Red tape results in four-month average wait for approval despite ongoing reforms, costing some residents apartments.
By Washington Post, Oct 8, 2023
As soon as Andrea Dicks got approved to move into a new apartment in June, she started packing. She got rid of old furniture and stacked plastic bins full of toys and clothes against the wall — ready to leave a unit that she said was crawling with roaches and mice.
But two months later, the boxes were still sitting there.
Dicks, a 31-year-old native Washingtonian who holds a housing voucher, couldn’t go anywhere until the D.C. Department of Human Services (DHS) processed her paperwork and the D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA) approved the new unit. In August, the property manager apologized to Dicks but said it couldn’t keep waiting on the city: The apartment she wanted to move into was going back on the market.
“I cried,” Dicks said in an interview, sitting at the kids table in her nearly empty living room. “I cried the whole day.”
Bureaucratic delays have undermined the vow by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) to end chronic homelessness in the nation’s capital. Even as she and the D.C. Council have made record investments in coveted subsidies that allow the District’s neediest to rent on the private market, more than 3,100 housing vouchers have not been used, records show. Eligible people like Dicks who have waited months for approvals that are supposed to take weeks are put at a disadvantage that can cost families an apartment. In more extreme circumstances, outreach workers said, homeless Washingtonians have died waiting.
The journey from the time a person is approved for a voucher to the day they can move into an apartment takes more than four months on average, according to data from the DHS and DCHA. It took even longer before the agencies deployed recent reforms.
“It’s maddening because we know the urgency our clients have and you just wish that sense of urgency was shared all across the board,” said Andy Wassenich, the assistant director of outreach at the homeless services nonprofit Miriam’s Kitchen, which contracts with the city to provide homeless outreach and case managers. “Lives are in the balance. I say that a lot because I want there to be some awareness that when we have people’s applications sitting there for four, five, six months, that’s another six months they might be living outside.”
Of the 5,093 vouchers the D.C. Council has funded since fiscal year 2022, which began Oct. 1, 2021, fewer than 40 percent had been used to house people as of early this month. The rest of the vouchers are sitting in a queue. All told, according to the council’s housing committee, the District has spent nearly $385 million to fund the city’s voucher programs in that time frame. Not a single person has been housed using the additional vouchers approved for fiscal year 2023.
Rachel Pierre, then-interim director of the DHS, said in an interview last month that while the agency is “extremely grateful” for the historic number of new vouchers, the influx flooded the system with more applications than it was built to service. The D.C. Council’s investment, Pierre said, positioned the DHS to “double the size of a program that has taken us 10 years to grow.”
“We were being held to a standard that we never claimed to be able to actually deliver on,” she said.
The approval process can be dizzying. Each person who applies for one of the District’s vouchers — which may cover some or all of a household’s monthly rent, depending on demonstrated need — must first submit a detailed application to the DHS for review. Once the DHS approves an application, it goes to the DCHA for verification and to make sure applicants are eligible. Only then is the applicant cleared to enroll in an orientation class, after which a voucher is officially awarded. But the process doesn’t end there: Each applicant must then work with their case manager to find a place to live that will accept their voucher and that must pass a DCHA inspection and a ruling on its cost, which can take several more months.
Through an effort called Operation Make Movement, the DHS sought to expedite things last year by allowing paperwork to be submitted before a case manager had been officially assigned. This, advocates said, helped ease a growing bottleneck and get applications moving.
“Lives are in the balance. I say that a lot because I want there to be some awareness that when we have people’s applications sitting there for four, five, six months, that’s another six months they might be living outside.”
Last year, voucher holders faced a nearly nine-month wait for the process to play out, according to data from the DHS. Recent reforms brought the delay down to about 4½ months.
Still, it takes the DCHA 52 days on average to determine whether a person is even eligible, according to interim director Dorian Jenkins. The agency’s goal is 30 days. In some cases, applications lag because the DCHA has questions or needs to verify information, Jenkins said. If clients can’t be reached for follow-ups, he added, it hampers progress.
“More applications are coming. They’re constantly coming to us,” Jenkins said. “They’re funding more, so they’re sending more, which means there’s more families that we determine to be eligible right away, but more that we need to keep following up [with], and keep following up and keep following up.”
D.C. Council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large), who chairs the council’s housing committee, said the council’s decision to increase voucher funding was based on projections that showed a high rate of use. The council simultaneously added 16 positions to the DHS, White said, to ensure the agency had enough resources “to meet the need.”
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“The goal of our voucher program is to provide housing support for residents who need it. There is no doubt that demand is challenging, but if something in the process is not working, we need to figure out why and then change the process,” White said. “The solution cannot be fewer vouchers and fewer residents in housing — that would mean more encampments, and individuals, families and seniors without stability.”
