More About Will Fischer

Will Fischer

Fischer is a Senior Policy Analyst, focusing on federal low-income housing programs, including Section 8 vouchers, public housing, and the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit.

Full bio and recent public appearances | Research archive at CBPP.org


Progress Against Veterans’ Homelessness Shows Value of Rental Assistance

November 10, 2014 at 3:50 pm

One cause for celebration this Veterans’ Day is the impressive recent progress in reducing homelessness among veterans described in our updated paper.  The number of homeless veterans has dropped by 33 percent since 2010, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) finds.  That still leaves roughly 50,000 veterans without homes on any single night, so we still have work to do.  But we’re moving in the right direction.

What’s behind these gains? While it’s difficult to isolate factors like the recovering economy or recent anti-homelessness initiatives, a large share of the credit likely goes to the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) voucher program, which provides rental assistance to homeless veterans in combination with case management and clinical services through VA medical centers.

Congress has funded steady increases in the number of HUD-VASH vouchers since 2008, which accounted for nearly all of the new housing vouchers funded during this period to help households without rental assistance.  As the graph shows, HUD-VASH grew in tandem with the rapid decline in veteran homelessness.  Research shows that vouchers are highly effective in reducing homelessness, so it’s no surprise that more vouchers for veterans would mean fewer veterans without homes.

Policymakers should build on this progress by funding more HUD-VASH vouchers or other rental assistance for veterans.  And they should restore recent cuts to broader rental assistance programs that help many veterans as well as other low-income people.

The encouraging decline in veteran homelessness also suggests that we could make similar progress against homelessness among other groups by targeting new vouchers on them.  Currently, fewer than one in four households eligible for rental assistance receive it due to funding limitations.

For example, 1.2 million school-age children were homeless during the 2012-2013 school year, Department of Education data show, including 940,000 whose families had to double up with other families and 300,000 living in shelters, hotels, or on the streets.  If Congress funded new vouchers for homeless or at-risk children and their families, we would likely see sharp declines over time in those figures as well.

Rental Assistance Helps More Than 340,000 Veterans Afford Housing

November 10, 2014 at 2:24 pm

Rental assistance helps 343,000 veterans — most of them elderly or with disabilities — afford housing, our updated paper shows (see graph).  It apparently played a central role in the 33 percent decline in veterans’ homelessness since 2010, and it allows veterans to devote more of their limited resources to other basic needs, like food or medicine.

Congress should keep these facts in mind as it makes funding decisions on rental assistance programs in coming weeks — decisions with high stakes for veterans and other low-income families who receive help or are on long waiting lists for it.

The Senate Appropriations Committee and the House have passed funding bills for fiscal year 2015 that, while differing in other ways, would both fund about 10,000 new housing vouchers for homeless veterans under a supportive housing program jointly administered by the departments of Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Affairs.  The final legislation should include these funds to continue the steady expansion of this successful and important program.

Most assisted veterans, however, receive rental assistance that isn’t specifically targeted on veterans, such as housing vouchers that aren’t part of the special program for homeless veterans, public housing, and Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance.  Funding for vouchers and public housing was cut deeply under the sequestration budget cuts and only partly restored in 2014.  As a result, state and local housing agencies served many fewer low-income families through the voucher program and scaled back needed maintenance and renovation of public housing.

It’s essential that Congress support efforts to reverse the sequestration cuts in the 2015 funding bill.  Both the House and Senate bills would raise funding for housing voucher renewals by more than $325 million, enough to restore some additional vouchers — though still not as many as communities lost under sequestration.  The Senate bill also provides a needed (though modest) increase in public housing funding, while the House bill would cut public housing funding further.

Veterans face large unmet housing needs.  Despite the recent progress, a HUD assessment on one night in January 2014 counted 49,900 homeless veterans.  And many veterans who are not homeless still struggle to afford housing.  In 2012, nearly 2 million low-income veterans lived in households that paid more than 30 percent of their income for rent and utilities, and 762,000 lived in households that paid more than 50 percent.  The federal government and many private-sector landlords and lenders consider housing unaffordable if it exceeds 30 percent of household income.

The final 2015 funding levels for rental assistance programs need to reflect veterans’ pressing housing needs and the important role these programs play in meeting them.

Using Private Investment to Preserve Public Housing

November 7, 2014 at 2:50 pm

As it writes the final housing appropriations bill for fiscal year 2015, Congress should include a Senate Appropriations Committee-approved provision to expand the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD).  Our new paper explains why expanding RAD makes sense, as it would help repair the nation’s public housing stock and preserve needed affordable housing for vulnerable seniors, people with disabilities, and families with children.

RAD helps local housing agencies revitalize and preserve some public housing by permitting them to convert public housing units to “Section 8” rental assistance subsidies, which in turn enables them to more easily obtain private investment for renovation.

More private investment is sorely needed; a long history of public underfunding has placed many public housing developments at risk.  In most years, housing agencies have received much less funding than they need to operate and maintain developments.  Most public housing remains in decent condition, but a 2010 study for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) found a backlog of $26 billion in unmet repair and renovation needs.

