The Overselling of Rapid Re-housing by Sharon Lee

Published in Shelterforce November 28, 2017

The Overselling of Rapid Re-housing
by Sharon Lee

Rapid re-housing, originally a strategy to prevent homelessness for households experiencing a temporary financial crisis, is now being promoted widely as a broad solution. But in a high-cost area, it’s possible it might do more harm than good.

The Dibaba family of three are refugees from Ethiopia. After staying in a refugee camp, they arrived in Seattle and ended up homeless. Both adult members of the household are disabled. The mother suffers from depressive pseudo dementia. While it has been a struggle, she tries to remain positive. Their 8-year-old son thrives in school and basketball. Living in transitional housing for homeless families at Columbia Court, the family pays 30 percent of their income, $156 per month, for a two-bedroom apartment operated by the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI).

They receive supportive services including case management, ESL classes, after-school tutoring, mental health, and healthcare. After completing a one-year lease at Columbia Court the family received assistance from the on-site case manager to move into subsidized low-income housing. Every year, thousands of immigrant/refugees, survivors of domestic violence and people of color successfully exit homelessness to stable housing as a result of transitional housing programs like Columbia Court.

In April 2017, however, federal funding for Columbia Court terminated because of HUD’s change of policy that prioritizes “rapid re-housing,” which provides three to nine months of short-term rental assistance in private market housing, over longer-term transitional housing. Six other transitional housing programs that received HUD McKinney-Vento funds to house homeless families, veterans, young adults, and people living with mental illness were also dropped from the local Continuum of Care and cut from HUD funding.

Why is the Seattle Human Services Department on a path to dismantle a robust and effective stock of transitional housing in favor rapid re-housing, a relatively new program that puts vulnerable homeless families into private market housing with only short-term rent assistance?

The Problem

Seattle is in the unenviable position of having the third largest homeless population in the nation, right behind New York City and Los Angeles. The 2017 Point-In-Time Count, taken on a cold wet night in January, documented 8,522 homeless people in the city of Seattle, 45 percent of whom were living unsheltered on the streets. King County experienced a 19 percent increase in homelessness from the previous year. Seattle also has the fastest growing rents and housing costs in the country.  The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $2,069; for a two-bedroom, $2,803.

City officials are desperate to reduce the number of homeless people. The mayor and the Human Services Department turned to two national consultants for recommendations on what to do. Focus Strategies and Barbara Poppe and Associates were hired and in 2016 issued their reports on Seattle’s Homeless Investment Policy.

The Focus Strategies report gives the city false hope that by largely getting rid of transitional housing and reinvesting those funds into rapid re-housing, that all homeless people could be sheltered. The consultants talk about “right-sizing” homeless programs, instead of addressing the need to add additional units of affordable housing or more resources. Here are some excerpts from the Focus Strategies report:

  • “Expanded affordable housing is not a precondition for reducing homelessness. The community has to commit to making an impact on the problem with the existing housing inventory…”
  • “All unsheltered families and single adults could be sheltered by the end of 2017 and significant system resources could be shifted to rapid re-housing.”
  • This includes bringing rapid re-housing to scale and cutting back investments in lower performing transitional housing, permanent supportive housing, and other permanent housing.”
  • “We have identified $11 million that can be shifted from low and medium performing transitional housing to create new rapid re-housing….”

Unfortunately, while rapid re-housing might be considered a best practice for some communities, it is not working for Seattle and other high-cost cities. Our market rents are too far out of reach for low-wage earners, people without employment history, the chronically homeless, and those living with a disability. Rapid re-housing may be the ideal program for a small segment of the homeless population, but it will not help most of them.

Six executive directors of agencies that primarily serve people of color wrote to the Seattle City Council about this problem. “Many of us operate rapid re-housing as well as transitional housing programs,” they wrote, “so we know firsthand who can succeed in which program. Rapid re-housing does not work for the majority of highly vulnerable and chronically homeless populations, especially in a high-cost market like Seattle.  Three to six months of rent support to live in market-rate housing is inadequate for a disabled head of household, a person with mental illness or a family on refugee assistance or TANF.  Many cannot increase their income quickly enough and address language/cultural barriers, mental health, substance abuse and domestic violence.  Local data shows about half the participants in rapid re-housing fail in the program. Others become cost burdened, have to double up or move out of Seattle..”

