The Center's work on 'Budget' Issues


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.

Veterans and the Safety Net

November 11, 2014 at 1:01 pm

Veterans’ Day is an appropriate time to highlight some ways that the safety net helps many low-income veterans and active-duty members of the military make ends meet.  It’s important to note that policymakers’ actions in areas like health coverage and tax credits for working families have a big impact on veterans and their families.

SNAP (formerly food stamps):  Roughly 1.7 million veterans live in households that participate in SNAP at some point during the year, and roughly 980,000 live in households that participate in an average month.  SNAP provides an essential support for low-income veterans, who may be unemployed, working in low-wage jobs, or disabled.  Click here for more.

Housing assistance:  Roughly 343,000 veterans — most of them elderly or with disabilities — receive rental assistance to help them afford housing.  Rental assistance appears to have played a central role in the 33 percent decline in veterans’ homelessness since 2010 (see graph), and it allows veterans to devote more of their limited resources to other basic needs, like food or medicine.  Click here and here for more.

Health coverage:  Roughly 215,000 veterans in 23 states are uninsured and denied Medicaid because their state has refused to take up health reform’s Medicaid expansion.  Their income is too high for Medicaid under prior eligibility rules but too low to receive subsidies to buy private coverage through the new insurance marketplaces.  Click here for more.

Working-family tax credits:  Many families that include one or more veterans or active-duty military would lose all or part of two federal tax credits if key provisions expire as scheduled at the end of 2017.  Some 450,000 veteran and armed forces families with children would lose all or part of their Child Tax Credit; a similar number of veteran or active-duty military families would lose all or part of their Earned Income Tax Credit.  Click here for more.

Progress Against Veterans’ Homelessness Shows Value of Rental Assistance

November 10, 2014 at 3:50 pm

One cause for celebration this Veterans’ Day is the impressive recent progress in reducing homelessness among veterans described in our updated paper.  The number of homeless veterans has dropped by 33 percent since 2010, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) finds.  That still leaves roughly 50,000 veterans without homes on any single night, so we still have work to do.  But we’re moving in the right direction.

What’s behind these gains? While it’s difficult to isolate factors like the recovering economy or recent anti-homelessness initiatives, a large share of the credit likely goes to the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) voucher program, which provides rental assistance to homeless veterans in combination with case management and clinical services through VA medical centers.

Congress has funded steady increases in the number of HUD-VASH vouchers since 2008, which accounted for nearly all of the new housing vouchers funded during this period to help households without rental assistance.  As the graph shows, HUD-VASH grew in tandem with the rapid decline in veteran homelessness.  Research shows that vouchers are highly effective in reducing homelessness, so it’s no surprise that more vouchers for veterans would mean fewer veterans without homes.

Policymakers should build on this progress by funding more HUD-VASH vouchers or other rental assistance for veterans.  And they should restore recent cuts to broader rental assistance programs that help many veterans as well as other low-income people.

The encouraging decline in veteran homelessness also suggests that we could make similar progress against homelessness among other groups by targeting new vouchers on them.  Currently, fewer than one in four households eligible for rental assistance receive it due to funding limitations.

For example, 1.2 million school-age children were homeless during the 2012-2013 school year, Department of Education data show, including 940,000 whose families had to double up with other families and 300,000 living in shelters, hotels, or on the streets.  If Congress funded new vouchers for homeless or at-risk children and their families, we would likely see sharp declines over time in those figures as well.

Rental Assistance Helps More Than 340,000 Veterans Afford Housing

November 10, 2014 at 2:24 pm

Rental assistance helps 343,000 veterans — most of them elderly or with disabilities — afford housing, our updated paper shows (see graph).  It apparently played a central role in the 33 percent decline in veterans’ homelessness since 2010, and it allows veterans to devote more of their limited resources to other basic needs, like food or medicine.

Congress should keep these facts in mind as it makes funding decisions on rental assistance programs in coming weeks — decisions with high stakes for veterans and other low-income families who receive help or are on long waiting lists for it.

The Senate Appropriations Committee and the House have passed funding bills for fiscal year 2015 that, while differing in other ways, would both fund about 10,000 new housing vouchers for homeless veterans under a supportive housing program jointly administered by the departments of Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Affairs.  The final legislation should include these funds to continue the steady expansion of this successful and important program.

Most assisted veterans, however, receive rental assistance that isn’t specifically targeted on veterans, such as housing vouchers that aren’t part of the special program for homeless veterans, public housing, and Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance.  Funding for vouchers and public housing was cut deeply under the sequestration budget cuts and only partly restored in 2014.  As a result, state and local housing agencies served many fewer low-income families through the voucher program and scaled back needed maintenance and renovation of public housing.

It’s essential that Congress support efforts to reverse the sequestration cuts in the 2015 funding bill.  Both the House and Senate bills would raise funding for housing voucher renewals by more than $325 million, enough to restore some additional vouchers — though still not as many as communities lost under sequestration.  The Senate bill also provides a needed (though modest) increase in public housing funding, while the House bill would cut public housing funding further.

Veterans face large unmet housing needs.  Despite the recent progress, a HUD assessment on one night in January 2014 counted 49,900 homeless veterans.  And many veterans who are not homeless still struggle to afford housing.  In 2012, nearly 2 million low-income veterans lived in households that paid more than 30 percent of their income for rent and utilities, and 762,000 lived in households that paid more than 50 percent.  The federal government and many private-sector landlords and lenders consider housing unaffordable if it exceeds 30 percent of household income.

The final 2015 funding levels for rental assistance programs need to reflect veterans’ pressing housing needs and the important role these programs play in meeting them.

Using Private Investment to Preserve Public Housing

November 7, 2014 at 2:50 pm

As it writes the final housing appropriations bill for fiscal year 2015, Congress should include a Senate Appropriations Committee-approved provision to expand the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD).  Our new paper explains why expanding RAD makes sense, as it would help repair the nation’s public housing stock and preserve needed affordable housing for vulnerable seniors, people with disabilities, and families with children.

RAD helps local housing agencies revitalize and preserve some public housing by permitting them to convert public housing units to “Section 8” rental assistance subsidies, which in turn enables them to more easily obtain private investment for renovation.

More private investment is sorely needed; a long history of public underfunding has placed many public housing developments at risk.  In most years, housing agencies have received much less funding than they need to operate and maintain developments.  Most public housing remains in decent condition, but a 2010 study for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) found a backlog of $26 billion in unmet repair and renovation needs.

Without sufficient funds, many developments could deteriorate to the point where they will eventually have to be demolished or sold.  Since the mid-1990s, more than 200,000 public housing units have been lost and not replaced by new public housing.

Under current law, the number of units that can be converted under RAD is capped at 60,000, but the need is far greater; 124,000 more units are on a waiting list.  The Senate provision would raise the cap to 185,000.  The House-approved appropriations bill leaves the cap unchanged.

While some have expressed concern that RAD will reduce the number of affordable units, jeopardize residents’ rights, or turn control of public housing over to the private sector, RAD has substantial protections against these outcomes.  HUD and local agencies must implement those protections robustly but, overall, RAD’s benefits for residents and other low-income people outweigh any risks.