More About Barbara Sard

Barbara Sard

Sard rejoined the Center as Vice President for Housing Policy in 2011 after 18 months as Senior Advisor on Rental Assistance to HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan.

Full bio and recent public appearances | Research archive at

More Households Facing Unaffordable Housing Costs Than Before Recession

February 9, 2015 at 3:59 pm

The number of low-income households paying more than half of their income for rent or living in severely substandard housing remains 30 percent above pre-recession levels despite the improving economy, a new Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) report shows.  Policymakers should keep that in mind during this year’s budget process, when they’ll be allocating federal resources.

In 2013, 7.7 million households had “worst-case housing needs” (HUD’s measure of the most serious housing problems), the report shows — up from 5.9 million in 2007.  Most of them include a child, elderly individual, or person with disabilities.  These data don’t include many of the more than 1 million households that were in shelters or on the streets in 2013.

Nearly all (97 percent) of the 7.7 million households paid more than half of their income for rent and utilities.  Families that pay such a large share of their income for housing have great difficulty meeting other basic needs like food or medication, and they risk losing their homes if they can’t keep up with rent payments.  Recent research also has found that unaffordable housing costs can affect children’s cognitive development.

By covering the gap between what families can afford to pay for housing (30 percent of their income) and the cost of modest housing, federal rental assistance programs play a major role in reducing homelessness, housing instability, and unsafe living conditions.  But the number of families receiving HUD rental assistance rose by only 5 percent from 2007-2013, while the number with worst-case needs rose by 30 percent (see graph).  Fewer than one in four families eligible for federal rental assistance receive it due to limited funding.

Wages aren’t likely to rise enough to significantly close the gap between earnings and rental costs any time soon, so the need for rental assistance among working families, as well as elderly and disabled individuals on fixed incomes, will remain high.  The President’s budget boosts funding for HUD rental assistance by $3.8 billion in 2016 in order to provide affordable housing for about 100,000 more low-income households while maintaining assistance to more than 4.7 million families.  Most of this increase would go to restoring 67,000 Housing Choice Vouchers cut by the sequestration budget cuts.

Obama Budget Restores Lost Housing Vouchers

February 2, 2015 at 4:25 pm

The President’s budget includes a much-needed funding boost for Housing Choice Vouchers, a program that has faced deep cuts in recent years, to help more low-income families afford housing.  Restoring the cuts is particularly important given that the number of renter households paying unaffordable housing costs is at historic highs, according to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies.

The added funding would restore 67,000 vouchers cut due to sequestration since March 2013.  Combined with the budget’s voucher renewal funds for 2016 and the vouchers that state and local housing agencies will be able to restore this year, we estimate that the requested funds would fully restore the 100,000 vouchers lost due to sequestration.

Building on a successful strategy that has sharply reduced homelessness among veterans, the President’s proposal targets 30,000 of the 67,000 vouchers on homeless families, homeless veterans, survivors of domestic and dating violence, and families that need rental assistance to reunite with children in the foster care system.  Targeted vouchers have helped reduce homelessness among veterans by one-third since 2010.

In contrast, homelessness among families with children remains stubbornly high and 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.

Nationally, more than 1.2 million children attending public schools lack a home of their own, according to school districts’ latest reports.  When you include homeless children not enrolled in school, the total approaches 2.5 million, the National Center on Family Homelessness estimates.

Targeting vouchers on the most vulnerable people both reduces homelessness and provides safety and stability to families — particularly to children, which can improve their health, school performance, and chances of long-term success in life.  A recent Washington Post story illustrates how a home can transform the lives of people who had been homeless for years, while cutting costs for emergency services.

We’ll discuss other important proposals in the HUD budget later this week.

Tens of Thousands Apply for Scarce Housing Vouchers

November 6, 2014 at 9:00 am

Five local housing authorities that recently gave low-income residents their first chance in years to get on a waiting list for a Housing Choice Voucher received a flood of applications. This is further evidence that the need for affordable housing far outstrips the supply — and that federal voucher funding, squeezed by the sequestration cuts, is inadequate.

In Charlotte, which awards roughly 400 vouchers a year to new recipients as others leave the program, 32,000 applied for the waiting list (see chart). Baltimore, which awards roughly 1,000-1,500 new vouchers a year, had 58,000 applicants. Indianapolis had 45,000 applicants, Austin had 19,000, and the Chicago Housing Authority expects more than 250,000 applicants by the time the application window closes later this month.

Judging from the Charlotte applicants, roughly two-thirds of those seeking help are working families and one in seven are homeless. The Charlotte applicants also included more than 600 veterans.