Transitional Housing Works in Seattle 

Local data collected from programs in Seattle, published in the Focus Strategies Seattle/King County Homeless System Performance Assessment Report, show that in Seattle, transitional housing is a superior model, with a 73 percent success rate in exiting homeless families to permanent housing, whereas rapid rehousing is only 52 percent effective. Despite this, the consultants conclude that since rapid rehousing is cheaper at $11,507 per household, compared with $20,000 for an individual or $32,627 for a family in transitional housing, it should be the preferred option.

In actuality, transitional housing at Columbia Court has cost the city $2,780 per family for one year and $5,560 if their stay is extended to two years. A family at Martin Court, another LIHI project, is costing the city $2,439 for one year and $4,878 for two years.  These numbers are nowhere close to the $32,627 for transitional housing cited by the consultant. Each program and its actual cost to the city should be evaluated individually; it is reckless to make drastic across the board cuts as recommended by the consultants.

Additionally, since close to half of homeless families fail out of rapid re-housing in Seattle, the real cost to the city should include the cost of re-housing those families.  Going through rapid rehousing and returning to homelessness also brings additional short- and long-term costs in terms human suffering and more limited options going forward as families get evicted, have judgments entered on their records with possible garnishments, and have their credit ruined.

They can end up worse off than before entering rapid re-housing.

Housing First

If rapid re-housing were operated along a Housing First model (as recommended by HUD) to meet the needs of all homeless families, it could cost considerably more than $11,507 per household.  For example, a homeless family on TANF (receiving $521 per month in Washington state) can only afford to pay $156 per month in rent. If they are placed in a $2,000 two-bedroom apartment, the program would not only have to pay their first and last month rent, security deposit and moving expenses, but also cover the cost of staffing for housing navigation, employment search, and connection to services.  If the budget is $11,507, this means there is not enough money to cover rent after four or five months. A family is then left to sink or swim.  If the household not able to pay the $2,000 rent on their own in that short time, they will have to break the lease and face eviction.

Even a parent who gets a full-time job at Seattle’s minimum wage of $15 per hour would have to pay 77 percent of their gross pay on that $2,000 two-bedroom apartment. The cost of taxes and utilities would quickly consume 100 percent of their income, leaving nothing for food, clothing, transportation, healthcare, and other living expenses.  This does not count as no longer being at risk of homelessness.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness states: “Rapid re-housing assistance should end . . . when the individual or family is no longer facing the threat of homelessness.”  If Seattle’s rapid re-housing program followed this standard and met the needs of families or individuals who could not earn sufficient income to pay for market-rate housing within a few months, the rental assistance would have to be extended for a year, two years, or even more. This would quickly bring the cost of rapid re-housing to $40,000 to $50,000 per household. The cost of subsidizing the monthly rent on a $2,000/month market-rate apartment is far more than the cost of a $700/month rent-restricted transitional housing apartment sponsored by a nonprofit agency.

Local Housing Markets Matter

Barbara Poppe and Associates point to rapid re-housing programs that work in Houston, New Orleans, Salt Lake City, and other cities. Market rents in those communities are less than half of Seattle’s. Unlike Seattle’s very tight housing market, vacancy rates in those cities are much higher. In Houston (before the flood) one could easily find a two-bedroom unit for $750. The average two-bedroom in New Orleans is $1,137.  The average rent for a two-bedroom unit in Salt Lake City is $1,092. A HUD study on families in rapid re-housing who return to homelessness states the obvious: “Families living in a community with relatively high FMRs return to homelessness, on average, 2.24 months earlier than otherwise similar families who live in communities with lower rent levels.”

The city’s consultants also failed to look at rapid re-housing through a racial justice and equity lens. The overwhelming majority, over 80 percent, of Seattle’s homeless families are people of color, primarily African-American and African immigrant households.  About 50 percent of the adults or heads of households are disabled. Many rely on TANF, refugee assistance, and are marginally employed or unemployed.  Many are survivors of domestic violence.

Rapid re-housing as a primary strategy for ending family homelessness would result in the displacement of more African-Americans and persons of color from Seattle. The Black population is already down to 7 percent in Seattle. Focus Strategies noted that homeless families in rapid re-housing in San Francisco have to move 60 miles or more away from the city to find rental housing. Where would our families in Seattle have to move to in order to find cheap rent? Are they likely to relocate to places of opportunity or too far-flung counties away from their communities, jobs, and services? Little research has been done locally to look at racial disparities in outcomes that affect persons of color in rapid re-housing.

