Is the mayor’s plan for ending homelessness wrong?

Ed Murray’s plans to invest heavily in rapid rehousing are troubling. (Wikipedia)

Ed Murray wants to spend tens of millions more on rapid rehousing, but a new study shows it doesn’t work 60 percent of the time

What is the highlight of Mayor Ed Murray’s latest plan to solve Seattle’s homelessness crisis? Put a lot of money into rapid rehousing.

Yet, in October 2016, the first independent, long-term study of rapid rehousing—basically another name for short-term housing vouchers— found that the strategy has serious flaws. Vanderbilt University Professor Mary Beth Shinn, the study’s co-author, says “In a [housing] market like Seattle’s, I don’t think [rapid rehousing] will help lead to long-term stability for [homeless] families.”

Shinn’s findings contradict an earlier report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and call into question Murray’s plans.

Murray’s human-services officials argue, however, that Seattle is getting better results than found in Shinn’s study. In addition, they stress that rapid rehousing in only one program in Seattle’s continuum of care.

At a national level, rapid rehousing is defined as giving homeless people housing vouchers to rent market-rate apartments for six months or less. After that brief time, people are supposed to be able to fend for themselves.

In some cities, including Seattle, agencies extend the housing vouchers up to 24 months.

In 2009, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) started heavily investing in rapid rehousing. Over the next two years, HUD gave $360 million in grants to programs around the country for rapid rehousing serving 113,000 households. The results were remarkable.

HUD reported 77 percent of homeless households who received rapid-rehousing vouchers for a limited period, then went on to pay for their own homes.

In addition, rapid rehousing cost far less than HUD’s previously preferred strategy of “transitional housing,” where homeless people are moved into non-profit owned low-income housing and given on-site social services for up to two years. Rapid rehousing was also cheaper than housing people in shelters and helping them find permanent housing. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, “The average cost per exit to permanent housing was significantly lower for rapid re-housing (about $4,100) than it was for either shelter (about $10,000) or transitional housing (about $22,200).”

HUD’s report led to cities and counties around the country, including Seattle, investing in rapid rehousing,

In January 2016, Murray released “Pathways Home,” a plan to reduce homelessness in Seattle. A key new recommendation was the use of rapid rehousing.

In February 2017, when Murray put together his $275 million homeless levy, he showed his commitment to rapid rehousing. The biggest investment in the levy was the $98 million for rapid rehousing. (By April 2017, Murray killed the levy, but that’s another story.)

Study: Only 40 percent of rapidly rehoused families can pay their rent

Murray’s plans to fight homelessness seem to ignore the results of Family Options, Professor Shinn’s study.

Family Options was the first comprehensive, independent study of rapid rehousing. The Family Options study followed 2,300 families in 12 U.S. cities who were given their choice of receiving four services: rapid rehousing, an ongoing (or permanent) housing subsidy, transitional housing, or the usual care (emergency shelter plus any housing or homeless assistance available in the community). The study was limited to homeless families.

The study did reaffirm that rapid rehousing was much cheaper than the other programs. Rapid rehousing cost $880 per month compared to $1172 per month for an ongoing housing subsidy; $2700 for transitional housing; and $4800 for the usual care.

Professor Shinn says, “Rapid rehousing did not do better than the usual strategies. It was a little bit cheaper and gets people out of shelter a little bit faster.”

After 37 months, the study found that only 40 percent of families who had received rapid rehousing were paying for their own place. Another 30 percent had moved into housing with an ongoing subsidy, while the other 30 percent were homeless again.

Jason Johnson, Deputy Director of Seattle’s Human Services Department, says the city is getting better results than Shinn’s study. “Fifty-eight percent (of rapidly rehoused homeless people) move into permanent housing. Sixty-four percent are able to maintain that housing,” Johnson says.

While those numbers sound a lot better, they really aren’t when you do the math: that means, in Seattle, 37 percent of rapidly rehoused homeless people are maintaining their housing.

Johnson also points out that the city isn’t relying solely on rapid rehousing. “Shelter, solid outreach, transitional housing, permanent (subsidized) housing and rapid rehousing” are all being used, he says.

Shinn believes that all those strategies are inadequate. She believes the city should be trying other more promising innovations: eviction prevention, a local housing subsidy that could be a bridge to a federal housing subsidy, free childcare for poor families and using local housing funds for the poorest of the poor.

To be fair, Seattle is already doing some of that. The city spends around $6 million annually on eviction prevention. In 2013, Murray led the passage of a $58 million, four-year childcare levy.

In other ways, the city falls short. The 2016, seven-year $290 low-income housing levy fails to target the poorest; instead it funds housing for people earning up to 60 percent of median income —individuals earning up to $37,000 annually. Murray’s new inclusionary zoning program—HALA’s “Grand Bargain”— has the same income threshold.

And Murray’s proposed $98 million investment in 2017’s abandoned homelessness levy demonstrates that the city plans to invest more money in rapid rehousing.

“Lack of low-income housing is what is responsible for homelessness. Short-term rental assistance won’t be helpful,” says Shinn.

Questions, tips, comments: georgehowlandjr@gmail.com

Award winning journalist George Howland Jr has been hired by Seattle Displacement Coalition to write for Outside City Hall about city politics, housing, homelessness and land use. He works under his own editorial direction. The Displacement Coalition plays no role in choosing his specific subjects or editing his copy.

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About George Howland Jr

For many years, George Howland Jr has been a Seattle-based journalist.
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