A graphic showing the portions of Maryland and Virginia that are included in the D.C. metro area Fair Market Rent (FMR) calculation.
credit: Graphic by Robyn Di Giacinto

Things were looking up for Washington native Ronia Evans. She had been clean for two years. She was keeping busy at a regular volunteer gig at Bread for the City. And when she finally received her housing voucher, she was ready to pack up and leave her troubles behind her.

Fast forward six months: Ronia sits shuffling through a backpack full of paperwork, worried that she won’t manage to find an apartment before her voucher expires in December. She says she could give up and use it at a place in Southeast— but she’s worried that she might fall back into old habits and would prefer to live elsewhere.

“It feel like my soul is tired,” she said. “I want to move and continue to be productive. I want someone to give me a chance.”

Ronia is one of many Washingtonians who has reached the top of the D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA) wait list — which covers rental assistance programs such as vouchers as well as placement in public housing. However, now that her name had come up, Ronia found that navigating the private rental system was more challenging than expected. Despite ongoing efforts by officials to streamline the process and implement creative new programs, rising housing costs and outdated procedures spark confusion and limit choices for some benefit recipients.

DCHA manages more than 12,000 Housing Choice vouchers funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). These vouchers can follow recipients to any metro area with a similar program. DCHA also manages a smaller number of vouchers — over 3,000 – under the Local Rent Supplement Program, which is funded by the city budget and can only be used in D.C., according to Housing Authority spokesperson Christine Goodman.

The process for obtaining and using both Housing Choice and Local Rent Supplement vouchers is essentially the same. When a client gets to the top of the DCHA wait list, they undergo an eligibility interview and background check, which takes about 30 to 45 days. Voucher holders can then use DCHA’s new “Benefit’s GPS” website to find private housing that fits their needs. They meet with landlords and once the property they choose passes inspection, they can move in. DCHA gives recipients 180 days to use their voucher before it expires. And in some cases, a client’s DCHA representative may provide an extension, according to Goodman.

In practice, the process can be confusing and difficult to manage for people like Ronia, who try to navigate the system without a dedicated advocate or social worker.

And then there’s the question of how rising housing costs factor in. The number of affordable units in D.C. dropped by about half from 2002 to 2013. Now, two-thirds of low-income households in D.C. spend over half their income on housing, according to a March 2015 report from the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute.

Generally, a voucher holder pays 30 percent of their income directly to their landlords. The voucher, in theory, makes up the difference.

How much a landlord actually receives — the “submarket rent” — is based on the average rent on the open market in a given neighborhood. The submarket rent for expensive neighborhoods like Capitol Hill and Chevy Chase is set at the “Payment Standard,” or the absolute maximum DCHA will pay on behalf of any voucher holder, according to Goodman.

The Payment Standard itself is based on the Fair Market Rent (FMR) for the D.C. Metro Area as calculated at the federal level by HUD. Fair Market Rent is based on a scale of all the housing prices in a given metro area. In the D.C. Metro Area, FMR is set at the 50th percentile, meaning voucher recipients can shop for housing in the cheaper half of the housing market, according to HUD spokesperson Brian Sullivan.

D.C. originally adopted the 50th percentile, 10 percent higher than most metro areas, as part of a pilot program in fiscal year 2001 that was meant to increase housing stock. D.C. was removed from the program in fiscal year 2013 for “failing to adequately deconcentrate its voucher holders,” according to Sullivan. A 2014 study by George Mason University found that voucher recipients were heavily concentrated in poor neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River. The D.C. Metro Area has since returned to the pilot program.

This year, FMR for the D.C. Metro Area was $1440 for a studio; $1513 for a one-bedroom unit; $1746 for two bedrooms; $2300 for three bedrooms; and $2855 for four bedrooms.

If those numbers sound low, there’s a reason: the FMR for the D.C. metro area factors in parts of Virginia and Maryland where rents can be much lower than many parts of the District.

Housing data obtained from Zillow showed that in September, the median listing price for a two-bedroom apartment in D.C.’s 20001 zip code was nearly $3,400. Meanwhile, similar space in the 21702 zip code of Frederick, Maryland came out at just over $1,200. Both zip codes are included in the D.C. metro area FMR calculation. On June 15, HUD proposed a new rule for 31 metro areas, including the District, that would introduce Small Area Fair Market Rent, calculated by zip code. This would phase out the existing 50th percentile FMR. “The whole idea is to give families more choice,” said Sullivan. The announcement stated that HUD would accept public comment through Aug. 15.

In the meantime, the D.C. Housing Authority has already moved to adjust their Payment Standard to reflect local rents. In March, DCHA set its Payment Standard at 130% of the FMR. At the time, DCHA predicted that this would allow voucher recipients to afford rent in 26 of the District’s 54 rental submarkets, up from 15 out of 54 before the change.

On Nov. 14, while still trying to navigate this sea of arithmetic, Ronia got another letter from DCHA. A room had finally opened up in public housing.

It wasn’t quite the outcome she had hoped for. But for now, it was enough. “I thank God and the people who took a chance on me,” Ronia said in a phone interview.

She laughed and started talking about all the things she has to do before she moves in December. “I got to get me a bed! Other than that, I’m just taking it a day at a time.”

DCHA has received less federal funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development due to congressional budget cuts, with the exception of annual incremental increases of new HUD vouchers specifically for veterans. DCHA currently administers a total of 1,035 Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing vouchers. HUD continues to be the primary source of funding for DCHA.

Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration, for its part, has tried to address the problem with unprecedented investments in affordable housing. This year’s budget allocated $234 million to affordable housing programs, including $5.6 million for new vouchers for formerly-homeless residents whose rapid rehousing has expired and $423,000 for 20 vouchers for seniors referred by the Mayor’s Office on Returning Citizen Affairs. However, no new funding was allocated for more local tenant-based vouchers to address the DCHA wait list.