May 5, 2011

Too Little, Too Late: DC's Rental Assistance Paradox

The 2010 census confirmed what many DC residents already know all too well – that soaring housing prices are pricing low-income and working families out of the District. This change disproportionately affects DC’s low-income African American population. In fact, Ward 8 - a community which Bread for the City’s Southeast Center serves - was the only Ward in the District to see a population decline between 2000 and 2010.

A person with a disability receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) in DC receives $674 per month. A person working 40 hours per week at a minimum wage job makes $1320 per month. But the Fair Market Rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Washington, DC is $1289-- a figure completely out of reach for many DC residents. Meanwhile, the waiting lists for subsidized housing are tens of thousands of households long, with over 300 new applications submitted monthly.

Many low-income residents who are lucky enough to actually have affordable housing are just barely able to keep it -- we often hear from clients that any unforeseen expense could potentially result in the loss of their home.

Given this crisis in our community, our Social Services team has ratcheted up their housing case management support so that we can help clients address the issues that might cause them to fall behind on rent and face eviction and homelessness.

There are resources available to people in need. The DC Emergency Assistance Fund (DCEAF), the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) and the Housing Prevention and Rapid Re-housing Program (HPRP) are all government-funded programs that help pay back rent, late fees, and court fees to prevent eviction, and the latter two programs will sometimes cover the first month’s rent for new apartments. However, these funds are difficult to access, have restrictive eligibility requirements, and often times they’re simply not even available to a person in need until it’s too late.

And the funds all have their own limitations. Some cover utility assistance, while others do not. Some cover security deposits, some don’t. Beyond this web of restrictions, families often face a Catch-22 with emergency housing assistance funding: households aren’t eligible for assistance until the disconnect notice has already been sent and the eviction proceedings have begun. By that point, the window of opportunity for a family to get back on track is often closed.

Households also have to prove that they only need the assistance because of a temporary emergency, like a death in the family or an unforeseen medical expense. A household that falls behind on rent simply because of the high cost of living in D.C. is not considered eligible.

In the past year, Bread for the City has been able to assist dozens of families get back on their feet by obtaining funds through these programs while simultaneously providing them with comprehensive case management support to help them advance towards stability. For instance, Mr. J was putting himself through college and raising a son while also holding down a job. When he lost his job, he fell behind on rent while waiting for unemployment to kick in.We were able to help him secure DCEAF funding to make ends meet for the short period of time that he was without income. Weeks later, not only was he caught up on rent, but he got a new job.

However, Mr. J.’s case is rare. Stories like his are the exception – not the rule.

Thousands more households are struggling to pay their rent, and by the time they are eligible for emergency assistance, they may be in over their heads. With the District facing even more cuts to affordable housing and rental assistance programs in this budget season, more and more DC residents will be forced out of their homes – and perhaps even out of the city.

Contributed by Emily Cadik, Bread for the City Policy Fellow.

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