Eleven transitional housing programs in Seattle and King County received notice that they will not get federal funding through All Home King County, an early move in the shift away from medium-term subsidized housing as outlined in Seattle’s new plan to combat homelessness.
In letters sent at the end of August, All Home told the providers that they would not be included in the application to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to fund the local “Continuum of Care,” a regional planning body that oversees the local response to homelessness.
The Transitional Housing programs fell into two tiers, ranked by past performance and responsiveness to HUD priorities. Seven percent went into the second tier, which was cut.
The $1.58 million taken from the programs will be reallocated to two new programs, one permanent supportive housing project for chronically homeless households and a rapid rehousing project, according to a letter from All Home to the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) regarding its Columbia Court transitional housing complex.
That program houses 13 formerly homeless families, said Sharon Lee, executive director of LIHI.
The funding cuts for transitional housing programs are an opening salvo in a longer-term redirection of priorities and resources from transitional housing to rapid rehousing.
In HUD parlance, transitional housing generally refers to units that are grouped together within the same building in which clients can stay for up to 24 months. These programs include rent subsidies, and often have services like chemical dependency or job-training built in.
Rapid rehousing is market-based, meaning that clients receive subsidies for rent in the private housing market. The assistance covers a shorter time period, often between three and nine months, and doesn’t come with extra programmatic bells and whistles.
That aligns with the light-touch approach advocated by Barbara Poppe and Associates and Focus Strategies, consultants hired by the city and county, respectively, that suggested cutting the bottom 50 percent of transitional housing programs.
The vision outlined by the consultants involves keeping costs down by meeting the needs of homeless people and not offering anything more. In those terms, rapid rehousing looks like a better deal, especially if it has similar or better success rates in getting people and families into permanent housing.
Rapid rehousing has a lot going for it. A 2015 HUD report showed that the program has similar outcomes to transitional housing for less, and a presentation in King County in 2012 estimated that the program could house five times as many people as transitional housing.
It also follows the “housing first” mantra, prioritizing housing over other requirements such as sobriety or employment.
It’s hard to find a social services provider against “housing first,” which ranks up there with “person-centered” as the must-have phrases in any document relating to housing the homeless. Lee certainly isn’t against the concept. She just worries that putting the focus on rapid rehousing will have negative consequences down the line not because people are getting put into homes, but because the duration of the support is so short and the rents in Seattle are so high.
“The issue is, are they setting people up to fail?” Lee said.
The three-to-nine-month duration of housing subsidy doesn’t always give recipients the time they need to set themselves up for self-sufficiency. After the subsidy ends, they’re still in private housing in one of the hottest markets in the country.
“It really doesn’t give us the capacity to bring in more people, to get folks ready for permanent housing,” said Jeanice Hardy, regional director of Seattle South King County Housing with the YMCA. “I think some people do need transitional housing before permanent housing.”
Hardy and her organization got notice that they would lose approximately $30,000 as one of the members of “tier 2.”
It doesn’t make sense to put someone with little education, a spotty work history and a large family into rapid rehousing, Hardy said.
“Rapid rehousing is for a different client. Not all clients fit in the same shoe,” she said.
Lee’s already seen the results.
A family came to Othello Village, the tiny-house community that opened in March, looking for a place to stay. They’d been in rapid rehousing previously, but when the subsidy ran out, so did their ability to stay in their home.
Experience and data suggest that while rapid rehousing works well in other rental markets, it may not have the same success in Seattle. According to the consultant reports, local rapid rehousing programs have a 52 percent success rate compared to a 73 percent success rate for transitional housing.
Megan Kurteff Schatz with Focus Strategies suggested to council members that the discrepancy lay with the relative age of the programs – rapid rehousing in Seattle is still getting established.
Putting so many resources into a program based on its success elsewhere seemed like a losing strategy to Hardy.
“It’s very sad that we have to do pilots on the backs of poor people,” she said.