Housing Complex

It’s Cost-Effective to Put Homeless People Into Housing. If Only It Were That Easy.

Can D.C. Make Rapid Rehousing Work?

A child outside the D.C. General shelter, which is filled to capacity.

Today at VoxMatt Yglesias has a post on what he calls "one of my favorite ideas in public policy," under the headline, "It's three times cheaper to give housing to the homeless than to keep them on the streets." He points to a story last week in the Orlando Sentinel on a new study finding that each homeless person on the streets in Central Florida costs taxpayers about $31,000 a year, versus $10,000 a year to provide a homeless person with housing and a case manager. The region's homeless commissioner tells the Sentinel the numbers are "stunning," and Yglesias writes that while it might seem "utopian" and prohibitively expensive to give all homeless people homes, it is, counterintuitively, "cheaper to house the homeless than to let them languish on the streets and deal with the aftermath."

This is not a new idea: As I reported in my March cover story on rising family homelessness in D.C., the cost to taxpayers of putting up a family at the D.C. General shelter is more than $150 a night, and at a motel is about $140 a night. For that amount of money, the city could house three to four families through the rapid rehousing program or keep that many families in their homes with emergency rental assistance.

The trouble isn't a philosophical or political barrier to putting homeless families in homes; it's a lack of homes. Rapid rehousing subsidizes a family's rent for a limited period of time, before the family pays its own way. As a result, the city won't place families into rapid rehousing apartments that they won't eventually be able to afford on their own. And because the supply of affordable housing in D.C. continues to dwindle, the city simply hasn't been able to locate enough affordable apartments to place D.C.'s homeless families and clear out the backlog of residents at D.C. General, other shelters, and the motels where the city's been forced to shelter families in the absence of other space. (The alternative would be to provide permanent housing or vouchers to all homeless residents, but the costs really pile up, since residents could be unlikely to ever give up their free rent for life, and new participants would be added each year. That's exponential-level cost growth. And it still assumes there are places for all the residents to stay.)

This isn't just a D.C. issue. In Central Florida, there may be enough affordable housing that local governments could realistically place all homeless residents into homes through rapid rehousing or similar programs. But in cities with expensive housing markets, that luxury doesn't exist. Rising housing costs have led to substantial increases in homelessness after the official end of the recession. In New York between 2010 and 2013, the number of homeless families jumped by 11 percent, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development's annual point-in-time count. In Los Angeles, the increase was 21 percent. In San Francisco, it was 29 percent. The list goes on.

The challenge in D.C. isn't just finding housing; it's finding shelter space for all the families for whom the city can't find housing. WAMU has a series out today on the D.C. General shelter, which is riddled with problems but still an aspiration for some homeless families who are struggling to fend for themselves. One woman WAMU spoke with had plenty of concerns about D.C. General, but still prayed for a room there to open up for her family.

“D.C. General would at least be a place where we might not be there all day," she told the station, "but we could at least come one place and lay our head.”

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

  • Emily

    The homeless people in the study aren't poor families who temporarily fall into homeless: they are "chronically homeless", not just homeless. This is a more-disabled, more-mentally ill population with frequent arrests and hospitalizations. That's what's costing so much money. This isn't a population where rapid rehousing would be appropriate. DC has a Permanent Supportive Housing Program with different eligibility requirements that align more closely with chronic homelessness.

  • adam

    Why does it cost $150 to put a family in DC General when it's cheaper to use rapid rehousing? Is that standard government-bloat? Other services? Because they break stuff? I think we need to know this before we conclude that rapid rehousing would be cheaper. If rapid rehousing becomes the default, it may end up larded up with the same types of costs that now cause DC General to be so expensive.

  • chris lee

    So many kind hearted Idealists think of "homeless" people as neat little cut and dried numbers in a statistical assessment. The truth is a variety of individuals many of whom are a "hot mess" to put it mildly. It takes responsibility and discipline to maintain a residence and maintain oneself there in. Many of these people are simply incapable of doing so, making them either wards of the states or chronic nuisance.

  • http://www.FreeDC.org Anise Jenkins

    Thank you so much, Mr. Weiner, for exposing the lack of protection in DC for those whose health has been devastated by mold. A close friend of min, Muriel Martin, was forced to move out of the Gables apartments in the Takoma area of DC because of mold. She is 68 years old, a native Washingtonian, a retired teacher of 20 years at the historic Dunbar High School, a two time Fulbright scholar, community activist and so many other things, who has been reduced to living in a room in the home of a friend. She is on dialysis and suffered serious respiratory problems after the heavy rains we had last year. Water seeped into her apartment in this "new" building and she hired a mold technician who discovered the Black Mold, which is supposed to be the most dangerous. She asked the manager for another apartment and she was refused. After realizing what was causing her breathing problems, high blood pressure, etc. she refused to pay her rent for the mold infested apartment and was taken to landlord tenant court and was evicted! Now she is staying in a room and still fighting her health issues. I and another friend of hers called the council and discovered that as you have written that DC has no law that protects tenants from mold. We called Councilmember Mary Cheh and got the best response thus far, but the law has not been passed and I doubt if it would have helped my friend very much as it is. While Muriel was searching for help, she spoke to Muriel Bowser about her problem but thus far Ms. Bowser has not followed through on the case.

    Please contact Muriel Martin at 202-391-6944. She cannot afford to move to California as the unfortunate person in your story has done and she needs the Gables to at least remove the bad credit rating from her record so that she can at least find another apartment to prepare for her kidney transplant, which is on hold because of her lack of dependable housing.

    Thank you!

    Anise Jenkins

  • Jane

    Aaron, look at what some cities are doing to solve the housing shortage for the homeless


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