Seattle’s Big Push to Reduce Homelessness After COVID Relies on Self-Reliance

Source: King County rapid rehousing dashboard

By Erica C. Barnett

Sometime in the next few months, the city of Seattle plans to open up to three new hotel-based shelters in the city, with a total of about 300 rooms, for clients of three homeless service providers—Catholic Community Services, Chief Seattle Club, and the Public Defender Association.

The goal of this streets-to-housing program, announced last year, is to move people quickly from unsheltered homelessness into permanent housing, using diversion (programs that keep people out of the homeless system, such as bus passes to reconnect with family out of state), permanent supportive housing (service-rich housing for people who can’t live independently) and rapid rehousing, a form of short-term rental subsidy that has become the solution of first resort for people who don’t need the highest level of care but who have run through all their housing options. The rapid rehousing portion of the program is supposed to move more than 230 people from unsheltered homelessness to market-rate housing.

Originally, the city said the hotels would open at the beginning of January and operate for 10 months, but that deadline has been pushed back and the exact date each of the hotels will open is now unknown. The federal Emergency Services Grant that will fund the hotels expires at the end of this year.

City officials, pointing to statistics that show low rates of returns to homelessness among people who use rapid rehousing funds, call rapid rehousing a phenomenal success. Others, including many advocates and service providers, caution that rapid rehousing only works for people who are already resourceful, and fails to address the underlying conditions that cause many people to fall into homelessness and get stuck.

Rapid rehousing is a relatively new approach to homelessness, one that’s based on the notion that most people experiencing homelessness just need a temporary financial boost to achieve self-sufficiency.

Under rapid rehousing, nonprofit homeless service agencies connect clients to available market-rate housing units and pay a portion of their rent for several months. During that time, the agency provides case management to help clients increase their income. Once a client is paying 60 percent of their income on rent, or after a maximum of 12 months, the subsidy runs out and the client is responsible for paying full rent their own. Because the rent subsidies are temporary and decrease over time, rapid rehousing is much less expensive than other options cities like Seattle favored in the past, like transitional housing.

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City officials praise rapid rehousing programs for their apparent high success rates. For example, Kamaria Hightower, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jenny Durkan, cited King County statistics showing that just 16 percent of households in rapid rehousing program returned to homelessness within two years. “This figure demonstrates that the program is successful in keeping people housed for long-periods of time,” Hightower said. “This is a promising trend we expect to see in this new [hotel-to-housing] program.”

But critics say the statistics supporting rapid rehousing are flawed, because they only include program participants who actually found housing; because they don’t track people longer than two years (about one year after the maximum length of a subsidy); and because the “return to homelessness” numbers only include people who re-entered the formal homeless service system in their community within a year, a number that excludes every person who returned to homelessness but didn’t seek out services within the same community.

These numbers are significant. According to King County’s rapid rehousing dashboard, only half of all people (52 percent) who entered rapid rehousing accessed housing through the program; the “success” rate erases all of those people because they never found housing to begin with. (For single adults, the move-in rate was only 45 percent). And although it’s hard to say how many rapid rehousing enrollees became homeless without re-entering the formal homeless system, the most recent “point in time” count of people experiencing homeless found that about 10 percent of homeless people surveyed said they don’t use any homeless services.

People who are not “literally homeless,” including those who couch surf or crash at friends’ and relatives’ houses, wouldn’t show up in the official numbers either. Nor would people who avail themselves of what Seattle and King County’s new rapid rehousing guidelines, adopted in February 2020, refer to as “innovative housing options including roommates, or shared housing with family or friends”—as if sharing an apartment with other families or crashing at a friend’s house is a new and unique opportunity, not an option people choose when they have no other options.

Sharon Lee, director of the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) says LIHI’s tiny house villages “always have people who say they refused to even consider [rapid rehousing] because of bad experiences or they’ve heard about friends who tried it and had a bad experience. “Every year we have people end up in tiny house villages who ‘flunk’ out of rapid rehousing, so they end up homeless again,” Lee said.

