minimum wage workers.

Mayor Bowser has committed to substantial investments in new affordable housing construction and renovations to preserve some of what remains. Her administrators have other tools in the box as well, e.g., tax credits, conditions now attached to sales of publicly-owned lands.

But what’s built over here disappears over there — and apparently then some.

When the DC Council passed the rent control law, it intended to “protect low and moderate-income tenants from the erosion of their income from increased housing costs.”

What with one thing and another, the law covers, at most, roughly half the rent units in the city, according to somewhat dated Urban Institute estimates. That doesn’t mean all the tenants are protected, as we can see.

The Council now has two bills pending that would make the law work somewhat better. One would update and otherwise expand its protections for elderly tenants and those with disabilities. The other would partly, but only partly close the hardship petition loophole.

So there’s a lot more to do. The Latino Economic Development Center has a petition District residents can sign to support solutions the coalition I mentioned is advocating.


Recent Report Misreports Homelessness and Hunger in DC

January 14, 2016

Each year, the U.S. Conference of Mayors reports the results of a hunger and homelessness survey it takes of a subset of its member cities. Twenty-two responded last year, including the District of Columbia.

Past experience has made me wary of figures reported for the District. At least one key hunger figure got mangled several years ago, as I belatedly learned.

This time, I found key homelessness figures downright perplexing because they bore no resemblance to what the one-night count found — or for that matter, to anything else I’d read or heard about.

So I checked the figures with the Department of Human Services, which files the survey responses, based on what it receives from the Community Partnership to End Homelessness and the Capital Area Food Bank. Also checked directly with CAFB.

And sure ‘nough, something(s) got lost in translation, to put it kindly. Niggling about the figures may seem just a wonkish gotcha. But the USCM report does get cited by reporters, columnists and us social media types.

So I’m going to set the record straight, best as I can.

More Recorded As Served, Not Necessarily More Homeless

The USCM reports that the number of homeless families in the District increased by 60% between 2014 and 2015 and the number of homeless individuals by 11%.

Well, the increases actually reflect numbers served by programs funded at least partly by DHS — this courtesy of Dora Taylor, the agency’s public information officer, who herself seemed rather taken aback.

“Served” here means people generally got some form of assistance — not necessarily what they asked for or needed, but something that caused an intake worker to enter a record for them in the homeless information management system that the Community Partnership maintains to comply with federal requirements.

As Taylor suggested, the misreported homeless family increase may in part reflect the administration’s decision to open shelter doors to newly-homeless families year round, rather than only on freezing-cold days.

They didn’t all gain shelter, however. Services recorded include, for example, what’s referred to as “diversion” — usually an intake worker’s finding a friend or relative the family could stay with, however briefly.

Whatever the services, the reported increase seems far greater than what the welcome policy change can account for. Recall that it was intended partly to ease the annual crush at the intake center when winter set in.

I got nothing from DHS to help explain the reported uptick in homeless individuals. So I’ll just tee up two related hypotheses.

The HIMS probably had more records for singles because DHS and nonprofit partners had become convenient one-stop-shops of sorts — and still are. Caseworkers assess and then link singles to some form(s) of aid. All those assessed become part of the system, if they’re not in it already.

It’s also possible that more homeless singles chose to seek help because they’d heard that they had a better chance of getting affordable housing — time-limited for some and permanent, i.e., indefinite-term, with supportive services for those deemed chronically homeless.

More Requests for Help in Finding Free Food, Not Necessarily Increased Need

The USCM reports that requests for food assistance in the District increased, though not by how much. Still disturbing if requests reflect need.

They don’t. CAFB has no way to track the number of people who seek free groceries and/or meals. So it supplied a figure reflecting the increase in calls to its hotline, which makes referrals to nonprofits it helps supply.

As my CAFB contact remarks, the increase may reflect, at least in part the fact that more people in need know about the hotline. Doesn’t mean we don’t have a lot of residents who can’t afford to feed themselves and family members — only that we don’t know whether we’ve got more (or fewer).

Unmet Food Demand (If Any) Still a Mystery

The USCM reports that an estimated 24% of the demand for food assistance in the District went unmet in 2015. “Demand” here presumably refers to requests for groceries and/or meals provided by local nonprofits.

Not necessarily all, however, since CAFB would have no information from any nonprofit it didn’t help supply. It does, however, have data for the 444 nonprofits in its distribution network, thanks to a periodic survey Feeding American conducts.

