The Lab @ DC
Stronger Evidence for a Stronger DC

Can a shallow, flexible rent subsidy prevent homelessness?

Can a shallow, flexible rent subsidy prevent homelessness?

Project Summary
A single missed rent payment can sometimes mean the difference between stable housing and homelessness. In 2017, the DC Department of Human Services (DHS) began a pilot program that gives families a flexible source of funds to help cover housing costs. We are testing whether the program’s flexible nature has an impact on homelessness, housing instability, and economic well-being. We expect the results to inform decisions about the design and expansion of this pilot and whether to bring more flexibility to other existing housing assistance programs.

Why is this issue important in DC?
Since 2016, the number of families experiencing homelessness in DC has decreased by 38%.1 While the District has made substantial investments and significant progress addressing homelessness, a large gap between wages and housing costs means that many families leaving the homelessness system can still struggle to maintain stable housing, even when they are employed. DC has many different tools to address housing affordability, ranging from one-time emergency rental assistance to permanent housing, but it is important that we try to use our resources to provide the right amount of assistance for each family Programs that provide smaller amounts of assistance every month —called “shallow” subsidies— may help, but families can sometimes struggle when their income or expenses fluctuate.

What are we doing?
The District wants to know if a more flexible small subsidy that empowers households to make their own budgetary decisions will improve their housing stability and allow the District to serve more families. In 2017, DHS launched a pilot rental subsidy program called DC Flex, which gives low-income, working families $7,200 to spend per year on rent for four years (or longer if the pilot is extended). Because a family’s ability to pay rent may change as their income and expenses fluctuate month-to-month,2 participants can choose how much of their DC Flex funds to spend on rent in a given month (up to their total rent amount) until the $7,200 is exhausted.

To test the impact of DC Flex, we conducted outreach to identify potential applicants and then used a lottery to randomly select 125 eligible household applicants to participate. We will compare outcomes between those who received the funds and those who didn’t to measure whether the pilot reduces homelessness or housing instability and whether it increases economic-well being.

What have we learned?
We are awaiting results. We expect the results for homelessness prevention and housing stability to be released along with a qualitative evaluation in early 2020. Results for economic well-being will be released later in 2020 due to a lag in when the data become available.

What comes next?
We expect the results to inform decisions about whether to expand the program or to adjust the program model. Our findings could also inform decisions about how flexibility is incorporated in other housing assistance programs in the District.

What happened behind the scenes?
The Lab rarely has the staff or funding to gather detailed qualitative information on programs. For DC Flex, we have been fortunate to partner with the Urban Institute to conduct interviews, surveys, and focus groups to help policymakers understand how the program is working and participants’ opinions of DC Flex. This research was made possible through a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The Urban Institute, with grant support from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, surveyed program participants to understand how the program is working. 119 participants were sent the survey, and 74 responded.

The Urban Institute, with grant support from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, surveyed program participants to understand how the program is working. 119 participants were sent the survey, and 74 responded.