The Proposal

There is an acute need to give people physical space in order to properly social distance and reduce transmission of COVID-19. There has been an acute need to house people in the nation’s capital – a place with one of the highest per capita rates of homelessness in the country. Let’s combine and accomplish both tasks with one action: Use vacant properties to house the unhoused.

Vacant to Virus-Reduction (V2VR) provides a path forward. The title “Vacant to Virus-Reduction” is a play on the mayor’s/DHCD’s “Vacant to Vibrant” program, showing how it’s clear the city wants to use vacant space in productive ways; what better way to do that than to use it to save lives during a public health emergency?

After placing people in temporary individualized settings like hotels and dorms, which will be necessary in order to meet the dire imminent need, this plan provides a method for how to transition people into housing rather than back into communal settings. This accomplishes a goal of implementing housing as a right while also reducing the residual health risks of placing people back in communal settings after the stay at home order is lifted.

V2VR is rooted in issues flagged by the DC Grassroots Planning Coalition, ANCs, residents, and organizers for the past few years now, which were further amplified during the critiques made of the Mayor’s Housing Initiative regarding her 36,000 unit number and how the Mayor couldn’t know the true need without taking full inventory of the current housing stock and vacancies – let alone the fact that the 36,000 number doesn’t align with the 40,000 households still on voucher waitlists. The plan is informed by information gathered from many developer-based events, presentations, and court hearings, in addition to collective work around the Comprehensive Plan and client-based efforts within the CAHP system and ICH. It incorporates general and specific feedback from community-led groups, ANCs, organizers, neighborhood association members, attorneys, and law students. 

Underlying Principles and Questions to Consider

  • Do we believe housing is a human right?
  • Do we believe that habitable units should sit vacant for the purpose of producing a financial profit, while people without homes are at a heightened risk of contracting and/or spreading illnesses by living in communal settings?
  • Do we believe that the DC government is doing enough to help the homeless and housing unstable?
  • Do we believe that there are plausible solutions to mitigate, address, and resolve the housing crisis?
  • Do we believe people should be moved back into communal settings or on the street after the stay at home order is lifted? Or, put another way, do we believe communal shelters will continue to pose increased health risks after the stay at home order is lifted?

The Data

Vacancies

As of November 15, 2019, DC had almost 10,000 vacant apartment units across about 3000 buildings. Over 4000 of the vacant units were upscale, luxury Class A apartments; 2700 were Class B, and 3,100 were Class C. This means that while Class A units are 26.3% of units in DC, they are 40.5% of vacancies. Class Asimilarly accounted for 91.8% of new housing on the market between 2018 and 2019, 96.5% of increase in occupied units, and 83.6% of units under construction.

See CFO document, p. 9 (Dec. 20, 2019); see also Multifamily Housing Classifications (class definitions). 

Unhoused

In January 2020, 6,380 people were counted as homeless on one given night during the annual point in time count, though that number is low: In the 2018-2019 school year, 7,728 different elementary and secondary education students in DC identified as experiencing homelessness. 

See 2020 Point-in-Time Count (June 10, 2020); Regional 2020 Point in Time Count Analysis (June 10, 2020); OSSE Homeless Counts 2018-2019.

IN SHELTER: On March 29, 2020, 1,330 single people stayed in one of DC’s nine Department of Human Services-run communal shelters, and 280 families consisting of 371 adults and 508 children stayed in motels set up as Department of Human Services overflow shelters. As of July 28, 2020, 886 individuals stayed in communal shelters; 94 families with 135 adults and 180 children stayed in overflow motels; and hundreds of additional families in short-term family shelters. This does not include the 1000+ individuals staying at private communal shelters that are not directly managed by the local government. 

See The Community Partnership Census Data (March 29, 2020; July 28, 2020).

