By Nora Jacques
Burgeoning living costs threaten household stability for a rising number of families in the District of Columbia who have low income. One medical emergency, missed paycheck or rental increase could propel a family into homelessness.
For Jennifer Speight, a 30-year-old single mother, it was a challenging pregnancy. Every day on her lunch breaks, she rushed to the labor and delivery unit at George Washington Hospital to be treated.
When Speight’s company was bought out, new management deemed Speight a medical liability and decided not to renew her contract.
One year after losing her job, Speight was evicted from her home of eight years. It was late at night. It was freezing and she had no place to go.
Speight had always been employed. She had a 401K in place, medical leave and an emergency fund. She had never thought she and her daughter would be homeless.
“Family homelessness has increased to a staggering 50% over the past five years,” said Mayor Muriel Bowser in a statement in the District of Columbia Interagency Council for Homelessness 5-year plan.
While homelessness across the United States has gone down by three percent since last year, the rate of homelessness in the District was among the highest rankings in the U.S. – increasing by 14 percent since 2015 and by 27 percent since 2010, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The DC Interagency Council on Homelessness attributed this increase to the loss of affordable housing and wages that haven’t kept pace with cost of living.
“Housing needs to be affordable to those households with the lowest incomes who are most at risk of homelessness,” said the report.
“We’ve had a huge loss in affordable housing with half as many low cost units we had in 2002,” said Kate Coventry, policy analyst at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. “People with money want to live in the city now, so you have low-income citizens competing with higher income people who can pay more.”
New developments in 2016 and 2017 will set a record of 13.7 million square feet of ground broken in the District. These new developments have replaced government-subsidized housing for the poorest residents of the District.
“Public housing is the only real affordable housing,” said Taylor Healy, a community lawyering project supervisor at Bread for the City, a private, non-profit organization that provides food, clothing, medical care, legal and social services.
Healy advocates for tenants of the Kenilworth Courts public housing community who fought for the redevelopment of their homes to be completed in phases.
“When you tear down entire complexes, people lose family ties, community ties, babysitting, carpooling, all the things you rely on in a community,” said Healy, sitting in a semi-private meeting room, a short distance away from the bustle of families on the other side of the floor seeking services. The room hummed with the energy of advocates and colleagues in a strategy session on the other side of a sliding partition.
“There can be many barriers that hinder residents from returning to newly renovated units. Families could lose their subsidies for reasons such as not paying utilities, having a criminal record, failing to recertify or report income,” said Healy. “Families with subsidies also have to fight the stigma that is sometimes associated with vouchers. Some of it is that landlords think there’s more money in the private market. Some of it is the stereotypes, racism, classism…landlords think tenants with subsidies won’t pay, or they’ll be involved in criminal activity. And then some landlords just don’t want to deal with the bureaucracy. The process is arduous.”
The New Communities Initiative, a District government program designed to revitalize public housing communities into vibrant, mixed-income neighborhoods, said that their framework will “ensure that there is no net loss of the existing deeply subsidized units in the neighborhood.”
Public housing residents and advocates, however, are skeptical. “If this mixed income development plan is working, then where did all these people go?” said Dominic Moulden, a community organizer who has watched low-income populations decline with the eradication of public housing communities like Arthur Cappers Dwellings, Valley Green and Ellen Wilson Dwellings. “Why haven’t we shown that their lives are better?”
Families who live in public housing are either relocated to other public housing units in the District or they receive vouchers to find housing on their own. Many families, however do not return after redevelopment.
“Bringing families back is certainly a most important goal,” said Adrian Todman, executive director of the D.C. Housing Authority. “But families have choices and I think you have to be careful about looking at a return rate, as the singular sign of success as to whether a redevelopment was done well.”
Speight sought out rental assistance from city funded programs, however she was unable to find the help she desperately needed. She was ten months behind on her rent.
Evicted from her two-bedroom home, Speight and her daughter found temporary shelter through the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center at the Motel Six in Camp Springs, Maryland. They later moved into a dorm-sized bedroom at the D.C. General Family Shelter.
“I felt victimized by the city, I needed less than $6,000 in rental help.” said Speight. “And D.C. allowed me and my daughter to become homeless and paid $50,000 for us to stay in DC General Family Shelter for a year.”
Ending homelessness has become a national priority under the Obama administration. The Opening Doors program is a strategy that Obama has put in place over the last five years, to prevent and end chronic homelessness, veteran homelessness and homelessness for youth and all families that aims to “rapidly return people who experience homelessness into housing.”
A program called Rapid Rehousing provides assistance and services to prevent individuals and families from becoming homeless and helps those who are experiencing homelessness to be quickly re-housed and stabilized.
“With rapid rehousing, people are homeless for a shorter amount of time,” said Kevin Corinth, a research fellow at American Enterprise Institute who studies homelessness and poverty. “They receive short term rental assistance, a private unit, a case manager to ensure sustainability and it works well for a majority of people.”
Though it took a full year for Speight to obtain a voucher from the D.C. Housing Authority and to find decent housing. She was employed four weeks after being housed and on the path to recovery.
“I was not ashamed I was homeless. I was ashamed of my city,” said Speight.