A new pilot program here in DC is taking an innovative approach to providing rental assistance.
It’s no secret that the District’s low-income families struggle to afford rent. Two-thirds of households earning less than 30% of the Area Median Income are extremely rent burdened, meaning that they spend more than half of their income on housing.
But how exactly rental assistance should be delivered is less clear. The most common type of rental assistance is through rental vouchers, like HUD’s Housing Choice Voucher and DC’s Local Rent Supplement Program, that make sure recipients never pay more than 30% of their income for housing.
The dependability of housing vouchers is essential for many families, and DC housing advocates have consistently called for LRSP to be expanded.
But some families only need subsidy some months out of the year, rather than every month. That’s because the lower your income, the more likely you are to be income insecure. Households with lower incomes are more likely to be in the service industry or depend on temporary jobs, positions where income can fluctuate greatly from month to month.
Currently these households often have to turn to the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, DC’s eviction prevention fund, during lean times. It’s a process that can be time-intensive, and all too often families fall through the cracks.
Instead, a new pilot program would let these families on the edge do their own budgeting. Households would be given $7,200 per year to manage as they choose. If the primary earner has more work than usual, the may choose not to draw any funds. If they’re unemployed, they may take a full month’s rental payment.
It would even let the money be spent on other needs, like groceries or medical care. The idea recognizes that the households themselves are in the best position to know their monthly needs.
And while full housing vouchers are still in desperately need of expansion, this kind of flexible, shallow subsidy could go a long way towards helping families living on the edge.