Rental Subsidies for Rapid Rehousing
- Homeless Services Network of Central Florida, Florida
"Affordable housing in Central Florida is somewhat of a myth. It’s a game of chance that not everyone’s equipped to play… The lack of affordable housing in our community drives us to reframe our strategies for assisting families to reclaim their independence and achieve housing stability. As we continue our fight in making homelessness a brief and rare occurrence, we advocate for system and community changes that allow for and create sustainable and affordable housing everywhere, because we’re not the only ones dealing with this issue."
When most people hear “Central Florida'' their minds race to vacations, palm trees, Mickey Mouse, and Cindarella’s castle. But when it comes to families at risk of homelessness, Central Florida is anything but a fairytale.
Despite Orlando’s reputation for warmth and hospitality, hundreds of households across the city are at risk of not being able to afford housing. In 2019, the National Low Income Housing Coalition ranked Central Florida as the worst in the nation for affordable housing. In 2020, the housing wage--the amount someone needs to earn in order to afford a rental home or apartment--for a modest one-bedroom in Central Florida was $20.46 per hour. This means that someone working a standard 40 hours per week would need to make about $43,000 per year just to afford that small unit. And someone in a minimum-wage job? They would need to work 96 hours per week in order to make the monthly rent.
This lack of affordable housing makes it hard for many families and individuals to keep up with an increasing cost of living. As rents tick up, families who are already living paycheck to paycheck find themselves teetering on the edge of homelessness.
The possibility of living without shelter can be traumatic and scary, especially for children and the parents striving to protect and provide for them. After all, the location and conditions in which a child grows up strongly influence their overall quality of life. For a young person, the traumatic experience of being unsheltered without a place to call home can have a life-long impact. Helping these families quickly find safe and secure housing is vitally important.
Enter rapid rehousing (RRH). Designed to be a short-term waystation for a family transitioning from a homeless shelter to a permanent home, RRH combines housing subsidies with case management to help the family stabilize before moving on. The program aims to provide just the right amount of assistance and engagement at any given time. As participants find work and increase their income, their monthly subsidy shrinks and they are responsible for assuming a greater share of the rent, in preparation for making it on their own.
On paper, this model is straightforward and tidy. But in reality, it doesn’t work for everyone--especially single mothers who are juggling the demands of caring for a family on their own. A small raise at a new job can trigger a decrease in their rental subsidy, or even make them suddenly ineligible for RRH services. Aside from the stress of unpredictable expenses and the threat of having to pack up and move on once more, losing the support of RRH can send a family’s new financial foundation crumbling.
This is known as the benefits cliff: as soon as a family is making strides towards improving their situation, they’re no longer eligible to receive the services sustaining them in the first place. The loss of these services can be abrupt and dramatic; often the dollar amount of the services lost is greater than the income growth that triggered the ineligibility in the first place. Once families fall off of this benefits cliff it becomes increasingly difficult to regain their lost ground.
Aside from the families experiencing the uncertainty of the RRH model, no one feels this tension more than their case managers. Each month, they fill out a complicated set of rent calculation forms for each of their clients. Then, they must deliver the news that a family’s share of the rent has increased or that they have become ineligible for continued services. RRH case managers find themselves functioning as rule enforcers and rent negotiators. Interactions with clients can become fraught with conflict. Trust dissolves.
This flies in the face of everything case management is designed to be--a supportive relationship built on trust to help a family reach their big-picture goals and celebrate their progress along the way. What if there were a way to avoid the case-manager-as-debt-collector scenario altogether, allowing RRH case managers to focus with their families on the other important factors so crucial for escaping poverty--like physical and mental health, educational and professional pursuits, and finding reliable transportation and childcare?
One-size-fits-all housing solutions don’t work for every family working to lift themselves out of poverty. An approach that prioritizes their unique needs above strict program guidelines might be a better way to help families in Central Florida regain their footing and achieve their dreams.
Homeless Services Network (HSN) is the lead agency for Central Florida’s Continuum of Care--a network of funders and service agencies working to secure housing for people at risk of or experiencing homelessness.
To help rebalance the case manager-participant relationship, HSN is refining Central Florida’s RRH model so that rental subsidies are calculated at a single point in time rather than monthly. Clients are thus able to rely on a predetermined, predictable rent subsidy amount rather than having to prepare for monthly recalculations based on changes in income.
This refined model allows RRH families to be aware of the exact housing subsidy they'll receive throughout their participation in the program. HSN believes the new model frees families up to use their time with their case manager to build a foundation that will prepare them for the next step on their self-sufficiency journey. Liberated from sudden rent increases, they can be more certain of the future. They can pursue employment growth and start saving money without fear that their budding financial stability will trigger a loss of needed services.
The new model may also reduce some of the administrative burden that case managers have to deal with in the traditional system. Instead of recalculating rent each month, case managers can redirect their time and energy to face-to-face time helping client families navigate obstacles, access resources, and reach their goals.
What is the effect of simplifying rental subsidies for rapid rehousing clients on housing and financial stability?
- Participants receiving the new model of RRH case management will have improved credit scores, earnings, and employment.
- They will also have improved relationships with their case managers, as well as better housing stability.
Research Study Design
LEO’s study of HSN’s new rapid rehousing model is a randomized controlled trial. When people seeking rapid rehousing services are referred to HSN, they are matched with a partner agency within Central Florida’s Continuum of Care for 10 to 12 months of assistance. After being matched with a service provider, clients are randomized to one of two groups. Those who are randomly selected to be in the control group receive the traditional rapid rehousing services, where the client’s share of rent payments is dependent on income and case managers are required to work with clients to calculate the share of rent and inform the client of their benefits changes every month. Those who are randomly selected to be in the treatment group receive the new model of rapid rehousing services, with a predictable, fixed housing subsidy for the duration of their participation in the program where case managers will spend more time working with clients to overcome personal barriers.
At the conclusion of the study, LEO researchers will compare housing, financial, employment, and case manager-relationship outcomes of those who receive the new model of RRH services with those who do not.