Organizing to Save Transitional Housing

Columbia Court and the other transitional housing programs received a reprieve through 2017 due to advocacy from housing advocates, the community, and the Seattle Human Services Coalition, which is composed of nonprofit housing and human services organizations During the 2017 budget process, the Seattle City Council also raised issues with this policy and funding shift away from transitional housing. Under the leadership of council member Lisa Herbold, the council voted unanimously to “back-fill” the loss of HUD funding by allocating resources from the city’s general fund. Columbia Court and the other transitional housing programs were saved—at least for 2017.

But things are about to change. This fall, the Seattle Human Services Department is competitively bidding out $30 million in funding for homeless programs in 2018 through a request for proposal (RFP). These funds include a mix of federal, state and local resources. The Department proposes to reduce overall funding for transitional housing from $4.6 million in 2016 to $2 million in 2018, a 56 percent reduction. In comparison, funding for rapid re-housing is proposed to expand from $3.8 million to $8 million, a 110 percent increase.

Currently, transitional housing programs house 2,667 individuals, or 43 percent of King County’s sheltered homeless population. This is a significant housing resource that keeps people safely housed and off the streets.

Don’t Be a Blind Follower 

Homeless advocates and policymakers should be wary of consultants who promise pie-in-the-sky solutions, that they can “right size” homeless programs (which often translates into “cuts”), and that they can end homelessness with no additional resources. Instead of focusing on expanding the low-income housing stock, which costs real money, they look at the existing landscape as a zero-sum game, thereby giving elected officials an excuse to not invest more in ending homelessness.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness, HUD, and other supporters have a fervent, almost cult-like devotion to rapid re-housing as a solution for all, without taking into consideration different population groups, the unique needs of each family and individual, and the local housing market. Blindly following what is considered a national “best practice” will not work for all communities.  Local market conditions and housing availability must be seriously considered when choosing how to allocate resources between transitional housing and rapid re-housing.

Interbay Village Moving Day

Today Tent City 5 moved to its new home:  Interbay Village by the Magnolia Bridge at 1601 15th Ave W.  The site is owned by the Port of Seattle and is being leased to the City of Seattle as a tiny house village for homeless people.

The new Interbay Village, when completed, will feature 30 tiny houses with electricity and heat, a kitchen, community space, counseling office and plumbed toilet and shower facilities.  Approximately 65 residents will live there.

Interbay Village will be a clean and sober community with residents participating in the daily operation of the village, including round-the-clock security shifts.

The 2017 Point in Time Count found 11,543 people in Seattle and King County experiencing homelessness. “Living in a heated and insulated tiny house in a safe village is far better than living in a cold and wet tent under a bridge,” said Sharon Lee, Low Income Housing Institute’s Executive Director.  “We thank the Port of Seattle for offering their vacant property to help people in need. We appreciate the devotion and hard work from hundreds of volunteers who built and painted thirty 8’ x 12’ tiny houses.”

LIHI is sponsoring Interbay Village with SHARE, a nonprofit organization that will manage the day-to-day operations and organize the residents to live cooperatively.  The Seattle Human Services Department is providing operating and services support including funding for a case manager to help people obtain long-term housing and employment.

The organizations and groups that helped fund and/or build the tiny houses include:

  • Miller Hull – built the metal “Mighty House”
  • PACE – construction school built two houses
  • Solstice Pot Shop – built one house
  • YouthBuild – built two houses
  • Bill Lichty – neighbor, built one house
  • Seattle Vocational Institute – built one house
  • Jefferson Allen – neighbor, built one house
  • BoyScouts led by Jarred Flowers – Eagle Scout Project, built one house
  • Center for Spiritual Living – built three houses
  • Temple Beth Am – funded and built three houses
  • Temple Beth Am, Gaby Bell Memorial House – built one house
  • Chief Seattle International H.S. – built one house
  • Ann Richardson – neighbor, built one house with neighborhood help
  • Holy Spirit Lutheran Church – built one house
  • Peace Lutheran Church – built one house
  • Precision Builders Inc – built three houses
  • Huber Custom Building – provided support and instructions for 8 houses
  • Enterprise Community Partners – built 6 houses
  • Microsoft Employee Volunteers – United Way Day of Caring
  • LMN Architects – painted and finished houses
  • Individual donors and volunteers

Movie: It Takes a Village to Make a Village

Please watch this new short movie about this recent tiny house volunteer build:  It Takes a Village to Make a Village

Enterprise James Rouse Day of Service 

Enterprise, Seattle Vocation Institute, LIHI and Community Partners  Build 8 Tiny Houses in a Day

On Friday, Aug 18, over 100 volunteers with Enterprise and their industry partners, students in Seattle Vocational Institute’s pre-apprenticeship program and LIHI volunteers came together and built eight tiny homes in one day in SVI’s parking lot. Mark Huber and Mike Kirkman of Huber’s Custom Building were the designers of the innovative tiny house model and helped lead the construction. During the lunch break, a current resident and former resident of the tiny house villages shared their stories and inspiring words.

