February is usually the worst month for the District's hotel business—a flat lull before cherry blossom season comes along March.
But the Comfort Inn, a stuccoed yellow outpost on New York Avenue NE, is having a great winter. Of course, it's a strange kind of success. One portion of the clientele is just what you'd expect: Middle-class families here to take in the capital's sites. The other guests, though, are the ones who have boosted the Comfort Inn's occupancy rate in this ordinarily fallow month. They're homeless people whose long-term stays are paid for by the D.C. government.
Under city law, the District's Department of Human Services is required to house homeless people between November and the end of March. Last year—for the first time since a Marion Barry-era scandal in which filthy rooms were rented for exorbitant prices—the city put up about 70 families in hotels, to avoid repeating the previous winter's overcrowding scandal at the D.C. General Hospital campus' public shelter.
This year, demand is even higher. With D.C. General again over capacity, between 185 and 210 families per night wind up in either the Comfort Inn or a nearby Howard Johnson. It's a pretty good deal for the hotels, almost like having a two-month long convention in town. Though the government rate is $100 per room—compared to upwards of $130 for others—the city-subsidized guests also abide by a set of rules different from the tourists': They eat breakfast in a separate room and aren't allowed to take the hotel's free shuttle to Union Station.
But $100 per night does not represent a good deal for the District, which winds up paying around $20,000 a day for the entire population. That could total a couple million by the end of the season, even as DHS rushes to build out 100 more rooms at D.C. General. And though the Comfort Inn beats being on the street, it's hardly a great spot for the families themselves. On a sunny Saturday morning, young women with toddlers in tow scuttle back and forth across busy New York Avenue to catch a bus or pick something up at the liquor store. They're not allowed to cook in their rooms, so it's microwave or nothing.
Still, when word spread that the city was putting families up in hotels, people in unstable housing situations decided it was better than where they were staying. "I've heard people in the lobby, calling their girlfriends, saying 'bring this and bring that, and you can get in. Bring your boyfriend, too,'" says Sharmaine Walton, 32, a young daughter by her side. "The moms had the babies and they were in public housing. And now the babies are having babies, and they want their freedom. Somebody put the word out: 'You want housing? Go to Virginia Williams,'" the intake center on Rhode Island Avenue NE.
The clamor to get in also underlines the amount of housing insecurity in a comparatively robust real estate market. The women who wind up at Comfort Inn might be staying with a cousin or a boyfriend or a grandparent, but a foreclosure or an episode of domestic violence could set them adrift in a city where the gap between a homeless shelter and a market-rate apartment is often too wide to jump.
Walton, for example, says she was pulling down $20 an hour as a medical assistant. But, she says, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a few years ago, and can't work when the symptoms kick in. She and her boyfriend have lost three apartments. "I feel like I'm a productive citizen," Walton says, over the sound of rushing cars. "I don't know what to do. I did everything right. That's all I know."
For people like Walton, doing the right thing always involves one basic step: Getting on the D.C. Housing Authority's waiting list, either for a unit of public housing, a voucher that can be spent anywhere in the city and even outside of it,* or both. The list is a universal fact of life for the families at D.C. General and the Comfort Inn. Many got on when they turned 18, figuring that it was their best chance for a stable place to live, even if it took ten years.
The problem with the list is that it's an almost incomprehensible number. The line for just vouchers was 49,582 households long in 2007. Then officials cleaned it up with a mass mailing requiring a response to keep your spot. That brought the number down to 20,000. But it had grown back to 37,635 by the end of last year with about 13,000 total vouchers in the system.
How can you tell how far you are from the top of the list? You can't. Officials won't tell you where you're ranked, because it's constantly changing: Different kinds of units turn over at different rates, and totally homeless people will get housed before someone who says they have a place to stay. All they can tell you is what year they're pulling from. Right now, it's 2003.
It's not just a constant reality for families. The list is also full of single people like John (he declined to give his last name), who started a five-year jail term for drugs in 1999, got out in 2003, went through a halfway house before offending again, did another five years, and has been living in a men's shelter since summer of 2010. He's now about to get off probation, but is still on the housing list after eight years. With his kind of record, in this kind of job market, his chances of making enough money to pay for his own apartment are slim.
"People told me to get on the list, so that's what I did," says John. "I knew it was going to be a wait, but I didn't know it was going to be this long."
In the meantime, officials are only clearing the list at a rate of about 200 per month, according to the Housing Authority. The city has fallen far short of the goals it set forth in a 2006 plan for affordable housing, and the feds haven't helped out much either, issuing no new housing choice vouchers for the last three years and reducing the number of grants available for public housing construction. Instead, the city has simply doubled its shelter capacity since 2008, going from 75 to 250 family slots at D.C. General—which now houses a total of about 750 people.
"Because we keep adding more and more shelter beds, we don't view it as inadequate shelter capacity, we view it as inadequate affordable housing," says DHS director David Berns. "There's a front door, and no back door."
Until the District gets serious about funding affordable housing, Housing Authority executive director Adrianne Todman is trying to shorten the waiting list by convincing people to give their subsidies to someone else. Though most officials will say public housing and vouchers aren't supposed to be a permanent benefit, there's no time limit on either, which Todman says won't change in this political environment. Instead, she's working on counseling initiatives to change the culture—at least for the kind of young people who've found themselves staying at the Comfort Inn.
"How do you work with families who do have the capacity to move on? There's a feeling that's built up. 'What if I get sick? What if I lose my job?' If you live in public housing, you're good," Todman says. "The next frontier is working with people and getting past the generational concept that 'this is what I do.'" CP
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* Corrected to reflect the fact that housing choice vouchers can be spent anywhere, not just in the District.