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Laura Zeilinger, director of D.C.’s Department of Human Services, which supervises ERAP, has another perspective on the problem. She said told me in an interview this week that there are some cases of individuals suspected of having used the program dishonestly. Those cases are referred to DHS’s Office of Program Review, Monitoring and Investigation, she said.

But Zeilinger said DHS faces a larger challenge in ensuring that ERAP is used by the people for whom it is intended, i.e. those with sincere housing emergencies. That, she suggested, is not the inspector general’s job; rather, it — along with questions of the program’s size, scope, eligibility process and management — falls squarely into the laps of DHS, Bowser and the D.C. Council.

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And the real tests boil down to money and administration, both of which are in short supply with regard to ERAP.

The former challenge — money — is uncomplicated. During the covid-19 pandemic, the federal government allocated unprecedented sums to states and locales to help people unable to keep roofs over their heads. The District received more than $350 million for that. That money substantially augmented the city’s pre-covid $8 million program.

But the federal largesse has come and gone, and this fiscal year, the city, according to Zeilinger, is facing a demand that is higher than it can meet with $20 million. That’s the money aspect of the challenge.

As for sound administration, or lack thereof, the D.C. Council must enter the picture.

Faced with growing demand for rental assistance and slow disbursement of federal emergency funds as the pandemic reverberated in 2022, the council passed the “Emergency Rental Assistance Reform and Career Mobility Action Plan Program Establishment Amendment Act.” The law allowed applicants who are “unable to provide sufficient documentation or proof” to qualify for rental assistance to instead submit “an unsworn declaration” that “shall be considered sufficient documentation or proof to establish eligibility.” Gain eligibility for thousands of dollars in benefits from the D.C. government through self-attestation, in other words.

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After the self-certification law passed, the number of ERAP applications leaped from 4,017 in fiscal 2021 to 7,087 to date in 2024, according to DHS.

DHS officials believe the council’s law has created a perverse incentive to obtain ERAP payments. They report that landlords have told DHS that numerous tenants are falling behind on rent because they claim they have established eligibility for ERAP and are waiting to receive city payments.

The Bowser administration, I am told, is working on a legislative proposal to return the eligibility process to pre-pandemic policies requiring facts and circumstances surrounding rental arrearages be documented or otherwise established before eligibility is determined.

Will that get at the abuse of the system? One can hope. What it won’t do is eliminate the existence of low-income D.C. residents who face eviction, have fallen behind and can’t pay back rent, let alone scrape up enough money to find somewhere else to call home.

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That unfortunate reality won’t go away.

White maintains that, right now, ERAP is the most cost-efficient way to keep residents housed. Cutting ERAP and forcing residents into the streets will cost taxpayers more, he said.

White put it this way: “The average ERAP support given per applicant is $5,813.61 per year. The cost of shelter per night in our short-term family housing shelters ranges between $224.42 and $251.54, which means it costs taxpayers at least $81,913.30 per year per family. Of course, this doesn’t even account for the human suffering of homelessness and displacement.”

ERAP, of course, isn’t the only game in town. The city also has the $7 million Homeless Prevention Program for low-income families to prevent episodes of unhousing, including up to four months of rent arrears, according to DHS.

Which explains why ERAP is not a D.C. inspector general problem. Rather, it is a question of what the city’s elected decision-makers want done about both the program and those who depend on it.

And D.C. taxpayers need to know whether there’s even a consensus in the government on how to address this longstanding problem of residents who struggle to afford a home in this expensive city.

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Is this a job for the D.C. inspector general, who is charged with ferreting out waste, fraud and abuse in government? An observer might be prompted to ask that question after reading news reports that Mayor Muriel E. Bowser wants to take a meat cleaver to the city’s $68 million Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP). Bowser (D) says the program has been abused by people who aren’t really in danger of losing their homes.

Under Bowser’s proposed spending plan, the emergency rental assistance budget would be reduced from this year’s $68 million to $20 million next year. Are people who aren’t facing displacement actually abusing the system that much? Is it time to call in the sheriff?

Council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large), chairman of the Housing Committee, weighed in on that question at a recent budget hearing. “What we heard from the mayor this week was that people are gaming the system. There is no evidence of this,” White said. “There is no evidence of fraud.” In a follow-up, White told me via email, “Alleging fraud, to me, is a suggestion that the program is being used by people who don’t need it. I receive monthly updates on the number of evictions from the Office of the Tenant Advocate, and they are increasing. Nonprofits that assist residents with eviction prevention are overwhelmed.”

“All the data I can find point to a real need for ERAP,” he wrote.

Laura Zeilinger, director of D.C.’s Department of Human Services, which supervises ERAP, has another perspective on the problem. She said told me in an interview this week that there are some cases of individuals suspected of having used the program dishonestly. Those cases are referred to DHS’s Office of Program Review, Monitoring and Investigation, she said.

But Zeilinger said DHS faces a larger challenge in ensuring that ERAP is used by the people for whom it is intended, i.e. those with sincere housing emergencies. That, she suggested, is not the inspector general’s job; rather, it — along with questions of the program’s size, scope, eligibility process and management — falls squarely into the laps of DHS, Bowser and the D.C. Council.