Without sufficient funds, many developments could deteriorate to the point where they will eventually have to be demolished or sold.  Since the mid-1990s, more than 200,000 public housing units have been lost and not replaced by new public housing.

Under current law, the number of units that can be converted under RAD is capped at 60,000, but the need is far greater; 124,000 more units are on a waiting list.  The Senate provision would raise the cap to 185,000.  The House-approved appropriations bill leaves the cap unchanged.

While some have expressed concern that RAD will reduce the number of affordable units, jeopardize residents’ rights, or turn control of public housing over to the private sector, RAD has substantial protections against these outcomes.  HUD and local agencies must implement those protections robustly but, overall, RAD’s benefits for residents and other low-income people outweigh any risks.

Rental Assistance Kept Over 3 Million People Out of Poverty Last Year, New Census Data Show

October 16, 2014 at 4:33 pm

Rental assistance programs kept millions of people above the poverty line in 2013, according to CBPP’s analysis of new Census data.  The findings highlight the central role that rental assistance plays in helping low-income Americans keep a roof over their heads.

Our analysis using the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), which accounts for non-cash benefits and taxes as well as cash income, shows that rental assistance kept 3.1 million people, including 1.0 million children, out of poverty last year (see chart).  (The SPM methodology understates the value of some types of rental subsidies, so the actual impact on poverty likely is somewhat higher than these estimates indicate.)

The SPM data don’t break down what type of rental assistance kept these people out of poverty, but for most, it likely was one of the three primary federal rental assistance programs: Housing Choice Vouchers, Public Housing, and Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance.

Rental assistance could lift many more people out poverty, but due to funding constraints only one in four families eligible for assistance receives it.  Families without rental assistance are far more likely to experience homelessness and housing instability, which have been linked to negative health, education, and developmental outcomes over the long run.

Sequestration cuts to Housing Choice Vouchers in 2013 caused tens of thousands more families to be left without the assistance they need to afford stable homes.  Those cuts were only partly restored in 2014.  When it returns in November, Congress will consider legislation setting 2015 funding levels for many federal programs.  As they weigh their options, policymakers should place a high priority on protecting funding for rental assistance to avoid exposing more of the nation’s most vulnerable people to poverty, homelessness, and hardship.

[Revised] Key Lawmaker’s Bill Would Raise Rents on Poor While Lowering Them for Better-Off Households

September 24, 2014 at 10:54 am

A new bill from Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-TX), chair of the House Financial Services Committee’s Housing and Insurance Subcommittee, would raise rents on some of the nation’s poorest families.  The bill apparently intends the rent increases to balance the possible cost of allowing the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to lower rents for families with somewhat higher incomes.  The rent increases could cause hardship — and even homelessness — for vulnerable families.

Today, families that receive rental assistance through Housing Choice Vouchers, public housing, and other HUD programs generally pay rent equal to 30 percent of their income, the maximum share that’s considered affordable.  State and local housing agencies can charge the lowest-income families a “minimum rent” of up to $50 a month.  Agencies also must allow public housing residents to pay a “flat rent” of their unit’s estimated market value, even if it’s less than 30 percent of their income (which is typically only for the highest-income residents).

The Neugebauer bill would raise minimum rents, requiring agencies to charge voucher holders and public housing residents at least $50.  The bill would also eliminate the cap on minimum rents, allowing agencies to raise rents for a large share of assisted families.  Private owners who receive direct HUD subsidies through programs such as Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance would have to collect rents of at least $50 a month — up from $25 — and HUD could raise this minimum without limit.

Housing agencies could choose whether to raise public housing and voucher minimums above $50, but many would likely do so, in part to cope with tight budgets in coming years.  Of the 39 agencies granted discretion through HUD’s “Moving to Work” demonstration to set rents outside the regular rules, more than a dozen have minimums above $50 and several have set them at $200 or higher.

As we’ve explained, many affected families would struggle to pay higher minimum rents.  Technically, housing agencies and owners must exempt families from minimum rents if they would cause the families hardship, but this requirement is poorly designed and places the burden on vulnerable families to apply for exemptions.  A 2010 study found that most agencies exempted less than 1 percent of the families subject to minimum rents.

The bill’s other provision would allow HUD to lower flat rents for some public housing residents.  In January, Congress established new standards intended to prevent housing agencies from setting flat rents below market levels, but some agencies have complained that the standards go too far and require above-market rents.  The Neugebauer bill would give HUD discretion to set flat rent standards, including authority to permit lower rents than the January law requires.  The lower rents may more accurately reflect local market rents.  But since families paying flat rents can opt instead to pay 30 percent of their income, this change isn’t needed to make their homes affordable.

The Neugebauer bill gets its priorities backwards.  The top priority of the nation’s rental assistance programs should be to help the neediest families afford housing.  Some adjustment to flat rents may be warranted but, if so, Congress should enact it without adding to the struggles of the most vulnerable rental assistance recipients.