The Center's work on 'Public Housing' Issues


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.

Neighborhoods Do Matter to Kids’ Success

November 3, 2014 at 2:55 pm

Do neighborhoods matter to kids’ well-being and long-term success? Intuition says yes — indeed, families that can afford to often bet large sums that locating in good neighborhoods with strong schools will benefit their kids. A careful review of the research evidence supports this intuition.

Some observers question the value of good neighborhoods, citing findings from Moving to Opportunity (MTO), a 15-year, random-assignment study of nearly 5,000 low-income families that the federal government designed explicitly to see whether moving to low-poverty neighborhoods benefits low-income children and their families. It found that moving to lower-poverty neighborhoods yielded only mixed health results for children and no educational gains, relative to children in the control group.

But to conclude that neighborhoods don’t matter much to children is unwise. For one, it ignores the substantial research suggesting that growing up in neighborhoods of extreme poverty impairs children’s health and cognitive development — and that low-income children who grow up in low-poverty neighborhoods and attend high-quality schools can make substantial academic gains.

In addition, MTO had important limitations that may explain its disappointing educational findings. Specifically, few of the MTO families that moved to low-poverty neighborhoods stayed there for more than a few years, and most children continued to attend low-performing, racially segregated schools.

Only one-quarter of the MTO families in the experimental group (who received a housing voucher on the condition that they use it to move to a low-poverty neighborhood and remain there for at least one year) who moved at the beginning of the study were still in low-poverty neighborhoods four to seven years later. For most of the study, most experimental-group families lived not in low-poverty neighborhoods but in neighborhoods of moderate poverty, where at least 20 percent of residents were poor.

Moreover, children in the experimental group attended schools that ranked in the bottom 25 percent on state exams, on average — only marginally better than the schools of children in the control group.

In short, while strong in other respects, MTO was a weak test of the potential effects of low-poverty neighborhoods and high-quality schools on the educational achievement of low-income children. So it’s essential to consider the full body of evidence, as we did in our report.

Because neighborhoods matter to children — and nearly 4 million children live in federally assisted housing — housing policy matters, too, and policymakers should improve families’ ability to live in better neighborhoods. We’ve explained here how they can help families using housing vouchers, here how they can help those living in project-based rental housing, and here how they can help families in public housing.

The good news is they can make these changes in the near term — working with federal, state, and local agencies and philanthropic organizations — even in today’s fiscally constrained environment.