ON THE STREET: The 2020 Point-in-Time Count listed over 600 people staying on the street, such as in tent encampments. 2020 Point-in-Time Count (June 10, 2020)

DOUBLED UP: It is incredibly difficult to get an accurate count of people who are homeless and staying with friends, families, and acquaintances. 

Incarcerated

DC has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country and, thus, the world

See The Sentencing Project (September 2019).

The average daily population in the Department of Corrections facilities within DC for 2019 was 1,910 people.

DOC Facts and Figures (January 2020).

DC has a jail but not a prison, meaning people are sent across the country when they are convicted of crimes with prison terms.

National and International Initiatives

National Homes Guarantee Housing Justice Platform and Housing Justice Platform COVID memo 

  • “The federal government must take unprecedented action to convert vacant hotel and motel rooms, dorms, schools, hospitals, and large stadiums into housing for people who need it, by exercising eminent domain, and incentivize state and local governments to do the same.” (Though this focuses on hotels and dorms, the implementation at the state and city level can go beyond and be sustainable, which is a practical extension of the initial platform in terms of guaranteeing housing as a human right.) 

United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing COVID-19 Guidance Notes 

  • “Public authorities should be empowered to make available privately-owned vacant housing or secondary homes.” 
  • “Where feasible and appropriate, governments should purchase available short and long-term housing units to ensure that homeless populations are housed during and after the pandemic and as a means of increasing their public assets.”

The Reason

Everyone must social distance in order to stop the spread of COVID-19.

The CDC issued social distancing protocols beginning in March 2020 in the U.S. DC followed suit and issued a stay-at-home order on March 30, 2020. See CDC website; https://coronavirus.dc.gov/.

People in communal settings cannot properly social distance and are at a greater risk of infection due to their proximity to each other. 

  • As of April 18, 2020, 94 individuals in shelter had tested positive for COVID-19, 243 from shelter were in remote quarantine because they could not physically social distance in shelter, and 6 people in the homeless services system have died due to COVID. By July 28, 2020, 332 people tested positive, 67 were in remote quarantine, and 21 people had passed due to COVID. 400 people deemed medically vulnerable and staying either in a communal shelter or on the street are on a waitlist to access a hotel room. See Human Services Agency COVID-19 Case Data (April 18, 2020; July 28, 2020)
  • As of April 18, 2020, 82 residents in the DC Department of Corrections’ custody had also tested positive, while 880 were in quarantine and 1 had passed due to the virus. By July 28, 2020, 209 had tested positive, 68 were in quarantine, 1,233 had returned to the general population at the end of their quarantine, and 1 person had passed due to COVID. See Public Safety Agency COVID-19 Case Data (April 18, 2020)

Housing is a human right and need.

By housing people from concentrated settings into individualized units, DC will simply be implementing a strategy decision-makers have promoted for years: the “deconcentration of poverty.” The most concentrated areas of poverty are communal shelters, family shelters, jails, prisons, and immigration detention facilities. Now is the time. It is literally a matter of life and death. Just like the virus doesn’t discriminate against who it takes, DC must stop discriminating, or allowing others to discriminate, against who it safely houses.

Housing is physical healthcare.

People are less likely to get sick in their own units than they are in communal living settings or on the street. Housing reduces healthcare costs, prevents an even greater backlog of hospital stays, and therefore also increases protections for healthcare professionals working in facilities that may become overburdened by COVID cases, which puts those individuals, their families, and any other people they are in contact with at an even greater risk.

Housing is mental and emotional healthcare.

People will likely be less stressed than they are in communal living settings, as the risk of their contracting a communicable disease like COVID is much lower, as is the risk to their belongings. They will have access to their own space and can control the cleaning and social distancing, but with support if needed. Unlike hotels, dorms, and other temporary spaces, people will be able to find stability in a long-term housing option, rather than having to go back to a communal setting or onto the street once they are done quarantining.

Homelessness and incarceration are expensive.

