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.