And the real tests boil down to money and administration, both of which are in short supply with regard to ERAP.

The former challenge — money — is uncomplicated. During the covid-19 pandemic, the federal government allocated unprecedented sums to states and locales to help people unable to keep roofs over their heads. The District received more than $350 million for that. That money substantially augmented the city’s pre-covid $8 million program.

But the federal largesse has come and gone, and this fiscal year, the city, according to Zeilinger, is facing a demand that is higher than it can meet with $20 million. That’s the money aspect of the challenge.

As for sound administration, or lack thereof, the D.C. Council must enter the picture.

Faced with growing demand for rental assistance and slow disbursement of federal emergency funds as the pandemic reverberated in 2022, the council passed the “Emergency Rental Assistance Reform and Career Mobility Action Plan Program Establishment Amendment Act.” The law allowed applicants who are “unable to provide sufficient documentation or proof” to qualify for rental assistance to instead submit “an unsworn declaration” that “shall be considered sufficient documentation or proof to establish eligibility.” Gain eligibility for thousands of dollars in benefits from the D.C. government through self-attestation, in other words.

After the self-certification law passed, the number of ERAP applications leaped from 4,017 in fiscal 2021 to 7,087 to date in 2024, according to DHS.

DHS officials believe the council’s law has created a perverse incentive to obtain ERAP payments. They report that landlords have told DHS that numerous tenants are falling behind on rent because they claim they have established eligibility for ERAP and are waiting to receive city payments.

The Bowser administration, I am told, is working on a legislative proposal to return the eligibility process to pre-pandemic policies requiring facts and circumstances surrounding rental arrearages be documented or otherwise established before eligibility is determined.

Will that get at the abuse of the system? One can hope. What it won’t do is eliminate the existence of low-income D.C. residents who face eviction, have fallen behind and can’t pay back rent, let alone scrape up enough money to find somewhere else to call home.

That unfortunate reality won’t go away.

White maintains that, right now, ERAP is the most cost-efficient way to keep residents housed. Cutting ERAP and forcing residents into the streets will cost taxpayers more, he said.

White put it this way: “The average ERAP support given per applicant is $5,813.61 per year. The cost of shelter per night in our short-term family housing shelters ranges between $224.42 and $251.54, which means it costs taxpayers at least $81,913.30 per year per family. Of course, this doesn’t even account for the human suffering of homelessness and displacement.”

ERAP, of course, isn’t the only game in town. The city also has the $7 million Homeless Prevention Program for low-income families to prevent episodes of unhousing, including up to four months of rent arrears, according to DHS.

Which explains why ERAP is not a D.C. inspector general problem. Rather, it is a question of what the city’s elected decision-makers want done about both the program and those who depend on it.

And D.C. taxpayers need to know whether there’s even a consensus in the government on how to address this longstanding problem of residents who struggle to afford a home in this expensive city.

QOSHE - Many D.C. renters need help. But can the city just take their word for it? - Colbert I. King
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Many D.C. renters need help. But can the city just take their word for it?

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Laura Zeilinger, director of D.C.’s Department of Human Services, which supervises ERAP, has another perspective on the problem. She said told me in an interview this week that there are some cases of individuals suspected of having used the program dishonestly. Those cases are referred to DHS’s Office of Program Review, Monitoring and Investigation, she said.

But Zeilinger said DHS faces a larger challenge in ensuring that ERAP is used by the people for whom it is intended, i.e. those with sincere housing emergencies. That, she suggested, is not the inspector general’s job; rather, it — along with questions of the program’s size, scope, eligibility process and management — falls squarely into the laps of DHS, Bowser and the D.C. Council.

Advertisement

And the real tests boil down to money and administration, both of which are in short supply with regard to ERAP.

The former challenge — money — is uncomplicated. During the covid-19 pandemic, the federal government allocated unprecedented sums to states and locales to help people unable to keep roofs over their heads. The District received more than $350 million for that. That money substantially augmented the city’s pre-covid $8 million program.

But the federal largesse has come and gone, and this fiscal year, the city, according to Zeilinger, is facing a demand that is higher than it can meet with $20 million. That’s the money aspect of the challenge.

As for sound administration, or lack thereof, the D.C. Council must enter the picture.

Faced with growing demand for rental assistance and slow disbursement of federal emergency funds as the pandemic reverberated in 2022, the council passed the “Emergency Rental Assistance Reform and Career Mobility Action Plan Program Establishment Amendment Act.” The law allowed applicants who are “unable to provide sufficient documentation or proof” to qualify for rental assistance to instead submit “an unsworn declaration” that “shall be considered sufficient documentation or proof to establish eligibility.” Gain eligibility for thousands of dollars in benefits from the D.C. government through self-attestation, in other words.

Advertisement

After the self-certification law passed, the number of ERAP applications leaped from 4,017 in fiscal 2021 to 7,087 to date in 2024, according to DHS.

DHS officials believe the council’s law has created a perverse incentive to obtain ERAP payments. They report that landlords have told DHS that numerous tenants are falling behind on rent because they claim they have established eligibility for........

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