The Center's work on 'Housing' Issues

The Center works with state and local housing agencies and advocates to improve the effectiveness of federal low-income housing programs — particularly the Housing Choice Voucher Program. We also examine the role that well-designed housing assistance programs can play in advancing goals such as reducing the concentration of poverty.


Senate Should Follow House and Streamline Rental Assistance for People With Fixed Incomes

March 26, 2015 at 10:50 am

The Senate should move quickly to approve a measure that the House passed this week to reduce administrative costs for the state and local housing agencies and private owners that administer federal rental assistance, while easing compliance burdens for many low-income tenants.

The bipartisan Tenant Income Verification Relief Act (TIVRA), co-sponsored by House Financial Services Committee members Earl Perlmutter (D-CO) and Steve Stivers (R-OH), allows agencies and owners to review tenants’ incomes every three years — instead of annually — for households with fixed incomes helped by programs such as Housing Choice Vouchers, public housing, and Section 8 project-based rental assistance.

Currently, agencies and owners must review and verify all households’ incomes each year to determine how much rent they can afford to pay.  But annual reviews make little sense for households that receive most or all of their income from benefits such as Social Security or Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which change little from year to year.  More than half of rental assistance recipients are elderly or have disabilities (see graph), and they often have fixed incomes.

TIVRA, which is nearly identical to a proposal in the President’s 2016 budget, would produce substantial administrative savings, since income reviews are a major source of agencies’ and owners’ administrative costs for rental assistance.  It would also benefit fixed-income households, who must gather and submit information to verify their income and deductions and sometimes travel to agency offices when their income is reviewed.

Research shows that rental assistance is highly effective at reducing homelessness and housing instability.  TIVRA is one of a series of bipartisan efforts to make careful, targeted improvements to federal rental assistance while preserving the key standards and rules that have underpinned the programs’ success.  These targeted measures offer a more promising approach than radical proposals such as expanding the Moving to Work (MTW) demonstration, which eliminates important federal standards and allows agencies to shift voucher funds to other purposes, or merging rental assistance into a block grant with other low-income programs.

House passage of TIVRA is an important step, and the Senate should move promptly to enact the bill.  Congress should also build on this progress by enacting other targeted, common-sense improvements to federal rental assistance.

For example, Senators Jack Reed (D-RI) and Roy Blunt (R-MO) introduced legislation in 2013 to strengthen the Family Self-Sufficiency program, which provides financial incentives and employment services to raise earnings among rental assistance recipients.   Other proposals with bipartisan support would improve housing quality inspections, modify tenant screening rules to help rental assistance reach more homeless people, and make it easier for agencies to tie vouchers to particular buildings (known as “project-basing”) to support affordable housing development or provide supportive housing.

Fixing Sequestration Is Key to Restoring Housing Vouchers and Reducing Homelessness

March 25, 2015 at 4:14 pm

With millions of renters facing unaffordable housing costs and homelessness a large problem in many areas, policymakers should fully reverse the loss of 100,000 housing vouchers due to the sequestration budget cuts.  As our new report explains, the President’s 2016 budget would finish the job Congress began in 2014 of restoring all lost vouchers.  Unfortunately, the budget plans before the House and Senate this week not only have no plan to fix sequestration; they’d impose further cuts in programs for low-income people such as housing vouchers.

The President’s budget would renew all of the vouchers that more than 2 million low-income families — mostly seniors, people with disabilities, and working families with children — will use this year and restore 67,000 other vouchers no longer in use due to sequestration.

It would target 30,000 of those 67,000 vouchers to reduce homelessness, provide safe homes for victims of domestic and dating violence, and prevent low-income children from being separated from their families because their family can’t afford adequate housing.  This strategy of targeting vouchers on particularly urgent needs builds on the proven success of the HUD-VA Supportive Housing (VASH) program, which is largely responsible for a 33 percent drop in veterans’ homelessness between 2010 and 2014.

Also to reduce homelessness, the Obama budget funds more than 25,000 new units of supportive housing for people with disabilities who have experienced long or repeated periods of homelessness — the so-called “chronically homeless” people who live mainly on the street.  These funds are essential to meet the federal goal of ending chronic homelessness within the next several years.

The President’s budget proposes to undo sequestration and, thus, can provide the resources to restore vouchers and reduce homelessness — as well as to increase support for veterans’ services, Head Start, job training, medical research, and other critical non-defense discretionary programs affected by sequestration.  Congress should end sequestration and provide communities with additional resources to restore housing vouchers and reduce homelessness.

Three Takeaways from HUD’s 2016 Budget Request

February 12, 2015 at 4:30 pm

My latest post for the National Housing Institute’s Rooflines blog lists three key facts about the President’s 2016 budget request for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).  The full post has the details, but here are the main points:

  1. The proposed funding increase is much more modest than it may appear. Some $2.3 billion of the $6.2 billion increase reflects the expected decline in income from HUD’s mortgage insurance programs, which help fund other HUD programs. And even with the increase, total funding for HUD’s core housing assistance and community development programs would remain 6.1 percent below the 2010 level, adjusted for inflation (see graph).

  2. The lion’s share of added resources would go to sustaining rental assistance for the 4.6 million low-income families that now receive it, fully restoring Housing Choice Vouchers lost due to the sequestration budget cuts, and doing more to reduce homelessness.

    After sequestration forced state and local housing agencies to reduce by some 100,000 the number of families using Housing Choice Vouchers, Congress provided sufficient funds in 2014 and 2015 to enable agencies to restore roughly a third of those vouchers. The President’s funding request for voucher renewals should be sufficient to continue all vouchers in use this year.  The budget also includes funding to restore an additional 67,000 vouchers, which —together with the requested renewal funding — would fully reverse the sequestration-related cuts in 2016.

    Building on a strategy that has sharply reduced homelessness among veterans, the budget targets 30,000 of the restored vouchers to families, veterans, and tribal families who are homeless, victims of domestic and dating violence, and families with children who are engaged with child welfare agencies.

    And, the President requests an increase for McKinney homeless assistance grants, most of which would support the creation of 25,500 new units of permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless people.

    Overall, the budget proposals would support rental assistance for an additional 100,000 families in 2016, with most of the assistance targeted to address homelessness.

  3. The President’s budget isn’t necessarily “dead on arrival” in the Republican Congress.  The President’s budget assumes that Congress will eliminate the sequestration-level spending caps enacted under the 2011 Budget Control Act for the 2016 budget cycle, freeing up $37 billion in additional spending for non-defense discretionary programs (including those at HUD). Clearly, the House and Senate will reject this plan in drafting a budget resolution this spring.

    But while Republicans may initially reject the President’s overall spending proposal, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees will certainly consider the individual spending requests spelled out in his budget. In addition, the President and Congress will likely engage in budget negotiations at some point this year, in which case the President is expected to argue forcefully for raising the sequestration-level spending cap in 2016.

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.