Relly Brown’s ground-floor apartment near MacArthur Park still resembles the hotel room it once was: four walls, no kitchen and a mattress that takes up half the floor. A shade is drawn over the only window, keeping it dim and reasonably cool on a warm spring afternoon.
“I’m living in a box,” said Brown, 26, who was placed here in December through a program called rapid re-housing, which provides short-term rental vouchers to use on the private market. Typically, the subsidies cover security deposits and the first three to six months of rent. Rapid re-housing has become a go-to strategy for housing the homeless in LA County, accounting for one-fifth of the Measure H budget, or $73 million a year.
Brown, who doesn’t identify as male or female and uses the pronoun “they,” was among 8,222 people housed through the program last year. And despite the tiny living quarters, they’re grateful. Early last year they were sleeping on the streets of Hollywood.
“I came from a dark place,” Brown said. “It’s grand to just finally have something that I could call mine. I could come home every night, lock my door, know that I’m safe.”
But here’s the catch: After an initial period with no out-of-pocket payments (exact lengths vary), rapid re-housing tenants gradually take on the rent themselves. Usually the assistance expires within a year, though it can be extended for up to two.
Rapid re-housing was designed for people experiencing homelessness who have a good chance of paying for their own housing after a one-time boost. The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, which manages Measure H spending, is using the program to house a much wider segment of the homeless population.
“It’s flexible,” said Heidi Marston, chief program officer for LAHSA. “It can be a short-term kind of intervention…it can also be a longer term intervention.”
But New York City ran a similarly broad rapid re-housing program between 2005 and 2011, and one researcher who studied the program says it was not effective.
“Rapid re-housing became, for the city, a nightmare,” said Ralph da Costa Nunez, president of the public policy think tank the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness. “Everybody thought we were going to have this great success. We created a great number of problems that they’ve never been able to get their arms around again.”
How it works
After being placed in a home, rapid re-housing voucher holders work up to paying their full housing costs. Relly Brown had to pay a portion of their rent for the first time in April, $300. But they could only come up with $200, so the nonprofit that placed them in the apartment, St. Joseph Center, covered the rest. St. Joseph Center is one of several organizations contracted with LAHSA to administer rapid re-housing. In May Brown’s payment will double to $600. In June it goes up to $900, then continues rising until it reaches the full monthly rate of $1,200.
Brown is counting on a couple of part-time job interviews coming up, one for a company that does crowd control at events and the other at the Santa Monica Pier amusement park.
“Hopefully I’ll work both of them,” they said. “Then…when the time comes I can just pay without a problem.”
If Brown succeeds in catching up to the rent they’ll beat the odds. Only one in five people with rapid re-housing in LA County increase their incomes at all before the subsidy runs out, according to LAHSA. For those who do increase their incomes, it’s usually by $200 a month or less. In a city where the average rent is more than $2,000 a month, going from homeless to paying market rate within a year or even two is a steep climb.
LAHSA officials say they don’t expect everyone to make that ascent and sometimes use rapid re-housing as a stepping-stone to permanently subsidized housing. Some landlords, however, say tenants don’t always receive the help necessary to make that transition.
David Bensoussan, 41, is a landlord who makes his living renting rooms to people at the bottom of LA’s housing market: ex-cons, newly sober addicts and the formerly homeless. He owns about 20 houses and duplexes, mostly in South LA, which he rents to nonprofits that sublease rooms to their clients. A typical room in one of his properties goes for about $700 a month.
“I’m a left-wing, pragmatic guy who wants to keep his business, make more money and house homeless people,” Bensoussan said.
At one point, Bensoussan had more than 70 rooms dedicated to rapid re-housing clients. But the people who arrived needed much more than a room. One of his first renters in the program, he says, arrived upbeat and optimistic about his prospects for work. Within months, however, Bensoussan says the man lost weight, acted erratically and appeared under the influence of drugs.
“Sure enough,” he said, “his voucher runs out and two months afterwards he hasn’t paid any rent.”
Bensoussan says he wasn’t able to get help from the nonprofit that had placed the man, so to avoid the hassle and expense of an eviction, he gave the tenant $1,000 to leave. “No clue where he went,” said Bensoussan. He estimates that the same thing happened with two out of three of his rapid re-housing tenants. Eventually, he stopped accepting rapid re-housing vouchers.
Two other landlords shared similar complaints with KCRW.
Marston of LAHSA says it’s unusual for someone dealing with an addiction to be left in rapid re-housing without services or intensive case management.
“Individuals who have a higher service need, maybe they have mental health issues or health issues…tend to be as successful if not more successful than those who just fell on hard times,” she said. “We see equal outcomes in terms of people who are able to sustain at the end of the subsidy, which is great.”
The official numbers, however, don’t paint a complete picture.
Nearly 18,000 people have been placed in homes through rapid re-housing since July of 2016, according to LAHSA. About half are either still in the program or moved on to other forms of subsidized housing. The other half — 9,645 people — exited rapid re-housing with no ongoing subsidy. Altogether 1,155 people, or 7 percent of everyone who’s completed the program, are documented as returning to homelessness. That number is based on how many people show up to shelters and other emergency facilities monitored by LAHSA and may not capture everyone.
A Kind of Transitional Housing
Rapid re-housing falls under the “housing first” philosophy of treating homelessness. The idea is to provide a stable home before addressing other issues, like job loss, mental illness or addiction.
The City of LA is working on opening more than 24 new transitional shelters with onsite services for chronically homeless people, and building 10,000 new units of supportive housing. For now, however, rapid re-housing offers one of the quickest and most readily available ways to get a roof over someone’s head. Workers with nonprofits that handle rapid re-housing placements say that a year or more in the program can buy time to join a supportive housing waitlist, reconnect with family or work out some other long-term plan. Sometimes, after the subsidy runs out, people leave LA for places with cheaper rent.
“We’ve housed people in Bakersfield, we’ve housed people in Needles,” said Cristina Nieto, associate director for Hopics, an organization that works on homelessness prevention in South LA. With rapid re-housing, “we tell our clients…it’s not forever,” said Nieto. “It’s until we can get you sustained, where you can move or increase your income.”
For some individuals, rapid re-housing is an effective way to get back on their feet. But on a societal level, some experts say leaning too much on the program can have unintended consequences.
A Cautionary Tale?
New York’s rapid re-housing program was credited with moving about 33,000 families out of homelessness. But Nunez of the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness says more than half eventually ended up at shelters. That included some people who, prior to rapid re-housing, lived with friends or in slum conditions. So in the long run, the city didn’t make a dent in its emergency shelter demand, Nunez says.
“You have to use it with caution,” he said of rapid re-housing. “It's good for a certain segment and it's not good for the rest. This one-size-fits-all policy is a mistake.”
Nationally, research suggests that most people with rapid re-housing remain housed for the first few years after the program, but continue to struggle to pay rent. That’s partly because rapid re-housing doesn’t solve the severe lack of affordable housing that drives homelessness in cities around the country, including LA.
As Marston from LAHSA puts it, “[rapid re-housing] doesn’t address the fact that our cost of living in Los Angeles is far outpacing our minimum wage.” It’s estimated that LA County needs more than 500,000 affordable units to meet the demand, and city and county officials say more and more people are falling into homelessness for the first time.
Still, Relly Brown is optimistic. They say they’ve discussed moving into group housing with their caseworker, but they’re hoping to avoid it. But anything is better than where they were.
“You know when you think of the worst thing you can think of?” they asked. “In my mind it was going back out on the streets.”
--By Anna Scott