ANN MARIE STAUDENMAIER is an Attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, a legal advocacy group that provides low barrier, comprehensive legal services to those who struggle with homelessness and poverty. In addition to working directly with clients, she also addresses policy and implementation. This is an excerpt from a longer conversation.
What do you do?
At my organization, Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, I represent individual clients in cases unrelated to affordable housing such as helping them get benefits, etc. The larger context is that I wouldn’t have any of these clients if there was enough affordable housing in DC, and so a lot of what my office does as a whole is advocacy at the DC Mayor level and city council level about budgetary issues: getting more money in the budget for affordable housing, getting developers to build more affordable housing and less luxury housing.
Is this more lobbying individual politicians or writing legislation?
We work on legislation — like the ‘Right to Shelter,’ which describes people’s right to get into shelters and their rights once they’re in—but we also work a lot on the budget. For example, is the mayor putting enough money in the budget to build housing?
Does your organization pursue government-provided housing? Or is it just budgetary support for private development?
In DC, there is the Housing Production Trust Fund, which is meant to provide money for the government to produce some affordable housing, but the pipeline for that is so slow and convoluted that it feels like it takes twenty years to get one housing unit out of the government. In the old days, HUD provided money for local governments to build housing via public housing. Now HUD, god forbid under this president, could completely disappear. There hasn’t been new public housing built in years. I think people have just gotten used to that. It doesn’t even cross people’s minds to say that the housing authority should create more housing. They have rejiggered public housing and supposedly made it more safe and habitable, but that has not meant a net increase in housing. In DC, they do it, but they don’t do enough of it.
With this artificial binary of ‘market’ vs. ‘affordable,’ how do you address housing for the very poor?
If the developer builds a certain number of units of affordable housing, the city is the one who decides who is eligible for that housing. We’re lobbying to bring that cap down. 80% AMI [Area Median Income] is too big of a pool and cuts out a lot of people at the lowest end of the spectrum. We lobby to make it 20% AMI, for example.
Is there a world in which your organization would look to some form of housing that is off of the private market?
We had someone in our office working on a constitutional right to housing, but it hasn’t really gone anywhere. It doesn’t have the political momentum that it needs. A lot of people don’t even make the connection that homelessness is growing in the United States because there isn’t enough affordable housing. In that way, the ‘Right to Housing’ argument is somewhat dead on arrival. I hate to sound jaded, but it doesn’t have the political backing that it needs.
Could you describe the Right to Shelter legislation you helped pass?
DC is one of three jurisdictions in the country that has a so-called ‘Right to Shelter.’ There are literally three in the country that have something akin to that. But, in DC, that right only exists when the temperature is 32 degrees or below. So, it is not a year round right to shelter, it is only when the weather’s really cold. However, the ‘Homeless Services Reform Act’ that our office was instrumental in getting passed twelve years ago, codified this right to get into shelter when the temperature is too cold, and once people are in the shelter system, to make sure that their rights were respected. All these things that seem like they should exist, but before that law was passed, there wasn’t actually any legal right to any of this.
What is the confrontation between that right and the capacities of the shelter infrastructure in DC?
That is a really good question. There isn’t enough capacity. Over the last five years, the DC government has taken over a number of motels that were on the low end of the spectrum—like Motel 6, the Budget Inn—and have basically turned them into family shelters. These were regular DC motels that the government has contracted and paid a lot of money—a lot more than they would make from just tourists—and turned them into ad-hoc family shelters because they ran out of shelter space. They said it was a temporary measure…but it has now been a temporary measure for five years. Every year more and more families get into these motels. When our current mayor came in two or three years ago, she hired a Human Services director who actually started letting people in year round. Now they have run out of space in motels in DC, so they are putting people out in Maryland, but still in a part of the DC family shelter system.
Has the Right to Shelter built any momentum?
I don’t think anybody would say it has gotten us any closer to a right to housing. This is so far from housing. In my view, housing means you have a key, you lock the door, and you have your own space. That is not how the shelter system operates. If you get one of the motel places, yes, you technically have a key, but you are in a motel, and the motel staff can come in there whenever they want. It is not your own space. I don’t think that is getting us any closer to the right to housing.