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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Weathering the Storm

>Amy Johnson is the Emerson Hunger Fellow at Bread for the City. This is cross-posted from the DC Food For All.

After the initial fun of our record-breaking storm (call it a snowpocalypse, a snowsplosion, a snowmageddon…) the reality of the aftermath is uncomfortable and even scary. With many streets un-plowed, power outages across the region, and public transportation running minimally, we at Bread for the City have been unable to open for much of this week.

This year, we’ve been closed to client services on Fridays — but with some luck we’ll make an exception tomorrow, and open with as much capacity as we can muster. Many of our clients really need the help.

Consider Michael Mack, a gentleman living in Anacostia. “We’re in a community where the stores aren’t nearby. We have the corner stores to get what you need, but oh you pay for that.” Michael came to us last week to stock up on groceries in advance of the storm — since he figured it would be easier to wait out the weather. But that was before the situation stretched into a week and beyond. I called Michael yesterday, and he expressed frustration: “I’m out of food. I went last Friday to get food, but now there’s none left and there’s now way out. There are buses running, but not near me and where I need to go.”

Wanda Ford, a mother of three who lives in Anacostia, told me “it’s really rough.”

“We can’t get out, and the street hasn’t been plowed. We have enough food for right now, but I’m worried about how long it will last. It’s very hard for me, with three children.” Wanda has three children (two adopted) — which brings up a serious point that many may not think about: for a family living on a fixed income, meals at school really help provide relief from food budgeting. But with several days of school canceled, Wanda’s family faces an even tougher food situation.

Not only are our clients finding this difficult, but Bread for the City found its own problems as well. On Tuesday, a gaggle of staff shoveled snow off of our roof, worried that the weight of a continued accumulation of snow could cause it to collapse on Wednesday. After two hours of back breaking shoveling and plenty of snow puns shared, the roof was cleared and ready to weather out the next storm. And the next one after that?

While Bread for the City prepares to open, other organizations are in need of volunteers! Contact Charnay Henderson at Food and Friends to help prepare and deliver meals to homebound people living with HIV/AIDS and other debilitating illnesses. Also consider reaching out to We Are Family to help seniors in need.