Lizzie O'Leary: On Wednesday, a federal judge overruled the nationwide eviction moratorium put in place last year by the CDC due to the pandemic. The judge determined that the CDC did not have the authority to implement such a sweeping ban. Later that same day, the same judge also granted a stay in her ruling due to a challenge from the Biden administration. That means for now the eviction moratorium stays in place. A lot of housing advocates fear that the pandemic could ultimately push hundreds of thousands of Americans into homelessness.
While some major cities have not conducted new counts of people experiencing homelessness since the start of the pandemic data released last week from Washington, DC does include a few positive trends. According to account done by the community partnership for the prevention of homelessness, the city's unhoused population fell by nearly 20% overall during the past year. This was due in large part to more families getting housing. At the same time, the number of DC residents experiencing chronic homelessness increased in 2020, and Black Americans were disproportionately overrepresented in the city's unhoused population. Joining me now to talk about this is Martin Austermuhle, a DC government reporter for WAMU in Washington, Martin. Thank you so much for being here.
Martin Austermuhle: Thanks for having me.
Lizzie O'Leary: According to this latest data, more families who were experiencing homelessness were able to get housing over the past year. Are there DC-specific things that might account for that?
Martin Austermuhle: Yes. Over the last six years or so, our Mayor Muriel Bowser made a commitment to basically focus on family homelessness. One way she did that was closing down a big shelter that the city used to have in an old public hospital. It was a terrible place, it was too big, it had thousands of people in it. She closed it down and built smaller neighborhood-based shelters. They opened up seven of these shelters over the last five or so years. They're fully functional now and they seem to be working.
People are going in there, they have more personalized attention, and then they can get more permanent housing more quickly than they could when they were in this massive old hospital building that no one liked. I think the mayor is getting a lot of credit for that one policy, which was actually pretty controversial. Just the idea of putting shelters in different neighborhoods. She even put a shelter in a relatively wealthy neighborhood.
Lizzie O'Leary: Those shelters are short-term solutions. Have they helped people have the headspace and the services to get into more long-term solutions?
Martin Austermuhle: City officials certainly say so. There was some proof that it is working. Average stay in these shelters is now about three months, whereas at the old shelter we were talking-- there were people staying there, there were families staying there for years at a time. People are being cycled through the shelters more quickly. Now, whether they're falling into more permanent and sustainable housing is questionable.
There's a lot of reliance on this program called rapid rehousing, which is when the city basically subsidizes the families rent for about a year or a year and a half with the assumption being that after that the family can then take over the rent by themselves, but housing prices being what they are in DC, which is extremely high, a lot of these families get to the end of their subsidy and can't meet their rent obligations. There's a lot of data now showing that some of them are ending back in homelessness
Lizzie O'Leary: At the same time that we're seeing these changes in family homelessness, chronic homelessness also rose over the past year. I think we should dig in a little bit into how chronic homelessness is defined and who that population tends to be.
Martin Austermuhle: Yes. Chronic homelessness is, well, at least in the district and lots of part of the country, actually, it's majority Black Americans. It's a lot of folks who have other issues on top of homelessness. I mean, they could have drug dependency, they could have mental health concerns and they're the toughest population to deal with because it's not simply a matter of saying, "Okay, well, here's an apartment or here's a shelter. You're good to go."
The district, like a lot of cities I think, has been struggling to address those services. Every year they're funding these units called permanent supportive housing, which is basically housing plus the services, but advocates say they're never funding enough of the units that are needed to meet the demand.
Lizzie O'Leary: How accurate was this count that has given DC, some encouraging numbers about homelessness this year?
Martin Austermuhle: The accuracy of the count is always debated because people aren't questioning the numbers themselves. It is a count that is done on one night of the year. It's done in lots of cities and that's the baseline for how people measure progress in fighting homelessness. The issue is that it really only counts people who are literally living on the street. It doesn't factor in the other shades of homelessness that people don't really think about. You could be sleeping in your car for the night. You could be doubling up with family or sleeping on a friend's couch.
Lots of homeless advocates say that the count is useful. It's important. It gives us a sense of a specific slice of homelessness, but it doesn't focus in on housing insecurity, the people who sure they're sleeping under a roof for that night or that week or that month, but that's not sustainable. They may be on the street two weeks after the count is done and so they may not be picked up by those numbers.
Lizzie O'Leary: The federal eviction moratorium has obviously played a big role here. DC will still have one when the federal moratorium ends, what might happen when those moratoria go away?
Martin Austermuhle: Yes, that's the huge fear here. The moratorium in DC is stronger than the federal one. It's probably going to be in place until the fall. The concern is that if it goes away in the fall and there haven't been other steps taken like rent relief of some sort or some sort of big package of economic relief, it's just going to be a tidal wave of evictions. Obviously, evictions move slowly through the court system, but you can imagine this idea of thousands of cases being filed by landlords who haven't gotten rent payments over the course of potentially a year.
There's a lot of concern that if we get to next January and they do this next census of the homeless population, you may see a lot more people who are actually living on the street, not to mention who are literally insecure are housing insecure and are just struggling to stay under one roof or staying with friends or sleeping in their cars and that sort of stuff.
Lizzie O'Leary: Housing in DC, like many cities, is quite expensive. Nearly 87% of DC's unhoused population's. Black residents are about 46% of the city's overall population. You have this situation where gentrification, rising housing prices, have really factored into this. What is the local government doing and what are advocates doing to deal with some of these tensions around housing prices and who can afford to live in the city?
Martin Austermuhle: This is a huge issue because homelessness at its core is an issue of housing, access to housing. Down here in DC, Mayor Bowser has gotten credit for spending consistently spending $100 million-plus on a yearly basis building and preserving affordable housing. That's a lot more than her predecessors had. The problem is that first of all, the city was playing catch up. By the time it started building and preserving affordable housing, housing prices were already starting to spiral out of control.
It's also who the housing is targeted to because again, affordable housing is a very flexible term and so when they first started building and preserving it, they were focusing more on families or people who were making a little bit more money, not the extremely low-income end of the scale. Now, the city has shifted to saying, "Okay, well, the folks who are suffering the most are the ones who are making the least money so we've got to build housing for them." Again, they're basically playing catch up.
Lizzie O'Leary: Just quickly, is there a time horizon that advocates and local government officials have given you to when we will start to see whether these policies, affordable housing, more supportive services, are helping in the long run?
Martin Austermuhle: There actually was a really good deadline and it was when Mayor Bowser took office in 2015 she said by 2020 so last year she wanted to make homelessness rare, brief, and non-recurring. That's flexible enough that you could actually say that DC has met that goal, especially for families. The families are-- fewer families are necessarily becoming homeless when they're homeless they're homeless for a shorter period of time and they may not become homeless a second time, but there's plenty of data and anecdotes that that's not necessarily the case for all families.
Then on the chronic side of things for individuals, it's certainly not the case.
Again, it's moving goalposts, and again, you probably have to factor in that a pandemic hit and all the disruption that that caused. Again, it's a mixed bag for the mayor. She has done good things and people give her credit but they also say, listen, for as wealthy a city as DC is, there's still much more that can be done.
Lizzie O'Leary: Martin Austermuhle, a DC government reporter for WMU. Thank you very much.
Martin Austermuhle: Thanks, Lizzie. I appreciate it.
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