About 42,000 extremely poor families — 15 percent of those assisted through the Agriculture Department’s (USDA) rural rental assistance program — could face rent increases of up to $600 a year under a proposal in President Obama’s 2015 budget.
Today, families with rural rental assistance must pay 30 percent of their income for rent and utilities. The President’s proposal would require property owners to charge families a minimum of $50 a month — even if this exceeds 30 percent of their income. Many of those who would be affected are especially vulnerable to hardship: 64 percent of households with USDA rental assistance have a head (or the head’s spouse) who is elderly or has a disability, and 135,000 children live in low-income families receiving such assistance.
USDA budget documents say that one goal of the proposal is to “encourage financial responsibility in tenants, increasing their opportunity for success on the path to homeownership.” But there is no evidence that requiring destitute families to pay $50 a month helps them get back on their feet. To the contrary, a growing body of research shows that extreme poverty — which the USDA proposal would exacerbate — does long-term damage to children’s neural development and education and employment prospects.
A second goal is to save money. USDA estimates that the policy will reduce program costs by $5 million in 2015 and $20 million annually in later years. But policymakers could surely find better ways to save $20 million a year than raising rents on some of the most vulnerable people in rural America.
USDA points out that some households with rental assistance through the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) must pay $50 minimum rents. But no major HUD program imposes a program-wide $50 minimum rent like USDA has proposed. HUD’s supportive housing programs for the elderly and people with disabilities do not charge a minimum, while the Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance program has a $25 minimum rent and state and local agencies administering Housing Choice Vouchers and Public Housing can set the minimum below $50 or have no minimum at all.
USDA has also claimed that a proposed exemption for families who would face hardship from minimum rents — modeled on similar exemptions in HUD programs — would minimize any adverse consequences. Tony Hernandez, the Administrator of USDA’s Rural Housing Service, told a House Appropriations subcommittee that households with incomes of $2,000 a year “probably would not have to pay because they would be exempted because of the hardship clause.”
But experience in the HUD programs indicates that very few would likely be exempted. As we’ve noted, the HUD hardship policies have had little impact, partly because they require tenants — many of whom have physical or mental disabilities or very low education levels — to seek out exemptions. A 2010 HUD study found that 82 percent of state and local housing agencies that chose to impose minimum rents exempted less than 1 percent of affected households. (Moreover, the minimum rent proposed by USDA would fall almost exclusively on families with incomes close to or below $2,000, so if most of those families were exempted, the policy’s savings would largely disappear.)
Families facing hardship might have an even harder time obtaining exemptions in the USDA rental assistance program, where small rural property owners with limited administrative capacity would be responsible for implementing the hardship policy. The best way to protect these families would be to reject the President’s proposal.