In 2017, DC was paying $60,000 to $80,000 a night to shelter homeless families in hotels and motels because the family shelter at the time, DC General, was at capacity. See Washington City Paper Article (April 2017); Street Sense media article (Nov. 2017). In the DC 2019 (FY2020) budget, DC spent over $170 million on the Department of Corrections. See Department of Corrections Facts and Figures (April 2020).

The Method

Make the financing work. DC routinely gives money and land to companies to finance development projects, in attempts to stimulate economic development. Why not use this same tactic to spur economic development by providing housing stability, and thus healthcare, to people who are currently not housed or who are housing unstable? The ideas below show that funding mechanisms exist to accomplish this goal, even if they haven’t been thought of in this way. They are not meant to argue for the further use of TIFs, for example, which have been critiqued heavily as failing to provide meaningful investments to existing communities and rather serving as tools of gentrification. These ideas simply make the case that if we can create creative financing mechanisms to financially benefit developers and investors, we should be able to adjust the way we view these methods and make them work for individual people instead.

Tax Increment Financing” for individuals

Under tax increment financing, the DC government gives private companies money up front to finance large projects. These companies often will not otherwise qualify for a loan from a bank due to the high-risk nature of that particular project. DC then hopes that the money they provide is more like a loan that will be paid back through increased tax revenue that can be used for community benefits or other investments. Furthermore, DC typically does not legally require companies that receive millions in public resources to give back any money or land if they fail to provide the community benefits they contracted to provide.

Under this new model of ensuring housing stability, future profits are also unknown but are, however, likely, due to an improvement in the physical, mental, and emotional health of the apartment residents, which in turn may lead to an increase in people’s abilities to continue their education, find work, shop at local businesses, and thrive however they can and want to. What is known, though, is that community members will directly benefit from the initial investment because they will be housed. DC will reduce the cost of healthcare and the cost of temporarily housing people in hotels.

Shift the investment risk from companies to individuals

DC has often funded companies with known poor track records using public dollars to subsidize private development and ownership. See DC Auditor Report (March 2018); Article on Sanford Capital (October 2017). It is an investment choice made, assuming the benefit will outweigh the risk in the long run. If DC is willing to give breaks to corporations, why not give breaks to those powering corporations and those who are in the greatest need of housing? Let’s switch the beneficiary.

Rather than subsidizing companies, DC must shift both the investment and the risk to its people. This means DC would house people even if they didn’t have good credit or the best rental history, in hopes that the benefits of the investment outweigh the potential risks: just like with companies, some may deliver on improvements and some may not. The risk of leaving people to more readily acquire a dangerous illness, however, is much too high to allow for this to prevent the implementation of this tactic, especially when it is already used to assist corporations and private companies. This shift, this choice, is literally a matter of life and death.

Create mechanisms for rental payments

For the renters:

Individuals who move in using this model receive the first month’s rent for free, as is a common concession of many incentive programs for new renters to DC. After the first month, renters pay maximum 30% of their income on rent directly to the landlord.

To ensure long-term affordability, the vacant to virus-reduction units, once rented, could become, for example, additional inclusionary zoning units or cooperative units. This reduces the rental cost of that unit.

For the landlords:

First, DC should evaluate whether the developer/property owner complied with the conditions of any initial government subsidy they received for that development. If they did not, subtract that from the amount they are now due. Then DC can use a variety of tactics to pay landlords additional funding towards rents, if needed. There are several options available:

  • Determine the difference between the expected market rent and the affordable rent. Provide a tax abatement that balances that out, even if not fully. Part of the benefit to the property owner could be encouraging District residents to rent from them.
  • Provide renters with vouchers retroactively. This must be used wisely, as vouchers may artificially inflate the market and, with this volume, could do so tremendously and quickly. This should be done cautiously and strategically so as not to incentivize the increase of rents in order to prevent voucher holders from being able to afford units (though illegal, this is a tactic sometimes used by landlords).