But the latest survey results are for 2014. And the data CAFB can readily access are for all the Washington metro area programs in its network, not just those in the District. So we’ve got a flawed unmet demand estimate — and for the same reason as before.

Flawed Survey, But Not the Whole Story

What I’ve just said about the food assistance figures doesn’t reflect badly on CAFB. The USCM survey clearly asks questions that public agencies it contacts can’t answer, either from their own records or from what other sources can supply.

And respondents don’t get clear instructions on how to come up with such numbers as they can, my CAFB contact says.

There is, however, guidance for the homelessness questions. Cities are told that their best source will be their HIMS. This presumably opened the door to the misleading figures reported for the District. Door open doesn’t mean the Community Partnership — and ultimately DHS — had to walk through it, however.

We know we’ve got a serious homelessness problem in the District. We know that some residents at least sometimes don’t have enough to eat. But the figures should have raised red flags, I think.

Better to have gone back to the sources before responding. And better to have taken a pass on the survey — or at least some questions — than to have USCM report such faulty figures, however well-meaning its attempt to document urban needs.

 

 


When Is a Hard-Up Family a Family?

December 14, 2015

Not long before Jesse died, we were chatting, as we often did, about issues I was working on — in this case, the District of Columbia’s homeless shelters.

I had to explain to him that if we became homeless and had no place to stay, we would have to live on the streets or spend our nights in separate sex-segregated shelters, then meet up some place or other when they turned us out at daybreak.

He was dumbfounded. It apparently had never occurred to him that we weren’t a family, according to the District’s homeless services policies.

I recalled the moment as I read reports of interviews with the homeless people the District is sweeping out of the campsites they’ve set up. The Department of Human Services, to its credit, has placed some of them in housing units. It wants most of them, however, to go into the shelters — at least, for awhile.

A fair number, it seems, don’t want to go — understandably, given conditions in what are called shelters for singles. Repeated references to bedbugs. Fears of having their belonging stolen. Fights. Bad food.

But it’s not only such shelter conditions. “They split you and your husband up,” said one woman interviewed. “We prefer to have privacy.”

None in the shelter for either — let alone privacy for the two together so they could comfort each other, talk about next steps and, well, do what couples do only when alone in a room with a door.

The problem, you see, is that they don’t have children in their care, just as Jesse and I wouldn’t have if we’d had to throw ourselves on the mercies of DHS.

This isn’t a singular safety net policy. We see it, for example, in states’ Medicaid policies. Twenty-two exclude all childless adults who don’t have disabilities, except pregnant women. All cover parents, though some only those far below the poverty line.

These are state choices, as the variations indicate. But the federal government itself doesn’t view childless couples as families — or for that matter, couples whose children are grown ups.

The only nationwide source of cash income for poor people who aren’t severely disabled is Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. But couples who have no children living with them don’t qualify.

So-called general assistance programs could fill this gap in the safety net. But the federal government provides no funds for them. So states that had GA programs have exercised their unlimited flexibility to get rid of them or scale them back in various ways, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports.

Only 11 provide cash benefits to childless adults who aren’t demonstrably unemployable — because they’re elderly, for example, or disabled, but haven’t yet (and perhaps can’t) surmount the hurdles to gaining Supplemental Security Income.

SNAP (the food stamp program) does provide cash-equivalent aid for childless couples. But as I’ve written before, able-bodied adults without dependents can generally get benefits for only three months in any three-year period unless they’re working or participating in a job training program at least half-time.

This restriction applies to childless couples if both spouses or partners have no disabilities unless they’re caring for someone in the household who’s disabled or have a child on the way. And the chances that both can get into — and remain in — certified job training programs are, in many states, virtually nil.

The time limit originated in the same law that brought us TANF — the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act.

I mention this because it perversely disadvantages couples who’ve chosen not to have children unless and until they can afford to provide for their basic needs, plus the time, attention and opportunities that support healthy, well-rounded development. Seems like personal responsibility to me.

The federal Earned Income Tax Credit also disadvantages childless couples, even when lawfully wed. And it altogether denies the credit — and thus the potential refund — to young childless workers.

Far be it from me to say our safety net programs shouldn’t put a high priority on the well-being of the next generation. But we don’t have to choose between children and working-age adults who don’t have any.

