An Easy Solution to D.C.’s Rapid Rehousing Program

A story in the Washington City Paper caught my eye yesterday not, because of the complexities involved in it, but because of the obvious solution. As part of the 2009 stimulus, D.C. implemented a new program called rapid rehousing that puts people up in apartments for very short periods of time (around fourth months) so that they feel a sense of urgency to find work and become self-sufficient. If you tell someone they can have housing indefinitely, that incentivizes people to delay looking for a job or cheap housing. The rapid rehousing program tries to fix that problem. If a person cannot afford the apartment in those four months, the program generally extends the program up to a year. But the people in the program often don’t about that so the pressure is still on to find work.

In 2011, when the stimulus funds ran out, D.C. continued running the program itself, but it has run into a new problem: apartments in D.C. are too expensive. From the story:

But the problem, as Wright notes, is that housing has gotten very expensive in D.C. That’s meant a double whammy for the city: more homeless people who can’t afford to pay the skyrocketing rents, but also fewer affordable units for the city to place them in through rapid rehousing.

“We don’t have apartments,” Berns says, agreeing with the residents who have struggled to find housing. “They’re right. This has been my biggest frustration, that we can’t put them in an apartment that costs thousands of dollars per month, with the thought that at the end of four months or a year or even two years, after rapid rehousing ends, that they’d put up that rent.”

Placing the participants in more expensive apartments, says Berns, would be “setting them up for failure,” since they’d have trouble paying the rent once they’re on their own and could end up back in the shelters or hotels.

“D.C. has failed to adapt its rapid rehousing program to the realities of an expensive housing market and a highly competitive population of renters,” saysAmber Harding, an attorney with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. “Homeless families, many with poor credit and low incomes, are competing with renters with good rental and credit histories and much higher income.”

As a result, there’s a tremendous backlog. Berns says his agency has plenty of funds to place more families into rapid rehousing but simply can’t find enough affordable units.

The problem here isn’t D.C.’s rapid rehousing program, as Harding suggests. It’s that D.C. is too expensive!  You know what would be a great way to make D.C. less expensive? Reducing the height restrictions on buildings here. Right now, supply is constrained by the 1910 Height Act as buildings are capped at 90 feet on residential streets and 130 feet on commercial ones. It’s a draconian law that artificially limits the number of housing units available in the city and keeps prices high. The city is finally ready to revise the law, although it is in the hands of Congress in the end.

Last week, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray submitted his recommendations to Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) calling for new height regulations that would allow buildings to be 1.25 times the width of streets inside “L’Enfant City”. This would allow buildings to reach 200 feet in the air on streets 160 feet wide. It would be a big increase, but it still doesn’t go far enough. Abolishing the height act entirely and allowing skyscrapers into downtown D.C. would allow residents to take full advantage of D.C.’s infrastructure while providing a larger customer base for nearby stores and increasing economic activity (meaning more tax revenue as well). In addition, it would help programs like rapid rehousing by decreasing rents and allowing a sector of affordable housing to flourish. Sounds like a no brainer to me.

Dumb D.C. Rules: Tattoo and Body Piercing Edition

Looking to get a tattoo or body piercing in the near future? Live in the District of Columbia? Well soon you may have to wait a full 24 hours after you request it before you can get inked. That’s just one of many new rules that D.C. officials have proposed for tattoo parlors and piercing shops. Sound absurd? That’s because it is.

What exactly is a regulation like this trying to accomplish? Stop drunken twenty-somethings that get a tramp stamp after losing a bet or preventing minors from getting a tongue ring without their parents’ knowledge? Sure, the Department of Health is looking out for these people, but the entire measure is paternalistic. If someone wants to get a tattoo, they shouldn’t have to wait a full day to do so.

Licensing requirements are a government-created barrier to entry for new tattoo parlors.
Licensing requirements are a government-created barrier for new tattoo parlors.

At the same time, many of the proposed rules are important for safety reasons. They require tattoo parlors to inform their customers about the risks involved or if they have certain conditions that could adversely impact receiving a tattoo. Those are necessary. But a 24-hour waiting period? That’s nonsense.

This brings me to one of my biggest qualms here: licensing requirements. Licensing requirements for D.C. tattoo parlors isn’t new, but was implemented last year and is a large barrier to entry for new shops. The question is, do tattoo parlors really need to be licensed? The answer here is probably yes. Getting inked has potential dangers and ensuring that tattoo parlors follow proper safety procedures and are registered and monitored by the city’s Department of Health is smart public policy.

But it’s not clear-cut.

Consider the alternative. In a world without tattoo licensing requirements, would unsafe or bad tattoo parlors exist? Would we have an epidemic of crappy tattoos or people infected by unsterilized needles? Probably not. Those tattoo parlors would go out of business as people stayed away from them. Yelp would be particularly helpful in weeding them out. That’s how the free market works. Licensing requirements eliminate those unsafe shops, but they do so through government regulation. The reason that those requirements are good here is because an unsanitary tattoo parlor could stay in business for a while and infect a number of people. That’s enough of a public health concern to make the rule necessary.

But the rule does more than just ensure that tattoo parlors are safe. It also is a barrier to new entrants into the industry. After all, going through the process of receiving a license takes time and resources. The city also requires tattoo artists to take classes before earning their license. That costs money and takes time as well. It gives current tattoo parlors a built-in advantage over new entrants. No wonder that D.C. council member Yevette Alexander said that tattoo parlors came to her to ask for the licensing requirement.

Maybe we should require council members to wait 24 hours before suggesting new regulations that the industry itself proposed. That’s just as arbitrary.