By Prianka Sharma
Last year, while participating in a pro bono legal clinic, I met a client who was facing eviction from her apartment. The client stated that she simply could not afford the rent on her apartment once her Rapid Rehousing (RRH) voucher had lapsed. The client was a single mom to two young children, and, unbeknownst to me at the time, she was pregnant, too! As a pro bono attorney who does not practice housing law, I had little to no experience navigating the Rapid Rehousing program and knew very little about the D.C. housing and shelter laws. However, by speaking with my pro bono case mentor and doing some research, I soon became educated as to the pitfalls of the Rapid Rehousing program.
The Rapid Rehousing Program was designed to help homeless families (with children) become self-sufficient by giving them rental assistance and case management support for a period of one year. The goal of the program is that at the end of the year, the families will be able to pay the full market rental rate so that they can remain in the rental property. Clients are assigned case managers, who serve as a resource to help clients as they work towards self-sufficiency. Indeed, some of the learning opportunities the Rapid Rehousing Program offers include sessions on resume writing, interviewing skills, and employment placement.
Over the course of my interactions with my client, and in helping to advocate for her to get temporary emergency shelter once she was evicted from her apartment, I learned that my client had been placed with a case manager who often was unresponsive and unavailable. Then, halfway through the year of assisting my client, the case manager was taken off my client’s case.
This change in case managers was extremely stressful for my client. At first, my client had no point of contact for the Rapid Rehousing Program. Later, when she was assigned to a new case manager, she had to establish a brand new relationship from the beginning. For my client who was already in crisis, this was an onerous burden. The disruption to her support network during a time she was already struggling to find employment, to provide her family with basic necessities, and to take care of children, was especially traumatic. On top of all of this, I came to appreciate the harsh reality that, even with a full-time job, my client’s income would be insufficient to cover her market-rate rent after the Rapid Rehousing rental assistance ended.
According to a 2017 study published by the Washington Legal Clinic for the homeless, the Rapid Rehousing Program has an extremely high turnover rate. With rental prices continuing to surge in the District, finding an affordable apartment, in general, is a major feat; it is even harder when the renter is on a very tight budget. According to the study, the average family’s income covers only 40% of the market rent. I was shocked to learn that the program would place families in apartments that they clearly could not afford, knowing that their income would not be able to cover the rent once rental assistance had lapsed. The only somewhat affordable apartments offer extremely poor living conditions.
My client and her two young children were eventually evicted from their home, and forced to go into a temporary shelter. Frustratingly, because the Rapid Rehousing Program set my client up to fail, my client now has an eviction judgment on her permanent record, which may affect her ability to rent in the future.
After entering the temporary shelter, I helped my client search for other housing options. The Rapid Rehousing Program was not a realistic option for her because she now had a newborn child and was unable to work full time. Nonetheless, I was told that the only housing assistance option available to my client was to once again be enrolled in the same Rapid Rehousing Program. No other options exist.
Lawyers who work in legal services may already know that this situation is all too real. As a pro bono lawyer who was new to helping low-income individuals try to find housing, I was surprised and shocked to learn about the struggles that families face due to the lack of affordable housing options in D.C.
My experience only touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the housing challenges people face in D.C. But, helping my client was enough to open my eyes and make me commit to doing more pro bono representation and more advocacy work on behalf of the homeless and families in need. Everyone deserves the right to an adequate place to live, and no young child should have to fear not having a place to sleep at night.
Prianka Sharma is co-chair of the Washington Council of Lawyers Communications Committee.