After a voucher holder has found an apartment, the DCHA takes an average of 61 days to inspect the home and ensure it’s reasonably priced.
Dicks waited 73 days for an inspection — and it might have been longer had she not taken matters into her own hands.
Tired of waiting, driven by fear that the black mold in her current kitchen was making her child sick, Dicks went to the DHS in person to get answers.
Dicks first sought housing help in 2019, after she lost her job as an aide at a charter school in the Hillcrest neighborhood in Ward 7.
She lived with her mother and on friends’ couches until qualifying for the District’s rapid rehousing program, intended to provide subsidized housing and services to help people at risk of homelessness get back on their feet.
Dicks was paired with an ebullient caseworker who brought her newborn daughter a playpen as a gift last year, and offered support throughout the pandemic. Dicks said she was meeting the goals outlined by the rapid rehousing program: employment, a stable budget, a comfortable living situation.
Then came the mold. Then the cockroaches and mice.
She stopped opening the bottom kitchen cabinets. She started shaking out her and her son’s and daughter’s clothes in the tub before dressing in the morning, scanning for the small roaches that had appeared in their dressers. She rushed her baby daughter to the emergency room last fall when she had trouble breathing, unnerved by the possibility that the black mold in the kitchen — documented by a Department of Buildings citation — may have been the culprit.
She knew she had to leave.
“Living here has been the most stressful I’ve ever been, to the point where I get chest pains now — my anxiety is through the roof,” Dicks said.
Dicks says she has to shake out her and her children’s clothes over the bathtub in the morning to make sure they don’t have roaches.
But finding a new place to live would prove harder than Dicks expected.
Last October, she said, the DHS informed her that she would be transitioning from rapid rehousing to the Targeted Affordable Housing voucher program, meant to serve families like hers who struggle to afford rent in the District and, without long-term aid, would be at risk of becoming homeless.
Dicks had already identified an apartment she wanted to move into — but her new caseworker told her she could not live there: The apartment’s cost exceeded a rent cap that Dicks didn’t know existed. And besides, Dicks was not yet approved for a voucher. Dicks, deflated, emailed the mayor’s office and council members, asking if anyone could step in to help.
“This is my life being juggled around,” she wrote. “This is real life for me and not some game that will end and start over.”
For months, her voucher application sat in a long queue untouched.
For the District’s poorest residents, delays can mean dire changes in health or living conditions.
Some run the risk of losing their housing arrangements. Others have died while their applications sat in limbo.
In the spring of 2021, an unhoused woman who had been waiting for months to hear back from the DCHA on whether her voucher application would be approved began to feel a sharp pain in her chest. Hours later, she died of a heart attack at a hospital, said Wassenich, the Miriam’s Kitchen official. Wassenich, who had been her caseworker with the organization at the time, said his devastation was compounded by the knowledge that she had been waiting for approval for nearly half a year.
“Would she be alive if she had gotten housed before she had a heart attack? I don’t think we can say that. But at the time, which was during the pandemic, we were dealing with a lot of back and forth — how much she was receiving in Social Security and needing to get that verified but not having the right form,” Wassenich said. “It was a delay of at least six weeks over just the back and forth of this form. Then she died.”
In March, 45-year-old Ali Zarrincalaki was stabbed to death at the Petworth Library. Zarrincalaki, who had been living on the streets, was approved for a housing voucher in July 2022, according to caseworkers. When he died nearly eight months later, Zarrincalaki was still waiting to be cleared to move into an apartment.
“This is my life being juggled around. This is real life for me and not some game that will end and start over.”
— Andrea Dicks, in an email to city officials in which she pleaded for help
Though no one can definitively say these deaths — or others — would have been prevented had the individuals involved been approved for a voucher or placed in a home, Wassenich said, research has shown that homelessness severely diminishes people’s health and safety.
Kevin Valentine Jr., a spokesman for the DHS, said that “we are deeply sorry whenever a resident passes while still experiencing homelessness.” DCHA Chief Operating Officer Rachel Molly Joseph noted that if the DHS makes an urgent request, her agency can expedite the cases of people in particularly vulnerable situations. Last year, the DCHA also started allowing people to self-certify critical documents to move their applications along more quickly.
Before Operation Make Movement, an applicant who had been approved for a voucher could not move forward with submitting paperwork until he or she was paired with a caseworker — a process Pierre, who was the DHS interim director, said could take nine months in some cases. Since the DHS removed the caseworker requirement for application submissions, the average time to submit an application has fallen to about a month, Pierre said.
Still, processing times are nowhere near where agencies or caseworkers want them to be.
“For me the fact that we’re taking 52 days to determine eligibility is a really big issue,” Theresa A. Silla, the executive director of the District’s Interagency Council on Homelessness and a DCHA board member, said during a recent meeting. Jenkins, the DCHA’s interim director, told her the agency planned to set aside dedicated staff to focus only on local vouchers, which he hoped would speed things up.