Submitting an application doesn’t guarantee someone a place on the waiting list, let alone a voucher. Each housing agency will hold a lottery to choose which new applicants will make it to the waiting list; those lucky people may still have to wait many years for an actual voucher. While the lottery approach has drawn some criticism, the problem isn’t the lotteries — it’s the scarcity of vouchers.

Most housing agencies didn’t provide vouchers to any new families for the year after the sequestration budget cuts hit in March 2013; indeed, by March 2014, sequestration had caused the loss of some 90,000 vouchers nationwide. With the increased funding Congress provided for 2014, tens of thousands of new families will get help. But the House and Senate funding bills that Congress has considered for 2015 (but not yet enacted) would not allow further progress to restore sequestration cuts.

The outpouring of need is only the latest sign that the post-sequestration level of voucher assistance should not be acceptable. At a minimum, policymakers should restore all of the vouchers cut by sequestration to give more families a better chance of having a safe, stable home.

Two Policy Changes Could Help Public Housing Families

October 24, 2014 at 12:21 pm

Tens of thousands of children whose families can afford decent housing by living in public housing live in extremely poor neighborhoods, as I explained yesterday.  But policymakers can take steps to improve these kids’ access to safer neighborhoods with better schools.

Congress has underfunded maintenance and repair of public housing for decades, causing a substantial loss in the number of units available as projects deteriorate.  The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) aims to preserve — and, if necessary, rebuild — distressed rental units.  By shifting money from the public housing funding streams to long-term “Section 8” funding contracts, RAD makes it easier to leverage private investment to rehabilitate and preserve public housing developments.

By making two changes to RAD, policymakers could help give low-income children longer-term access to better neighborhoods, and at the same time improve the living conditions for families that choose to stay in their current homes.

  1. Capitalize on RAD’s potential by expanding and extending the demonstration.  When Congress established RAD in 2012, it limited conversions to 60,000 public housing units — about 5 percent of the nation’s public housing stock.  By the end of 2013, HUD had already received applications to convert 176,000 units.  The Senate’s 2015 funding bill would raise the limit on conversions to 185,000 units.  (The House bill made no change.)  When policymakers return in November, they should include the Senate provision in their final appropriations bill. 
  2. Prioritize preservation of affordable units in public housing properties located in high-opportunity or improving neighborhoods.  Public housing developments located in neighborhoods where less than 20 percent of the residents are poor — home to some 84,000 families with children — would be extremely difficult to replace if they were lost.  In selecting properties to participate in RAD, HUD should prioritize properties in these neighborhoods.

Two Programs Could Boost Opportunity for Families With Project-Based Rental Assistance

October 23, 2014 at 2:36 pm

More than 700,000 low-income families with children can afford decent housing by living in public housing or privately owned properties that the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) subsidizes.  As we explain in our recent paper, for about 200,000 of these families, having an affordable place to live entails living in an extremely poor neighborhood — where at least 40 percent of the residents have incomes below the poverty line, and crime rates tend to be higher and schools lower performing.  Almost all of these families are racial or ethnic minorities (see chart).

HUD has begun two programs that could help more of these families live in higher-opportunity neighborhoods — if Congress provides sufficient funds and HUD and local partners implement the programs effectively:  the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative (CNI) and the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD).  Both programs aim to preserve and if necessary rebuild distressed rental units.  CNI also has a broader goal to revitalize the neighborhoods of the assisted properties.

In the near term, two policy changes to these programs would increase the number of families that could live in safer neighborhoods with better schools.  HUD should:

  1. Require housing authorities and other CNI grantees to offer relocating families effective mobility services. Many families forced to move during CNI-funded redevelopment likely will continue to live in private-market housing using the tenant-based vouchers provided to them as part of the relocation process rather than return to the redeveloped properties.  Effective mobility services, including recruitment of landlords in low-poverty, high-opportunity communities; effective search assistance; and policies that allow vouchers to provide sufficient subsidies to make renting in higher-cost neighborhoods feasible for families, would better set up these families for success.
  2. Encourage local housing agencies to help residents of RAD properties access housing in high-opportunity areas.  RAD requires housing agencies to allow most families in RAD developments to move with the first tenant-based Housing Choice Voucher that becomes available at their local housing agency after they have lived in the converted development for one to two years.  With RAD residents in stable housing before they’re eligible to move with a voucher, they could benefit from counseling about neighborhood options and search techniques, which will help them make the best choice for their families when a voucher becomes available.  HUD should provide guidance to agencies on best practices.

We’ll be back later today with a look at two other changes to RAD that could help low-income children over the longer term.