And we surely don’t have to treat homeless couples who don’t have children with them as if they weren’t families.

 


TANF Work First Doesn’t Work, New Study Confirms

December 3, 2015

The House Subcommittee on Human Resources is still holding hearings to provide a basis for the overdue overhaul of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. No issue has proved as controversial as the work activity requirements.

Progressive experts want them modified so that parents can readily engage in activities that will improve their employment prospects, e.g., by allowing states to count toward their required participation rates longer-term job-related education, high school enrollment and GED prep for adults and services to reduce personal barriers to work.

Others the subcommittee has heard from object to any such expansion. Robert Doar and colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute, for example, say they fear it will “shift the focus of TANF away from a work-first model.” Clearly a bad thing, since TANF “has been a success,” Doar claims elsewhere.

His view — and not his only — is that the program should aim to get parents into the workforce swiftly. No matter that the jobs they can get often pay little. They’ll develop more skills, plus a work history and so move up to higher positions.

A recently reported study of parents who left Maryland’s TANF program casts grave doubts on this scenario. It does so by tracking a sample of nearly 4,770 leavers for five years — longer than most prior studies.

Even first-year outcomes strongly suggest that a majority weren’t work ready, though that’s the intent of the work activity requirements — or if ready, not able to find steady work.

Only slightly more than one in three worked all four quarters — whether part time or full time the report doesn’t say. It does, however, tell us that only 18.5% earned $20,000 or more — enough, in other words, to boost a family of three over the very low poverty line.

More than one in four didn’t work at all. And of those who did, the highest percent — roughly one in three — earned no more than $5,000.

Steady employment — even by the researchers’ liberal standard — was relatively rare. By the fifth year, only about one in five had consistently worked either three or four quarters.

The percent that never worked barely shrunk. And in the fifth year, it outstripped those who worked all four quarters, making it the most common outcome then.

A similarly dismal earnings picture. True, the number earning more than $20,000 was 7% higher by the fifth year. But nearly 48% earned $5,000 or less, not counting those who had no earnings whatever.

Over the whole five year period, more leavers than not “remained mired in jobs” in which they never earned more than the equivalent of a half-time job at the minimum wage. Far, far less than the self-sufficiency TANF programs aim for.

And indeed, 58% of the leavers returned to Maryland’s program — this presumably because they’d left before they’d participated for the 60-month lifetime limit, which Maryland, like a majority of states, imposes. (Most of the rest cut families off sooner.)

On a local note, the District of Columbia’s TANF program adhered to a work-first approach until late 2011 — and took some considerable time after that to fully convert to more individually-tailored activity plans.

The District hadn’t even used such opportunities as federal rules allowed to permit a year of “education directly related to employment” at a community college or voc-tech school. Nor had it used these opportunities to meet needs for basic literacy or English as a Second Language education.

What this means is that the first round of families who’ll lose what remains of their benefits spent years in a program that prepared few, if any of the parents for jobs that pay enough — and for long enough — to even lift them out of official poverty.

We didn’t need the Maryland study to tell us this. Earlier followups have indicated something similar for leavers after the first few years to TANF — those the program’s enthusiasts always cite.

A fairly recent audit of the District’s own 60-month-plus parents found, among other things, that only 38% who’d received employment services got jobs that could have provided steady, full-time work.

Of all those who’d gotten jobs of any sort since early 2012, fewer than half had jobs of any sort in October 2014. And as my review of the findings noted, the fall-off starts before the second month.

These results skew toward the positive because the auditors looked only at the 40% or so of at-risk parents whom the Department of Human Services had assessed as work-ready.

Ready perhaps, but apparently unlikely to work steadily for wages that are anything like what they’d need to support themselves and their children.

And unlike the Maryland leavers, they won’t have a chance to recover the protections against dire poverty that TANF provides — unless the District concludes that establishing a rigid time limit was a short-sighted mistake.

 


Thankful I Live in DC

November 25, 2015

Like many of you, I suppose, I try to take some time before Thanksgiving Day to focus on what I have to be thankful for. In my case, a lot, even on this Thanksgiving, when I’ll have no one ministering to the turkey — my late husband Jesse’s traditional (and favorite) holiday task.

One thing I’m thankful for and recur to often as I browse policies that affect low-income people is the fact that I live in the District of Columbia.

