More About Douglas Rice

Douglas Rice

As a Senior Policy Analyst, Rice's work focuses on the impact of federal housing policy on low-income families.

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


Helping Children Avoid Homelessness

November 25, 2014 at 1:31 pm

Many American children won’t have a safe, stable home this holiday season.   Homelessness among families with children isn’t an intractable problem; federal rental assistance — like the Housing Choice Voucher program — is an effective solution.  But funding is seriously inadequate and has faced significant cuts.

Here are the numbers.  More than 1.2 million children attending public schools lack a home of their own, according to local school districts’ latest reports to the Department of Education.  Most were “doubled-up”— that is, their families lived with relatives or friends — but nearly 1 in 5 were sleeping in homeless shelters or on the street (see graph).  When you include children not enrolled in school, the total approaches 2.5 million, the National Center on Family Homelessness estimates.

While the number of families living on the street or in shelters is largely stable, it has grown alarmingly in some areas, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) finds.  In Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., for example, the number of people in homeless families has more than doubled since 2007.

The stakes for these children are high.  Children who experience homelessness or frequent family moves are more likely to develop cognitive, behavioral, and mental health problems, as well as physical health problems such as asthma, and they’re less likely to do well in school.  Children in “doubled-up” families may lack appropriate space to do homework and experience higher stress that interferes with academic performance.  Studies have found that children in crowded housing score lower on reading tests and complete less schooling than their peers.

Federal rental assistance, like Housing Choice Vouchers, enables families to get stable housing.  In a rigorous experiment in which low-income families with children received vouchers, they reduced the share of families that lacked a home of their own by close to 80 percent.

Some communities have also made strides in identifying families at risk of becoming homeless and providing rental assistance or other help to prevent them from losing their homes in the first place.

Unfortunately, fewer than one in four families eligible for rental assistance receive it due to funding limitations.  We noted recently that when five local housing authorities gave people a chance to get on their voucher waiting list, tens of thousands of families responded at each.  In Charlotte, North Carolina, which awards roughly 400 vouchers a year, 32,000 families applied.

Last year’s sequestration cuts have made things worse by forcing housing agencies to help fewer families.  Some 100,000 fewer families were using vouchers in July than before sequestration.

Thanks to a small funding boost, housing agencies are restoring some vouchers in the final months of 2014.  Congress should support these efforts by funding vouchers at the levels proposed in the Senate’s 2015 HUD funding bill.  Congress should also consider targeting some vouchers on families who are homeless or at risk of homelessness to ensure that limited funds go to moving more families into safe, stable housing.

Sequestration’s Toll: 100,000 Fewer Low-Income Families With Housing Vouchers

November 12, 2014 at 3:24 pm

Forced by the sequestration funding cuts to scale back their voucher programs, state and local housing agencies were helping about 100,000 fewer families in June 2014 than in December 2012, before the cuts took effect (see graph).  Our new paper shows that agencies are beginning to restore some vouchers to use in the final months of 2014 and explains that Congress can support these efforts by raising voucher funding for 2015, as a Senate bill would do.


The sequestration cuts have come at a particularly bad time.  The number of renter households paying unaffordable housing costs is at historic highs, according to a recent report by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies.  The “spread of severe cost burdens [where renters pay more than half their income for housing] during the Great Recession and its aftermath is particularly alarming,” it warns.

To its credit, Congress provided enough voucher funding in 2014 to enable agencies to restore some lost vouchers, and many housing agencies have begun to issue more unused vouchers to families on waiting lists.  As a result, agencies are likely to restore vouchers for between 20,000 and 40,000 families by the end of this year, we estimate.

It’s essential that Congress provide enough funds in 2015 to renew all of the vouchers issued in 2014 and make further progress in reversing the voucher losses under sequestration.  To achieve this goal, Congress should fund vouchers at least at the level that the Senate Appropriations Committee approved in June.

Otherwise, some agencies may have to retreat from their recent progress.  For instance, freezing voucher renewal funding at the 2014 level would lock in the loss of up to 85,000 of the 100,000 vouchers eliminated under sequestration.

Neighborhoods Do Matter to Kids’ Success

November 3, 2014 at 2:55 pm

Do neighborhoods matter to kids’ well-being and long-term success? Intuition says yes — indeed, families that can afford to often bet large sums that locating in good neighborhoods with strong schools will benefit their kids. A careful review of the research evidence supports this intuition.

Some observers question the value of good neighborhoods, citing findings from Moving to Opportunity (MTO), a 15-year, random-assignment study of nearly 5,000 low-income families that the federal government designed explicitly to see whether moving to low-poverty neighborhoods benefits low-income children and their families. It found that moving to lower-poverty neighborhoods yielded only mixed health results for children and no educational gains, relative to children in the control group.

But to conclude that neighborhoods don’t matter much to children is unwise. For one, it ignores the substantial research suggesting that growing up in neighborhoods of extreme poverty impairs children’s health and cognitive development — and that low-income children who grow up in low-poverty neighborhoods and attend high-quality schools can make substantial academic gains.

In addition, MTO had important limitations that may explain its disappointing educational findings. Specifically, few of the MTO families that moved to low-poverty neighborhoods stayed there for more than a few years, and most children continued to attend low-performing, racially segregated schools.

Only one-quarter of the MTO families in the experimental group (who received a housing voucher on the condition that they use it to move to a low-poverty neighborhood and remain there for at least one year) who moved at the beginning of the study were still in low-poverty neighborhoods four to seven years later. For most of the study, most experimental-group families lived not in low-poverty neighborhoods but in neighborhoods of moderate poverty, where at least 20 percent of residents were poor.

