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The Housing Access Program: A Creative Intervention For A Systemic Problem

Why do we have the Housing Access Program (HAP)? Easy enough: HAP, run by social worker Stacey Johnson, helps people find places where they can apply for housing. You’re wondering why we need that, given that there are countless websites and platforms dedicated to advertising rentals, right? Well, not exactly. We’re in a housing crisis in DC where rental amounts far outpace incomes, and in order to find truly affordable housing, individuals and families must navigate a maze of information, requirements, and applications. That’s where we come in to help.

Every week, we offer an information session about housing in DC, and specifically about how to apply for subsidized housing (privately owned apartment buildings that contract with HUD to receive a subsidy such that tenants pay 30% of their income in rent). This is similar to the DC Housing Authority, which administers the Public Housing and Section 8 Voucher programs. However, DC Housing Authority closed their wait list for new applicants in April 2013 and they have yet to announce a date to reopen. Other housing options include market rate rentals (which are out of reach for low income families), and supportive housing programs to help people who need additional supports in order to obtain and maintain stability.

But for people who just need truly affordable housing, the only other option seems to be subsidized housing. It can’t be that hard, right? So let’s get started!

Define “Affordable” housing. There is a lot of talk about Affordable Housing in DC and making sure that new apartment buildings offer “affordable” units. This is a very misleading term, as “affordable” housing may not be actually affordable to low income families. “Affordable” housing is not the same as subsidized housing. The rent in an “affordable” building is pre-determined based on the median income of all of the people in the entire area (as opposed to subsidized housing, where the rent for each tenant is calculated based on that individual’s income). So rental amounts in an “affordable” unit can still reach $1,000 or more for a studio apartment, and they might require a minimum annual income of $30,000. In contrast, many HAP participants receive Social Security benefits as their sole source of income, meaning that their annual income is less than $10,000.

So now we know that we need to focus on Subsidized apartments. 

Locate the subsidized apartment buildings. Walk around any neighborhood and chances are you’ll pass by several. But you’d never know it, as they are not identified as such. But, as an internet savvy person, you go to HUD’s website and find a list of all of their names, addresses, and phone numbers

The list you got from HUD does not have real-time information on each building, so after calling or visiting all 100 of them, you find that not only are there no current vacancies, each building has waiting lists that are at least a few years, AND only a small number of them are even accepting applications to their waiting lists. Of those, it turns out that you only qualify for a fraction of them due to restrictions based on age or disability.

But you did find some buildings, with subsidized units, that are accepting applications for their years-long waiting lists, and you are eligible. Great, it’s time to apply! Fill out that housing application… wait, what? There’s no common application? That’s right, you have to complete a separate housing application (on paper) for each building in order to get on each of those individual waiting lists. The actual applications are not necessarily difficult to complete, but they are also not intuitive. And you may have to present your ID, Social Security Card, Birth Certificate, and proof of income to some of them. You’re missing your Birth Certificate? Well, you’ve just got to secure a new one (which is a whole other hurdle).

Feeling overwhelmed? Imagine that you have limited literacy, limited English proficiency, difficulty keeping your thoughts organized, or physical conditions that restrict your ability to get around. Even more overwhelming, isn’t it?

It’s time to go to Bread for the City. We do our best to centralize and package all of this information for each of our participants. Instead of everyone having to monitor all of the buildings, we do it for you and maintain a database with current information on each building. Our participants each get a personalized list of apartment buildings that are currently accepting applications and for which they qualify. This information is fluid, so you can always come in to get an updated list. In addition, participants can sign up for text and email alerts to receive a notification when an apartment building opens its waiting list.

When a building chooses to open their waiting list, there is no requirement from HUD that the buildings advertise in publications that are free, or that they advertise in the newspaper at all. Bread for the City checks various newspapers and websites daily, as well as calling all of the buildings on a regular basis to find out when a waiting list might open.

It is a frustrating process not only for the people who are searching for housing, but also for us, as we can only impact so much in the process. In fact, we have created this program as a band aid for a system that is deliberately not set up to be user-friendly. What if there was a common application for all HUD contracted buildings? At BFC, we  are working to create an app that will help participants fill out multiple housing applications in a shorter amount of time. What if the city sufficiently funded the creation of new units with subsidies, aimed at folks making less than $10,000 per year? While the mayor has invested $100 Million into affordable housing, there are only about 300 units being created for people making less than $23,000. The housing crisis in DC can be solved by creating more units that are affordable to everyone. We would love to see our government and city leaders make a pledge to help low-income DC residents secure safe, affordable housing without the strings attached. There are lots of housing programs out there for people who need supports, but what about the people who just can’t afford the astronomical rents we see around DC now? It’s frustrating to realize that those in power don’t seem to take this community into account when they talk about “affordable” housing.

But as frustrating as the affordable housing market in DC is, working on HAP is worth it.  It’s worth it to help the man who, after living on the streets for his entire adult life, finally, at age 63, had his name on a lease for the first time. Or the woman who found herself homeless after her mother died, and lived in one unstable situation after another for 6 years before an apartment came through for her. Or any of the other 125 people who’ve moved into apartments because Bread for the City facilitated their application process. We do this for them.

Bread for the City’s Housing Access Program is made possible via support from the William Randolph Hearst Foundation, the Jack R. Anderson Foundation, and supporters like you. 

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