People who “flunk” out of rapid rehousing do so mostly because they can’t pay their rent, a predictable outcome in a city where a two-bedroom apartment costs $1,700 a month (and that’s after rents dropped dramatically nationwide). Rapid rehousing supporters, including Barb Poppe, the consultant whose 2016 report arguably contributed to Seattle’s embrace of the short-term subsidies, have pointed to cities like Houston and Phoenix as models for success. However, they often fail to acknowledge that it’s much easier to house people in cities where that same two-bedroom costs just $1,100 a month.

Only half of all people who entered rapid rehousing accessed housing through the program; the “success” rate erases all of those people because they never found housing to begin with.

“Given our housing market here, I’m not sure that [rapid rehousing] is a smart solution,” City Council member Tammy Morales said late last year, when the council was still debating Durkan’s hotel-to-housing proposal. “To provide housing for a month, or three months, without providing the additional support they need to stay in that housing seems counterproductive and potentially harmful.”

Derrick Belgarde, deputy director of the Chief Seattle Club, says CSC’s rapid rehousing success has resulted from choosing people who are most likely to do well in the program, which doesn’t mean the most vulnerable clients. “The average people we serve usually have a lot of problems,” Belgrade said. “A better candidate is somebody who’s probably more functional, who may have a part-time job—all they’re lacking is the resources to pay $2,500 or $3,000 to get into a place.”

Salina Whitfield is, in many ways, a quintessential rapid rehousing success story. After fleeing an abusive relationship in 2017, she moved back to Seattle with her two kids in 2019, living in shelters and temporary housing until she found an apartment through InterIm Community Development’s rehousing program last year. At the time, Whitfield was working as a temp for a radiology company in Seattle making enough to start paying her rent, at a subsidized unit owned by LIHI, without assistance.

Then COVID-19 hit, and the bottom fell out. Whitfield lost her job, and faced a long wait for unemployment. Fortunately, she was still eligible for rapid rehousing, which paid the rent she owed for November and December. “I just linked back up with them [around] Christmas Eve,” she said. “They helped me pay catch-up until I could get my unemployment for February. … I’m ecstatic because I’m good until February.”

Whitfield is happy with the program, but added that she couldn’t make it work without a subsidized unit. When she was living with her two kids at a family shelter in Auburn, she said, the agency wanted her to move into an apartment that would have cost her $1,500 a month—far more than she could afford on her $18-an-hour income. “I was like, ‘You guys are setting me up for failure,’ because I had friends who went to rapid rehousing” who had to move out once their subsidies expired, she said. “Now my rent is $1,185 a month, which is unheard-of in Seattle for a two-bedroom, and it doesn’t change,” she said. “I just feel lucky all around.”

Homeless service providers, including those who help clients with rapid rehousing vouchers, say that rapid rehousing works for a specific subset of people—those, like Whitfield, who are between jobs or have only recently fallen into homelessness.

“It’s great for those it’s great for, and that’s not a huge subset of those DESC works to serve,” said Noah Fay, director of housing programs at the Downtown Emergency Service Center, which provides low-barrier shelter and housing to people experiencing homelessness. “For people who are just down on their luck or need some short-term support, I think [rapid rehousing] makes total sense.”

But for DESC’s clients, who range from very low-income workers to people with complex mental health and addiction issues, a short-term subsidy often makes little sense. In many cases, Fay said, clients who qualify for rapid rehousing turn it down. “What we’ve seen is that high-needs people who aren’t able to find sufficient income have ended up returning to homelessness. Having housing and losing housing is inherently quite traumatic, and I think people are aware of that and conscious of that fact.”

The process of getting enrolled in rapid rehousing begins when a person enters the homeless system, through a process known as Coordinated Entry for All. Every person looking for housing must take a survey designed to gauge their overall “vulnerability,” based on factors such as domestic violence, drug use, and whether they owe money to anyone, among other intensely personal topics.