Implement a Housing First approach to move people in safely and efficiently.

  • Take inventory: Identify all vacant units in residential properties, particularly in properties that have received government subsidies (tax abatements, TIFs, PILOT, cheap or free public land). Determine conditions, unit sizes, current rental costs, and cumulative percentage of vacancies in that building. Identify any current government subsidy that property management company receives for that specific property and for any other properties in DC (if that wasn’t already done). (Note: DC agencies have technical expertise in organizing databases of information like this. This was done, for example, to streamline the District Opportunity to Purchase Act (DOPA) process in order to have developers on deck to take over recently publicly purchased buildings. The same strategy could be applied to organize this information.)
  • Property manager provides latest inspection information, last time someone lived in the unit, and last time anyone was in the unit for any purpose (to determine risk to inspectors).
  • If inspection out of date, DCRA provides inspection. Someone from within the building could get certified through DCRA online inspection program they wanted to jump start, so as to limit travel of outside people into the building. Any person inspecting the unit must wear personal protection equipment (at least a mask and gloves).
  • Property management companies provide virtual tours of each unit (usually done anyway, with pictures). Inspectors can also take video of the unit and share with property management company for upload for this particular initiative, so the work is consolidated, efficient, and thorough. (ex. UrbanTurf article on virtual tours (July 2020))
  • Available units would all be placed into a database that is easily searchable and mapped out.
  • People in quarantine, in the communal living setting, or living on the street either complete a survey or interview about their housing needs (rank locations, any necessary accommodations such as an elevator) and are then matched with a compliant unit. The renter then views a virtual tour and is able to review the inspection information. This information must be complete but easy to understand and accessible in other languages, if needed.
  • If needed, hotels, dorms, and FEMA trailers can provide space for people to be isolated and socially distanced as part of the transition process from a communal setting to the apartment. Individuals would then move from there into the apartments. This may work timing wise because it may take about a month to prepare the apartments. This is true for people who are homeless, couch surfing, coming out of jail, etc. DC General campus is one location that could have FEMA tents and trailers for people leaving jails and shelters.
  • Renters are then moved as quickly as possible to the matched unit with their items. Anyone involved in the move must be provided sufficient personal protection equipment.
  • DC government provides a welcome package that includes cleaning supplies, non-perishables, how-to information with needed telephone numbers, and other necessities. Units should be already connected to the internet, and DC should think of ways to provide adequate technology to people who need access to computers, printers, etc., especially with the closure of the libraries. The welcome would also include built-in social programming that allows for individuals to stay connected and not feel isolated during the transition. This may include allowing renters to indicate if they’d like to be directly connected to other neighbors in the building, mutual aid networks in that neighborhood, or other community-building strategies to make sure they feel stable and comfortable in their new home.

The Concern

Feasibility

  • This is an idea that is growing and evolving as new information comes in.
  • This is an extension of land use and housing work People Power Action and People for Fairness Coalition have been doing for several years.
  • This plan is a starting point for actually filling a need and addressing the known demand, which includes creating housing opportunities for the over 6000 people experiencing homelessness and creating a system that may open the market to the thousands of people doubled up in overcrowded units and on the waitlist for vouchers. 

Building relationships

  • This is going to need to be rolled out strategically and will require the support of several implementing entities: ICH, DHS, DCRA, DCHA, Council, private landlords, neighbors, mutual aid networks, movers, etc.
  • The goal is to make the plan as simplified and easy to understand as possible. It uses the tools that the DC government already has on hand to ensure smooth implementation. For example, DCRA has a virtual inspection model they have already begun to implement.

The Work

Conduct general research

Conduct legal research

Review DC development projects

Conduct outreach

  • The people: impacted, organizers, neighbors
  • Private entities: developers, landlords, real estate, businesses
  • Universities/colleges: admin, staff, faculty, students
  • Government: Council, agencies, federal
  • Public health professionals
  • Media

 

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