Dicks finalized her voucher application Dec. 1 but did not actually receive her voucher until this May following a mandatory DCHA orientation, according to an email provided to The Washington Post.
“It was just a waiting game,” she said of the months she spent wondering when she could leave her infested apartment on the edge of Congress Heights in Southeast Washington.
Miriam’s Kitchen officials said the average voucher application turnaround time of about two months is a significant improvement. But that just gets applicants past the first hurdle. Then they have to find a qualifying place to live.
Once a voucher holder identifies a unit, the DHS needs to review the paperwork and send it to the DCHA, which will conduct inspections of the unit and a “rent reasonableness” evaluation to determine whether its cost aligns with market-rate rents in the neighborhood.
If it fails either test — which most units do initially, Jenkins said — it can take several weeks to resolve.
The rent reasonableness test is a process the DCHA implemented in July after a federal review last year found that the agency was failing to ensure that rents for voucher holders weren’t paid above market rate. But neither the DHS nor caseworkers guiding families through the apartment hunt have access to the new tool that the DCHA uses to determine whether to green-light a specific unit’s rent. That means people may be encouraged by caseworkers to apply for a unit assumed to be reasonably priced only to find out later that it isn’t. Then, they have to start all over again.
“We are seeing a backlog with individuals being able to find available units that meet rent reasonableness, that meet their standards and their choice,” Pierre said.
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The DHS and DCHA said they are working to set up a tool that will allow caseworkers and voucher applicants to find units in neighborhoods of their choice that have already been approved by the DCHA before they apply.
Adam Rocap, the deputy director at Miriam’s Kitchen, said he tries to remain optimistic watching DHS work out the kinks after a “tumultuous” scale-up period. His hope, he said, is that the fixes will pave the way for a smoother, faster process that could encourage the D.C. Council and mayor’s office to continue investing heavily in housing subsidies.
The council upped its investment in the city’s voucher programs in fiscal 2023 by nearly a third over the previous fiscal year, according to the housing committee, from about $166 million to $219 million.
“The idea is to make sure we’re getting to these solutions as fast as possible with an eye toward setting this up to continue to be able to expand effectively,” Rocap said. “That’s how we will reduce, and eventually end, homelessness.”
When Dicks walked into the DHS headquarters last month, she had no idea what was going on with her application behind the scenes. For weeks, her pleas for updates were ignored — and, at times, so were the property manager’s, according to emails reviewed by The Post.
Dicks was approved to move into an apartment in Southeast Washington’s Fairfax Village on June 19. She submitted a lease packet describing the apartment and rental agreement to the DHS within the week. By mid-August she was back in the dark. Her caseworker did not return calls and responded only sporadically to emails, she said. She had not even seen him since she came to DHS offices to sign paperwork Dec. 1. The DHS said it could not comment on individual cases, but Pierre said caseworkers are supposed to perform a minimum of quarterly check-ins with their clients in the Targeted Affordable Housing voucher program, and shepherd them through the search for a new home.
The stress of being in housing limbo affected Dicks so severely, she said, that she delayed going back to work at a day care.
Dicks’s apartment building. The 31-year-old says living there gives her so much stress and anxiety that she has chest pains. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
“I’m emailing, I’m doing everything y’all asked me to do, and I’m not getting any results,” Dicks said of the experience. “And all we’re asking for is this one thing” — an inspection date — “and you guys cannot give that to us. So how is that supposed to work for us? You guys get to go home. We don’t. Like we’re home — but we’re not home.”
Even the property manager was running thin on patience with the D.C. government, emails show.
“We have not been marketing the property since the lease up started and now the owner is just sitting here with a vacant unit,” a woman in the rental office wrote to Dicks’s caseworker and his supervisor. She heard nothing back. Two days later she tried again: “Please respond ASAP as to this status.”
Dicks had had enough. She walked into DHS headquarters and complained that her caseworker was not helping her, saying that all she needed was an inspection date. Soon, DHS chief of staff David Ross came down to meet her. He apologized, she said, and promised to work on her case. In just over a week, she got her inspection scheduled — help Dicks said she was deeply grateful for.
Emily Ford, an attorney with the Children’s Law Center who had been helping Dicks compel repairs to her mold-ridden apartment in housing court, called Dicks’s advocacy, all the way up to a top DHS official, “amazing” — but said it made her nervous for the rest of the voucher program’s participants: Is this what it took to be heard?
“Not everyone is able to do that,” she said. “I worry about people who haven’t been connected or don’t have those same advocacy skills.”
Dicks moved into her new apartment last month and felt relief, she said. Her son has his own bedroom for the first time in his life, and no one has to shake out their clothes in the tub.
Finally, she unpacked.