Moreover, children in the experimental group attended schools that ranked in the bottom 25 percent on state exams, on average — only marginally better than the schools of children in the control group.

In short, while strong in other respects, MTO was a weak test of the potential effects of low-poverty neighborhoods and high-quality schools on the educational achievement of low-income children. So it’s essential to consider the full body of evidence, as we did in our report.

Because neighborhoods matter to children — and nearly 4 million children live in federally assisted housing — housing policy matters, too, and policymakers should improve families’ ability to live in better neighborhoods. We’ve explained here how they can help families using housing vouchers, here how they can help those living in project-based rental housing, and here how they can help families in public housing.

The good news is they can make these changes in the near term — working with federal, state, and local agencies and philanthropic organizations — even in today’s fiscally constrained environment.

One Way to Help Poor Kids Do Better in School: Help Their Families Move to Better Neighborhoods

October 16, 2014 at 3:18 pm

Housing location makes a difference in low-income children’s short- and long-term success, as we detail in our new paper.  There’s growing evidence that violent, stressful, high-poverty neighborhoods can compromise children’s cognitive development, school performance, and health — and that low-poverty neighborhoods with high-quality schools improve low-income children’s school performance.

Many studies show strong links between neighborhood (and school) poverty and poor student academic performance.  A study led by Harvard University’s Robert Sampson showed, for example, that the verbal skills of children growing up in severely disadvantaged neighborhoods were lower — by an amount equivalent to one to two years of schooling —than those of children in better neighborhoods.  And separate studies (here, here, and here) led by New York University researcher Patrick Sharkey concluded that exposure to neighborhood violence can affect kids’ intellectual development.

These studies line up with the burgeoning research about the harmful effects on children of toxic stress, which affects young children’s brain development of in ways that undermine their cognitive skills, and can contribute to long-term health problems such as heart disease.  While much of the toxic stress research has focused on the effects of child abuse and family dysfunction, severely disadvantaged neighborhoods — particularly those where violent crime is common — can also contribute.

This leads to the question: if high-poverty neighborhoods hurt kids’ school performance, do low-poverty neighborhoods help?  The evidence here is surprisingly complex, as researchers have found it difficult to disentangle neighborhood effects from individual, family, and other influences.  But recent research provides strong evidence that low-poverty neighborhoods with high-quality schools can boost children’s achievement.

A rigorous study by RAND researcher Heather Schwartz of low-income children living in public housing in Montgomery County, Maryland, found that:

  1. Low-income students who lived in low-poverty neighborhoods and attended low-poverty schools made large gains in reading and math scores over a period of seven years, compared with other students living in public housing and attending moderate- or moderately high-poverty schools (see chart).
  2. These educational gains accrued over time, with the majority of the gains accruing in years five to seven.  Residential stability in low-poverty neighborhoods and schools thus appeared to be a crucial condition of the children’s success.
  3. Students benefited academically from living in low-poverty neighborhoods, but most (two-thirds) of the gains came from attending a low-poverty school.


The research shows that children can benefit from living in neighborhoods that provide better opportunities, but federal rental assistance programs fall short in helping families make such moves.  We’ll take a closer look at this challenge — and what federal, state, and local agencies can do to meet it — in follow-up posts.

Sequestration’s Effects Linger for Housing Agencies

September 16, 2014 at 7:47 am

The 2013 sequestration budget cuts caused severe shortfalls at state and local housing agencies that administer federal rental assistance programs, and the cuts are continuing to affect low-income families, as the New York Times reports.  Most agencies sharply reduced the number of families they assisted by not reissuing housing vouchers when the families using them left the program.  These cuts have continued into 2014, despite the fact that Congress partly reversed sequestration this year.  As of March, housing agencies were assisting some 90,000 fewer low-income families due to sequestration.

The agencies are passing the budget strain on to low-income families in other ways, too.  In New York, the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development is raising the rent for nearly one-third of the 32,000 low-income families using its housing vouchers.  This forces families to make tough choices: either absorb rent increases of as much as several hundred dollars per month or move to a smaller, lower-priced unit, if they can find one in New York’s tight rental market.

Such choices are particularly difficult for seniors, who are disproportionately affected by the rent increases in New York.  Many have lived in their current apartment for many years, and they may have difficulty navigating the process of finding, moving, and adapting to a new apartment and neighborhood.

Housing authorities across the nation — from Napa, California, to Alexandria, Virginia — have continued to make similar changes in response to sequestration.  While Congress partly reversed the sequestration cuts in 2014, many housing agencies have been reluctant to reverse rent increases or cuts in the number of families they’re assisting, due in large part to the uncertain budget outlook for 2015.

Congress has yet to complete the fiscal year 2015 budget for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which administers the housing voucher program and most other federal rental assistance programs, and it likely won’t until after the November elections.  Moreover, the HUD funding bills approved by the House and the Senate Appropriations Committee would increase housing voucher funding modestly, but not enough to cover the increase in program costs due to rising rent and utility costs.  As a result, they would risk locking in most of the sequestration voucher cuts.

As Congress completes the 2015 budget this fall, it should make a priority of fully restoring the vouchers lost to sequestration, or current voucher holders will face higher rents, while families on waitlists continue to pay unaffordable rents, risking homelessness if they fail to make ends meet.