Everyone had a great time building these homes, which will be moved to the new tiny house villages in Seattle where the current Ballard and Interbay villages will be relocating. These homes will improve and save lives, and we are grateful to the many volunteers and community leaders who made this possible!

Volunteers from Loveridge and Hunt

Special thanks to our community and industry partners:

  • Catholic Community Services of Western Washington
  • Downtown Action to Save Housing
  • Kantor Taylor Nelson Evatt & Decina PC
  • Loveridge Hunt Co, PLLC
  • GGLO Architects
  • Quantum Management Services
  • Washington Community Reinvestment Association
  • Washington State Housing Finance Commission

Donors and Volunteers continue to play an integral role in our Tiny House program.  Donations are currently needed for the upcoming relocation of the Ballard and Interbay sites.  To donate, please visit our Giving page and to volunteer, please visit out Get Involved page.

Golden Nugget Award Winners – Marion West and Abbey Lincoln Court

LIHI Associate Director of Housing Development John Torrence, LIHI Executive Director Sharon Lee, and Runberg Architect Michele Wang display Golden Nugget Awards

Judges for the 2017 Gold Nugget Awards recognized Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) and its development partners, Ruberg Architecture, Walsh Construction Co. and BNBuilders, for two projects: The Marion West and Abbey Lincoln Court.

The Marion West – photo by Michael Walmsley

The Marion West won two Grand Awards for “Residential Housing Project of the Year,” beating out for-profits, non-profits, and luxury housing developments, and “Best Affordable Housing Community (100 dwelling units per acre or more).” Abbey Lincoln Court received a Merit Award in the “Best Affordable Housing Community (100 du/acre or more)” category.

Abbey Lincoln Court – photo by Michael Walmsley

“Recognizing The Marion West for a Grand Award was an easy call,” reads the judges statement. “This project sets the standard for both affordable housing as well as addressing the urgent need to house homeless youth.”

Now in its 54th year, the Gold Nugget Awards, sponsored by Pacific Coast Builders, is the largest and most prestigious competition of its kind in the nation. The Gold Nugget Awards recognize architectural design and planning excellence in community and home design, green-built housing, site planning, commercial, retail, mixed-use development and specialty housing categories.

Lake City Celebrates Groundbreaking of Family Housing!

Neighborhood Celebrates Groundbreaking of Lake City Family Housing

70 affordable apartments in the Lake City Neighborhood of Seattle

On August 14th, LIHI held a groundbreaking celebration for Lake City Family Housing.  Located in the Lake City Urban Village and set to open in late fall 2018, Lake City Family Housing will be a 6-story mixed-use project. It will offer 70 units affordable to those making 30% to 60% of the King County Area Median Income. The unit mix includes 15 studios, 25 one-bedrooms, 25 two-bedrooms and 5 three-bedroom apartments. The first floor includes a four-classroom preschool to be operated by the Refugee Women’s Alliance (ReWA). A roof top deck, resident gardens and solar array are features of this sustainable building designed by Runberg Architecture Group. Walsh Construction Co. is the general contractor.

Mayor Ed Murray, City Councilmember Debora Juarez, Sharon Lee, Sandy Motzer (Lake City Neighborhood Alliance), Jack Peters (HUD), Steve Walker (Office of Housing), Mahnaz Eshetu (Refugee Women’s Alliance), Gina León (Umpqua Bank), Brad Malone (Lake City Future First)

Mayor Ed Murray spoke at the ceremony, saying “This project helps us reach our goal of making the city more equitable. If everyone who works in Seattle can’t live in Seattle we aren’t meeting our goal. Today we are one big step closer to meeting that goal thanks to Lake City Family Housing. The Lake City neighborhood has shown an incredible attitude prioritizing affordable housing and the value of inclusion. The project shows the value of leveraging city property, turning the old Fire Station 39 site into affordable housing, and the value of well-planned partnerships: having preschools, like one here that Refugee Women’s Alliance will be running here, near to affordable housing and community centers and libraries. This project is as much about education as it is about housing.  That preschool classroom on the ground floor will dramatically change the lives of the students that live there.  They will go to school; they will read at grade level; they will graduate on time and they will have very different lives.”  The Mayor went on to thank Seattle voters for supporting the levies that made the school and the housing possible.