As followers know, I gripe about policy choices our mayors and the DC Council make. Sometimes more than gripe.

I’m constantly reminded, however, of how relatively progressive the major choices generally are — and of how even current debates occur within a relatively progressive framework. A few examples.

Jobless Workers

The Council seems poised to increase unemployment insurance benefits for at least some jobless workers, as well as to enable some to get them for longer

A bill cosponsored by a majority of members would, among other things, increase the maximum weekly benefit — long stuck at $359 — to $430 and then adjust it annually so that it didn’t again lose purchasing power.

It would also enable recipients to work part time without losing as much of their benefits as they do now — another increase of sorts.

Meanwhile, nine states have cut UI benefits by reducing the maximum time jobless workers can receive them to fewer than the customary 26 weeks. Two states will now cut the lifeline at 12 weeks when their unemployment rates drop to 5-5.5%.

And five states have chosen not to ask for waivers of the highly-restrictive SNAP (food stamp program) eligibility maximum for able-bodied workers without dependents. One of them — Kansas — is among the states that cut eligibility weeks for UI benefits.

So ABAWDs who are jobless for as little as 16 weeks will have neither cash income nor a cash equivalent to feed themselves — unless they can get into a job training program.

Unlikely, since states don’t have to provide any training slots for them. And most don’t, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has again reported.

The District has not only preserved the waiver it’s entitled to. It’s done other things to extend SNAP benefits to as many residents as possible — and to make them as sufficient as seems possible, even to the extent of committing local funds to boost the minimal minimum.

Affordable Health Care

The District swiftly embraced the opportunities in the Affordable Care Act — both to expand its Medicaid program and to establish an online marketplace so that residents with incomes above the new maximum could purchase health insurance, in many cases subsidized.

And it promoted enrollment in a variety of ways — through advertising, partnerships with the local soccer team and largest drug store chain and funding for 35 divers organizations to support trained “assisters,” who help residents understand the ACA and navigate their way to a sign-up.

At the same time, it retained the locally-funded Healthcare Alliance so that low-income residents barred from Medicaid and the exchange — mainly undocumented immigrants — could get affordable health care too.

As a result, the District’s already low uninsured rate dropped to 5.3% last year — bested only by Massachusetts, which provided the model for the ACA.

Meanwhile, 20 states still refused to expand their Medicaid programs. And 13 of them passed laws to hobble the federally-funded navigators — one of the two types of “assisters” the District provides.

We see the results in the same Census health insurance report I linked to above. Highest uninsured rates in the non-expansion states — led by Texas, with a rate well over three times the District’s.

Not surprisingly, when Texas, among others, excludes all childless adults from its Medicaid program and covers only parents with incomes no greater than 15% of the federal poverty line — about $3,013 for a parent with two kids.

Family Planning Rights

The District would — if it could — use its own tax revenues to ensure that low-income women who live here can choose to end a pregnancy when they believe that’s best, a right they supposedly have under the Constitution.

The District can’t because Congress exercised its prerogative to meddle in the local budget in ways it can’t — and wouldn’t dare to — if the District were a state like any other.

Meanwhile, 24 states have cleverly (they think) found a way around the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade, which made the Constitutional right operative.

They’re using their taxpayer dollars to defend laws that effectively deny the right by requiring clinics that provide abortions to meet wholly unnecessary standards — all very costly and at least two sometimes absolutely impossible to comply with.

Texas will defend its unusually expansive rules before the Supreme Court, using tax dollars women have perforce contributed. The governor makes no bones about the intent of the rules.

“The ideal world, ” he says, “is one without abortion. Until then, we will continue to pass laws to ensure that they are as rare as possible.” So much for the alleged concern for women’s health and safety.

Well-off women will, of course, still have abortions. They’ll travel to communities with clinics that have managed to meet the standards — or to states that haven’t enacted targeted regulations of abortion providers, so-called to produce the appropriate acronym, i.e., TRAP.

They’ll perhaps have abortions in hospitals, as well-off women with compassionate doctors sometimes did before Roe.

Meanwhile, hundreds of desperate women have already tried to-it-yourself abortions — at genuine risk to their health and safety. Who knows how many more have borne children they didn’t want and can’t care for? How many have instead done away with themselves?

Got my juices flowing here, when I should be thinking about turkey juices. But I am truly thankful that I’ve settled in the District. And I’m thankful for Jesse, without whom I probably wouldn’t have. But that’s another story.

