House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s proposal to consolidate 11 safety net and related programs, including the four largest federal rental assistance programs, into a single block grant to states risks significant funding cuts to housing assistance that helps 4.7 million low-income families, as we explained last week. Today, we’ll describe how the combination of those cuts, and the possible elimination under Ryan’s plan of program rules that ensure housing stability and affordable rents, could undercut rental assistance programs’ effectiveness and put substantial numbers of vulnerable families at risk for homelessness.
Federal rental assistance programs are effective. They sharply reduce housing instability and homelessness and lift 2.8 million people out of poverty (with the bulk of these impacts coming from the programs included in the Ryan plan). These effects, in turn, are linked to educational, developmental, and health benefits that can improve children’s long-term life chances.
But Chairman Ryan’s proposal, which would give states broad latitude in spending block grant funds, could enable states to jettison federal rules that are essential to the rental assistance programs’ success, or even to eliminate one or more programs. The drops in funding that likely would occur over time would increase the risks that states would make damaging changes to housing assistance programs. The following actions are among those states could take:
- They could cut the number of families receiving rental assistance. Such cuts would cause the long waiting lists to grow longer and could occur despite Ryan’s promise that his plan would honor existing rental assistance contracts. Most assistance included in the proposed Opportunity Grant is provided through the Housing Choice Voucher and Public Housing programs, which are typically funded annually (with assistance provided through annual contracts). Most contracts with private owners under the other two rental assistance programs that Ryan would fold into the block grant also are short term, so this protection would not last long. Moreover, if states seek to shift some funds from housing programs to other uses and don’t renew a substantial share of these contracts or maintain public housing properties, cities and towns — which may have little say in state decisions on how to use the Opportunity Grant funds — could see housing developments become unaffordable for many low-income households. And if there is a perception that a state could fail to renew contracts or maintain rental subsidies, that almost certainly would make it more difficult and costly to attract private investment for affordable housing.
- They could reduce per-unit subsidy levels, since the rules that set those levels in existing rental assistance programs would no longer apply. In the Housing Choice Voucher program (which allows most participants to rent modest units of their choice in the private market), such cuts could force families to rent lower-priced units in higher-poverty neighborhoods with high crime rates and poor schools. The other three programs that Ryan would include in the Opportunity Grant (Public Housing, Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance, and rural rental assistance, which the U.S. Agriculture Department administers) tie subsidies to particular developments; in those programs, subsidy cuts could make it difficult to pay for adequate building maintenance — already a major problem among Public Housing developments — or for owners to make units available to poor families at an affordable rent.
- They could shift costs to participating families by raising rents. Rent rules currently require most assisted families to contribute 30 percent of their income for housing, a share consistent with commonly accepted standards of affordability. Rental assistance fills the gap between this contribution and actual costs, within reasonable limits that the federal and local agencies set. Some poor families who may not be able to pay higher rents might find they could no longer afford their apartments if their rents rose substantially.