The vulnerability ranking tool, called the Vulnerability Index—Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool (VI-SPDAT), is used to rank clients for housing and other services. Clients who score high enough to qualify for housing get matched to apartments through a separate process called case conferencing, in which case managers make the case that their client, rather than someone else’s, is the best fit for a particular housing unit.

This process, which puts those hardest hit by homelessness first in line for short-term subsidy, can result in a mismatch between households that qualify for rapid rehousing and those that can actually make it work long-term. Often, providers say, people who initially express an interest in rapid rehousing back out when they see what a unit would cost or how long the subsidy is supposed to last.

“I appreciate the sentiment that we should be prioritizing our region’s most vulnerable,” Fay, from DESC, said. “However, we need to match the needs to the housing, and in my experience, rapid rehousing doesn’t meet the needs” of the most vulnerable people experiencing homelessness.

Providers have also made a strong case that the VI-SPDAT and case conferencing are biased toward white clients, who make up a disproportionate percentage of those housed through the process.

“If you are sitting with a black women with her children, I am not about to tell you all my personal information,” Jeanice Hardy, the Regional Director of King County Housing Services for YWCA Seattle King Snohomish, said. “As a black woman, I’m able to read between the lines to figure out what a [survey] question means, to dig a little deeper.” If case conferencing isn’t successful at matching clients to housing, service providers themselves can house clients through a process known as an “external fill.” But that’s a poor and makeshift substitute, providers say, for a tool that prioritizes people equitably in the first place.

Belgarde, from Chief Seattle Club, said that until the county agreed to separate case conferencing for Native Americans, hardly any of CSC’s clients were getting housed. “You get a lot of case managers who don’t know anything about Native folks,” he said. “[For] clients who are dealing with guilt and shame… sometimes it takes a Native case manager” to get them to give honest responses.

So the problem is at least threefold. First, too few of the people in line for rapid rehousing units are people of color, thanks to a survey and ranking system that seems biased toward white clients. Second, the people who rank highest under the current system are often the least qualified for rapid rehousing, because it’s unlikely they’ll be able to afford market rent in a few months. And third, the case conferencing system pits providers (and by extension clients) against each other, leading case managers to argue for clients who may not be a good fit for rapid rehousing to begin with, which leads to people opting out (staying in “the pool”) in hope of a better option later, or “flunking out” of rapid rehousing and ending right back in the system.

Hardy says the YWCA sees it all the time—“this person just got rapid rehousing six months ago and now they’re back. I do think that comes from people not being prepared for that particular [type of housing] and that we as agencies can be so fast—bam, you got the points, you get rapid rehousing—but not really concerned about, is that person truly a good fit for us at this time?”

And there’s a fourth problem: The design of rapid rehousing itself ensures that people who stay in the program will remain extremely rent-burdened, by HUD’s own definition, because people “exit” rapid rehousing once they’re paying 60 percent of their income on rent and utilities. (HUD’s definition of “affordable” housing is housing that costs no more than 30 percent of a household’s income).

“We’re in this mess largely because free-market rent is too high for too many people, so maybe we shouldn’t be relying on the free market to solve the problem.”—Noah Fay, Downtown Emergency Service Center

As an example, someone working full-time at $15 an hour and spending $1,500 a month on rent and utilities would be considered a complete success, even though they would only have around $1,100 a month left over for food, health care, child care, transportation, and all other necessities. When the city and county tout the “success” of rapid rehousing, in other words, they’re praising a program whose measure of success is different than all other programs, grading on a curve that counts a D-minus as a B-plus.

Laura Black, a housing stabilization manager at Solid Ground, which runs its own rapid rehousing program, said that while Solid Ground is generally successful at getting people stabilized at a 60 percent income-to-rent ratio by the time their vouchers run out, that level is “unsustainable over time” because housing costs keep increasing faster than people’s incomes. “Families work multiple jobs, sometimes people find roommates, [and] it’s still a challenge.  … As providers, we would definitely prefer the threshold to be lower than 60 percent.”