 


Could DC Inclusionary Zoning Benefit Neediest Residents?

November 23, 2015

I’d never though much about the District of Columbia’s inclusionary zoning program. For one thing, it hardly made a dent in the affordable housing shortage during the first four years after the District completed final program rules.

The program’s generating more units now — 600 open and roughly 1,120 more on the way, I’ve heard. Still not a large impact in a city that’s lost roughly 31,880 units that rented for $1,000 or less in 2002.

More importantly, given my interests, such affordable housing as the program has produced isn’t affordable for the lowest-income residents — those with incomes no greater than 30% of the median for the D.C. metro area.

That’s a feature of the law, not a bug. IZ, by design, benefits households that are technically low-income, according to the definitions used by public agencies and analysts, but not really low-income at all.

Consider, for example, that the vast majority of units thus far produced are priced for households at 80% of the area median — currently $78,624 for a three-person family or nearly four times the federal poverty line.

A brief by a local coalition nevertheless makes a good case for IZ as a program that can benefit the lowest-income residents. It also recommends some rule changes the Zoning Commission could make.

How the IZ Program Works

The IZ program offers private-sector developers an incentive to include some affordable units in new or significantly renovated and expanded multi-family housing. Instead of directly subsidizing their projects, it permits them to pack in more units than zoning would otherwise allow, thus making the projects potentially more profitable.

In exchange, developers must set aside a modest percent of the residential floor for units that will rent or sell at prices those technically low-income households can afford.

The IZ units must remain affordable, according to the same income standards for as long as the building remains residential. Only recently has any other District housing program preserved affordability beyond a date certain.

Why IZ Doesn’t Mandate Units Affordable for Extremely Low-Income Residents

The story here is fairly simple. Rents affordable for the lowest-income (technically extremely low-income) households don’t cover the costs of operating and maintaining a building. Owners need ongoing subsidies in the form of vouchers to compensate for the shortfall.

That, of course, requires continuous funding. And the money would have to come out of the District’s budget because federal policymakers aren’t going to plow enough extra into so-called project-based vouchers to support a growing number of affordable units — at least, not in the foreseeable future.

Even the President’s proposed budget would merely cover the costs of vouchers already in use. This steady state funding seems to date back to at least Fiscal Year 2010 — except when the voucher program, like all programs dependent on annual appropriations got whacked by the across-the-board cuts in 2013.

We do need increasing investments in project-based vouchers. Better, the argument goes, to pair them with the financial support the shored-up Housing Production Trust Fund provides. By law, 40% of the funds spent must help finance units affordable for ELI households.

How IZ Could Benefit Extremely Low-Income Households

The very structure of IZ means its not inclusionary for ELI households. Yet it can benefit them, supporters say.

The notion here is that moderate-income families will move to the new units they can, in theory, afford. Those units will attract them because they’re more conveniently located, spiffier, close to high-performing schools and the like.

That will free up cheaper units they’re occupying now and/or make them less likely to rent or buy them when they decide to move. It’s surely the case that a goodly number live in those units now.

About a third of rental units District ELI households could have afforded roughly four years ago were occupied by higher-income households, according to an in-depth Urban Institute study.

This is one, though far from the only reason that 64% of ELI households spent at least half their income for rent in 2013. They’re disadvantaged in the competition for the low-cost units, the Institute says, because landlords tend to prefer renters with “greater financial stability,” e.g., steady, well-paying jobs, strong credit records.

IZ arguably reduces the competition by luring those renters to housing that affordable for them, but not their lower-income counterparts.

Not THE Answer, But an Answer

What I think we see here is that no one program can solve the acute and growing affordable housing problems in the District — or in many other communities. IZ shows instead how affordable housing programs are — or should be — thought of together.

As with some of our household repairs and more ambitious projects, we often need more than one tool to get the job done.

I didn’t see how IZ could help do the job for the District’s lowest-income residents. But I’m persuaded now, though I also see how the Zoning Commission could make the tool more effective.

The coalition has half a dozen recommendations, many of which would shift the program toward less well-off households — and even ultimately the ELI. Seems like a blueprint for reform to me.


Interim Shelter Plan for Homeless DC Families a Plus, But Lacks Protections

October 8, 2015

I dealt last week with one of two changes in the Homeless Services Reform Act that Mayor Bowser wants the DC Council to approve — a license to open new dormitory-style shelters for families.

