Housing Voucher Programs
The suite of programs the city has employed to house formerly homeless and other high needs individuals and families are well-intentioned and important. Ward 3 can and should carry its weight in addressing these needs. Unfortunately, however, execution of these programs has been opaque and deeply flawed, in some cases imposing heavy burdens on existing residents, failing to properly serve new residents, and squandering significant public resources which if properly deployed could better and more fully serve greater numbers of people in need.
The recent HUD report (see here) on our DC Housing Authority (DCHA) public housing and the voucher programs is devastating. It is promising that Councilmember Silverman and Attorney General Racine have introduced legislation (see here) which will lead to a period of real focus on these DCHA and related programs. In the process of considering that legislation and any other legislation in response to the HUD Report, and as we address the systemic issues in the agency and the immediate public housing scandal, it is imperative that we also focus on the voucher programs. We can and should use this moment to have a real, honest reckoning and commit to address the problems with the programs so that we can craft workable, fair solutions to the challenges raised by the programs, including ideas along the lines of those described below.
The voucher programs often are referred to under the rubric of “Housing First,” but “Housing First” implies something follows. All too often, however, where follow on wraparound services are required they are not properly provided, letting down existing residents and new residents alike. And, the programs create an incentive structure that can lead to one form of affordable housing – heavily subsidized housing for the poor that can be very profitable for landlords – cannibalizing another form – rent controlled units often serving middle income residents.
Everyone — existing residents and new residents — deserves a place they can live in peace and security.
Clearly, we have much work to do to address the issues surrounding these programs. Indeed, the city officials charged with operating and responding to issues raised by the programs, recently have candidly acknowledged that fact, as has HUD. Still, there are enormous challenges to conducting a level and serious discussion of the problems and potential solutions as there is a tendency simply to discredit the messengers when they raise issues that demand a measured response.
If we are going to make real progress to address the serious issues surrounding these programs, we must engage all the stakeholders – city officials, new residents, tenant associations and the advocacy groups dedicated to addressing homelessness and build support for reform across the city. Given my history working on these issues and experience as an advocate on behalf of residents across the city, and approach to problem solving, I believe I am best suited to bring people together to fix these programs and improve quality of life for both new and existing residents.
When we do things well, we reduce opposition and build support. A great example of that is the recently constructed transitional housing facility – the Brooks on Idaho Avenue. Several neighbors of that project have gone out of their way to say to me in recent months that they fought the Brooks but that it has worked well. We need to address the issues raised by the Housing First programs, so that the reaction to them someday is like the reaction to the Brooks. Potential elements of such solutions could include:
- Making the relevant data more transparent (and anonymous), so we can identify the scope of the issues and where there are issues and where there are not.
- Creating structures so that persons who are not equipped for independent living are given other options that can better serve their needs and help them get on their feet. We serve no one when we place a person who is clearly not equipped to live on their own in an apartment without anything remotely like the support they require.
- Providing wraparound services for new residents who can thrive in an independent living setting but would benefit from such support.
- Developing structures to coordinate service delivery and management of the various programs. Today, there are many service providers and programs each operating in silos. It may be that there inevitably will be many players operating in this space, but the complete lack of coordination is not inevitable and is fixable.
- Working to ensure that this program is not used as a profitable end run around rent control.