Lee, from LIHI, said that except for people who are just temporarily unemployed (and don’t need much assistance to begin with), rapid rehousing is “not sustainable—you basically have people living month to month, week to week, in crisis, because you’re expecting them to pay 60 percent of their income on rent. Some people are paying 100 percent of their income for rent, because they don’t want to be homeless.”

For people on fixed incomes, such as those living on Social Security Disability Insurance, this is especially true; SSI maxes out at $794 a month no matter where you live, which means that a Seattle resident spending 60 percent of their monthly check on rent would have just $3,800 left over for any other expenses—for the entire year.

“We’re in this mess largely because free-market rent is too high for too many people,” DESC’s Fay says, “so maybe we shouldn’t be relying on the free market to solve the problem.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced new challenges for people looking for work as well as those trying to find housing that will accept them despite prior evictions and other marks on their rental history. Black says many clients in Solid Ground’s programs are parents with school-age children who have to choose between finding a job to pay the rent or educating their children. “My heart goes out to parents who are managing that right now,” she said.

For many parents, particularly single mothers, the choice comes down to having a job or “really educating their children,” Hardy said. “You have Black employees who have had to make a decision to quit their jobs to make sure their kids don’t go back to the cotton fields, in terms of their education level.”

Mark Ellerbrook, Division Director for King County’s Community and Human Services department, said another challenge is that the pandemic has kept people in place, tying up units that might be good fits for rapid rehousing clients. People who can afford their rent aren’t moving, and those who can’t pay are staying put under the ongoing eviction moratorium.

“The amount of movement in the system for a unit to become available just isn’t happening, so we’ve been allowing rapid rehousing programs to keep people on longer than what is traditionally allowed,” Ellerbrook said, “simply because we’ve already invested in that household.” Once the moratorium ends, of course, many of those units will become available, but at a tremendous cost, if a wave of evictions swells Seattle’s homeless population.

There are ways to make rapid rehousing more successful, for more people, but they cost money—and an acknowledgement that rapid rehousing only works for certain people—those with “hustle,” as Whitfield put it.

Extending rapid rehousing subsidies beyond 12 months could prevent many people who’ve been unable to find jobs in the COVID economy from falling back into homelessness. Last year, the city council added $750,000 to the city’s budget to fund family rapid rehousing programs that would have otherwise run out of money to keep families housed. The budget action noted that in recent years, households have required an average of 10 months of rapid rehousing support, a number that has increased because of COVID-19.

“The amount of rent assistance that is available systemwide is likely to continue to grow, both at a state level and, crossing my fingers, at a federal level… because the impact of COVID is only beginning to reveal itself,” Ellerbrook said. Although the county’s plan to buy up hotels (and potentially nursing homes) and turn them into permanent housing could move hundreds of people off the streets, the issue of how to assist people who just can’t quite pay their rent remains unresolved.

“We need more housing, we need more affordable housing, and we need recognition that we live in an environment where the ways that people are paid and the cost of our housing are not aligned,” Ellerbrook said. “And where does the burden of responsibility for that lie? Does that lie on government and taxpayers to make up that difference in the form of rent assistance, or does it lie in higher wages? That’s clearly an important and very complicated question.”

2 thoughts on “Seattle’s Big Push to Reduce Homelessness After COVID Relies on Self-Reliance”

  1. “We’re in this mess largely because free-market rent is too high for too many people … so maybe we shouldn’t be relying on the free market to solve the problem.”

    While I know that Erica is on the right side of the housing debate, and I’m sure Noah is too, this kind of pull quote is actually harmful to the cause of building more market-rate housing. We don’t have a free market in housing, and we haven’t had one for nearly a century. Instead, most of our developable land mass is locked up in SF zoning, which radically and artificially constricts the supply, and pushes the market price into the stratosphere.

    1. Not true – TONS of apartments are being built right now all over Seattle and rents have gone down overall during COVID. Part of this is people moving out of downtown apartments because they can work from home and can live anywhere. Part of it is due to people buying single family homes. When Covid is over we will bounce back to a city that has an excess of apartments with rents reducing even more. Single family Zoning in Seattle is less than 40% of the land in our city.

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