The other change relates to interim shelter placements that the Department of Human Services plans to institute. It doesn’t need new legal authority for them. The administration does, however, need a change in the law to authorize an extra-speedy appeals process for families denied shelter for a longer term.

What Families Must Do to Gain Shelter

Parents who seek publicly-funded shelter in the District must meet three criteria for eligibility. They must be District residents, have children in their care and no safe place to stay. They’ve got to prove all three to the satisfaction of a caseworker.

As things stand now, staff at the intake center decide whether they’re eligible when they apply for shelter — unless it’s freezing-cold outside. In that case, they may have three days to come up with the residency proof.

Ordinarily, however, they either prove they’re eligible or are turned away to fend for themselves as best they can. If they have further proof, they must go back to the intake center and start the process all over again.

What DHS Wants to Do

DHS wants to place families in shelter for up to twelve days if they’re not clearly eligible (or ineligible) or if some alternative to shelter might afford them a safe place to stay.

Some of you may be saying to yourselves, Wait a minute. Isn’t this what the Council, encouraged by advocates, rejected during the Gray administration? Not exactly.

First off, DHS has contracted with nonprofits to handle diversions from shelter. They’re to consult with the families and try to work out an alternative when they think that might be possible. A contractor might, for example, try to resolve — at least, for the time being — a conflict between a parent and a relative the family was staying with.

It might come up with some financial aid or the equivalent that would persuade a friend or relative to host — or continuing hosting — a family. Or it might link the family to resources that would make doubling up unnecessary, e.g., help in finding affordable housing.

The interim placement scheme recognizes that exploring such alternatives and then actually trying to negotiate them can take awhile. In the meantime, as DHS has emphasized, the family is safe.

The agency has referred to other features that would distinguish its plan from the Gray administration’s provisional placement proposal.

For example, the Director has said that a family could get into shelter without going through the whole intake process again if the alternative the nonprofit negotiated didn’t pan out. This, however, is not part of the bill the administration wants passed. It instead allows as how the Mayor may allow the family to bypass a second application process.

DHS also, I understand, spoke of a minimum time limit for so-called community placements, i.e., doubled-up arrangements. This too, however, didn’t make its way into the bill.

So a family could be told it could either spend a weekend with an aunt who’d said that was all she could manage or have no shelter at all. Then back to the nonprofit — or perhaps the intake center — for what could prove another extremely brief placement.

Even less bouncing around than families could experience poses problems for both parents and kids. That’s just the nature of housing instability.

How the Administration Wants the Law Changed

The HSRA establishes a process by which homeless people denied shelter may appeal. They may appeal both initial decisions that they’re ineligible and later decisions to turn them out.

The Bowser administration proposes some unusually tight timeframes when families granted shelter on an interim basis want to appeal decisions to deny it for a longer term. Attorneys who’ve often represented homeless families generally like the concept, but see some bugs in the bill.

The most significant is that it fails to guarantee families shelter until they get a final decision on their appeals — a protection homeless people otherwise have, under the law.

Both the bill as drafted and the Mayor’s cover letter provide for continuing shelter only until DHS renders its opinion on their appeals — the first official decision in the two-stage process.

What the Bill Fails to Do

Most of the concerns raised, however, relate to missing protections in the interim placement process itself. I’ve already cited a couple — a right to shelter if the community placement doesn’t work out and a minimum time length for such a placement.

There are others. For example, the bill doesn’t ensure that families will be diverted only to doubled-up arrangements that pose no predicable risk to their “health, safety, or welfare” — the standard the HSRA sets for quasi-permanent housing.

So, at least in theory, a family could be sent to live with someone whose electricity and/or water had been turned off. More likely perhaps, a family could be told to go to a home where the parent knows an abuser lives — or drops in for more than quick sec every once in awhile.

And like the provisional placement proposal, the bill fails to ensure that someone a family is sent to stay with doesn’t wind up homeless because hosting extra people violates the terms of the lease.

Virtually all the problems I’ve cited stem from omissions. So they seem readily fixable — and less contentious — than the administration’s proposal to shelter most homeless families in private rooms, rather than apartment-style units or anything in between.

Proof of the pudding, of course, is how the Mayor and her people respond to recommended revisions in the bill.


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