Sandy Motzer of the Lake City Neighborhood Alliance and Brad Malone of Lake City Future First welcomed LIHI to the neighborhood and expressed appreciation for to LIHI for being engaged and responsive to the needs of the community.

Mahnaz Eshetu, Executive Director of the Refugee Women’s Alliance said, “We will serve 80 students here and teach bi- and tri-lingually, lowering cultural barriers and helping families prosper.”

City Councilmember Debora Juarez emphasized the value of the project to the community and took the opportunity to lobby the mayor and other representatives for funds for more community projects.  “This block, with the housing and the pre-school and the library and the community center and the businesses and other organizations show how you build a good neighborhood.  Having children in a neighborhood is so good for our souls.”

Foundation of Lake City Family Housing

The City of Seattle conveyed the land to LIHI and the Office of Housing is providing funding for the project, including 2009 Housing Levy and federal HOME funds.  Umpqua Bank is providing the construction and permanent financing. Boston Capital is contributing the Low Income Housing Tax Credit equity. Total project cost for residential and first floor community service space is estimated to be $22,950,000.

The Preschool Levy that Seattle voters passed in 2014 supports ReWA’s lease payment for their preschool and makes possible subsidized preschool for low income children.

Watch the time lapse video of demolition Fire Station 39 tower that previously occupied this site.

Billy Frank Jr. Place Dedication Ceremony

On June 1st, a dedication ceremony was held in Olympia for Billy Frank Jr. Place, which features 43 new affordable apartments serving homeless veterans, homeless young adults, disabled individuals, and other members of the community.  Located at 318 State Ave NE.

Top Middle: Willie Frank (Billy Frank Jr.’s son) and Sharon Lee with the Nisqually Canoe Family, who performed traditional songs to bless the opening of Billy Frank Jr. Place

Friends, family, members of the Nisqually Tribe, dignitaries, and housing supporters gathered to honor and remember Native American environmental leader and treaty rights activist Billy Frank Jr., renowned for his grassroots campaign for tribal fishing rights in Washington. Billy, a member of the Nisqually Tribe, was chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission for 25 years until his passing in 2014. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010.

Billy Frank Jr.

Willie Frank:  “My father fought his whole life, not just for the Nisqually, not just for native people, but for everybody here in Washington. To have a building named for him here in the state capitol is truly an honor for my family and the Nisqually people. My dad has been honored a lot since he died, and I think he’d laugh about it because he didn’t live the life he lived for recognition but because it was what was in his heart.”

Speakers reminisced about both Frank’s tenacious activism and his irascible sense of humor.  Doors behind the stage kept blowing open and several speakers paused to acknowledge the spirit of Billy entering the room.

Debbie Preston Back row, left to right: Alfie Alvarado-Ramos, Peggen Frank, Sharon Lee, Congressman Denny Heck, Willie Frank, Nisqually Tribe Chairman Farron McCloud, Trudi Inslee, LIHI Boardmember Melinda Nichols Front: Tribal Council Secretary Sheila McCloud

Congressman Denny Heck: “I am lucky beyond measure to have called Billy a friend for many decades and am grateful that this building was named for him. I am going to make a request of you in the spirit of Billy. I’m a little depressed because I just watched the President of the United States make us become only the third country on the face of the planet to not commit to the Paris Climate Accords. If there was anything Billy stood for it was taking care of mother earth so it could take care of us. Cool, clean water! I’m asking you, every time you walk or drive by this place, to take a moment to remember just what Billy fought for. What can we do? I get asked this every day. Billy never gave up. He was arrested 59 times and he never once gave up, and went from being a radical protestor to becoming the great uniter. Let this building remind us that we should never give up.”

State Representative Beth Doglio: “This building is more than concrete and steel and walls and floors and ceilings. It’s a stable home for many in our community who haven’t had that. That’s what can happen when we have a vision and a partnership amongst so many different organizations and government institutions in our community. Thank you for the hard work you did to make this happen. Having a stable home is the only way that people can put their lives back together, and it is a basic human right! Invoking Billy Frank Jr. for this cause is spot on. Billy was nothing if not persistent. We need to be banging on our elected representatives’ doors every day and demanding that housing be a priority.”

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