Rapid rehousing, a program that offers temporary rental assistance in market-rate housing, is the new hope of homelessness policy. Service providers, however, are not as enamored.
Its proponents at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) see it as the best use of limited resources, noting its cheap price tag and success rates are comparable to pricier transitional housing, which lasts two years and includes expensive services. That view is reflected in the city of Seattle’s “Pathways Home” plan to end homelessness, based on the recommendations of consultant Barbara Poppe, which proposes cutting from transitional housing programs and putting more resources behind rapid rehousing.
The Seattle City Council and mayor approved $2 million for the effort in the 2017–18 budget process, what Catherine Lester, director of the Human Services Department, called “a drop in the bucket.” It’s one that she hopes will yield results that make the case for more extensive investment in the future.
“To be real, it’s challenging, politically challenging, to make that shift,” Lester said.
When Pathways Home came out, providers felt that their voices and the voices of those they serve had been excluded, said Mike Buchman, spokesperson for Solid Ground, a nonprofit service provider for homeless and low-income people that runs transitional housing and rapid rehousing programs.
Solid Ground had already reduced its transitional housing portfolio, switching some of those properties to permanent supportive housing, which is the gold standard for people with a lot of needs. The new plan further threatened the supply.
Buchman said that he is concerned that rapid rehousing is seen as the only solution.
“In our experience, there are people experiencing homelessness for whom it is a good solution and for some it isn’t,” Buchman said.
Solid Ground decided to make its voice heard by hosting a panel discussion at the Town Hall venue.
The organization fielded researcher Rachel Fyall, case manager Tamara Bauman and Maria Williams, program director of Lifewire, a domestic violence organization, alongside Lester in a wide-ranging discussion on the pros and cons of rapid rehousing.
The message it sent was clear: Rapid rehousing can work, but it’s no silver bullet.
HUD began pushing rapid rehousing as the Great Recession began picking up steam, said Leland Jones, hud spokesperson.
“People were driven out of houses they own, apartments they rented,” Jones said. “They were pushed out because they missed a mortgage payment.”
In those cases, a quick infusion of cash could prevent an individual or family’s slide into homelessness, provided they could pull their finances together within the three- to nine-month window. They might not need other services like chemical dependency treatment or even housing resources because they already had a home.
“What we realized was that during the Great Recession, people needed a place to live, some needed supportive services, but we had to look carefully at what was causing them to walk in the door,” Jones said.
Funders, such as the city of Seattle, see it as a targeted intervention that stretches public dollars by giving people only the services they need. One of the most detailed pieces of research into the program, the Family Options Survey, followed hundreds of families for three years to compare rapid rehousing, transitional housing and permanent housing subsidies.
The report, released in October, found that the success rates of rapid rehousing and transitional housing were comparable, but that transitional housing cost $2,700 per month compared to $900 per month for rapid rehousing. Services made up a large part of that difference, comprising 42 percent of the price tag for transitional housing.
A permanent subsidy, such as a Section 8 voucher, costs $1,200 per month, and was the most successful at preventing a return to homelessness. Emergency shelter was the most expensive avenue at $4,800 per month.
Part of the motivation to shift resources to rapid rehousing in “Pathways Home” is a recognition that the Human Services Department was spending too much money on emergency interventions such as shelters rather than programs that help solve the reasons that people become homeless, Lester said.
Providers, including Solid Ground, recognize the national study but argue that Seattle’s white-hot housing market, low vacancy rates and high number of people experiencing homelessness make it a unique case. Putting more resources into a model less than a decade old based on a report that studied places with fewer challenges than Seattle seemed like a risky move.
Rapid rehousing, like the Section 8 subsidized housing program, relies on private landlords to rent to clients, so a program’s success hinges on slack in the market.
Although Seattle recently banned source-of-income discrimination, meaning that landlords can’t reject tenants based on the fact that they have a subsidy voucher, many voucher holders have other marks against them such as spotty credit history or a criminal record. That pushes people, predominately people of color, out of Seattle, Bauman said.
She described a former client forced to move out of Seattle and into the suburbs where a landlord would accept her housing voucher.
“Now she’s in a suburb where economic opportunities are fewer and farther between,” Bauman said. “I don’t see a lot of equity and social justice in a model that says we can’t prepare you for taking over the rent after this three- or six-month subsidy ends.”
So far, only half of people using rapid rehousing programs in the city have remained housed compared to transitional housing’s 72 percent success rate.
Those numbers come from the consultants, who told the City Council that rapid rehousing’s numbers would improve when it becomes more established and systemic. Existing rapid rehousing programs are designed by providers, creating a variety of programs with the same name but different criteria.
“This is definitely a program where the practice and the funding is pretty ahead of the research,” Fyall said. “If you walk into a rapid rehousing program at one agency, what they might be offering each client engaging with the services compared to another agency. We don’t know.”
Research is clear on one point. Housing affordability is a main driver of homelessness, and it’s a place government can intervene.
“The underlying cause of homelessness is that you can’t afford a place,” Fyall said. “Not having a place to live is the underlying cause. There are certainly people that rapid rehousing can and does help, that make them able to maintain their housing … I don’t want to get lost in the conversation that rapid rehousing is not the right thing for everyone because the market is so bad.
“We have people who are homeless that have all the tools they need to be self-sufficient, but they can’t access the private housing market,” she said.
There’s a shortage of 97,266 units for people earning 30 percent or less of the median in the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue metropolitan area, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition in its report, “The Gap.” That’s $45,150 per year for a family of four.
City officials and residents are taking steps to improve the supply of affordable housing by doubling the housing levy, dedicating another $29 million to affordable housing during the budget process and reviewing zoning codes to increase housing density in some areas of the city. The mayor’s office announced on Dec. 9 that it would sell surplus properties to add to the growing fund for affordable housing.
One chief problem is the asymmetry between local and federal resources and the scope of the need, a situation many providers fear will not improve under the new Trump administration. It’s impossible to fund services that work while testing out other policies that may or may not improve outcomes.
The crux of the situation is that there’s a gap between the time that it takes for the city to mobilize its resources and the day that formerly homeless tenants can cross the threshold of their new home. If rapid rehousing gets more people inside than the more resource-intensive transitional housing model while the city grapples with housing affordability, it will have done its job.