How Expanding Vouchers Could Improve Housing Stability
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How Expanding Vouchers Could Improve Housing Stability

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(Photo by Will Buckner / CC BY 2.0)

In 2008, the Department of Housing and Urban Development began a study that was meant to track the impact of various types of assistance for families experiencing homelessness. The Department identified 2,282 families living in shelters in 12 cities across the United States, and randomly assigned them to four different types of interventions. One group was given a housing choice voucher, also known as a Section 8 voucher, which tenants can use to make up the difference between what they can afford to pay for housing and what landlords charge for rent. Another group of families were placed in housing with support services on a temporary basis for up to two years. A third group was given rental assistance for up to 18 months, and a fourth group was given “usual care” — left to access whatever public assistance they could without additional help.

Researchers then surveyed the families to understand how the various interventions affected their ability to remain housed, checking in with them 20 months and 37 months after they were first enrolled. What the study found was that, “Priority access to a long-term housing subsidy led to by far the best outcomes for reducing family homelessness 3 years after random assignment,” according to a summary released in 2016.

It’s one of numerous studies that show the housing choice voucher program is an important lifeline for thousands of low-income families who might otherwise be unable to find an apartment. Despite that, the federal government currently only funds enough vouchers for about a quarter of families that qualify for the benefit. In many cities, the waiting list for a voucher is years long — or closed entirely.

With its recent discretionary funding request to Congress, the Biden administration is seeking to begin expanding the program. The proposal would add $5.4 billion to the program’s budget, bringing it to a total of $30.4 billion and creating vouchers for an additional 200,000 families, beyond the 2.3 million existing voucher holders. Researchers and advocates, some of whom have been calling for the program to be funded as an entitlement for all who qualify, see the proposed increase as a positive sign.

“This is a program that has a significant evidence base of studies that support it, that say it works, that it helps people stay housed, and that it does that more cost effectively than leaving them homeless,” says Mary Cunningham, vice president for metropolitan housing and communities policy at the Urban Institute. “There just hasn’t been enough political support for this program.”

In total, the White House is proposing a $68.7 billion HUD budget for fiscal year 2022, representing a 15% increase over last year’s budget. In addition to new funding for vouchers, the proposal includes an additional $500 million for Homeless Assistance Grants, an additional $800 million to retrofit HUD-assisted housing for energy efficiency, $500 million more to the HOME Investment Partnerships Program to fund new affordable housing, and other grants to support new and safer housing in underfunded and marginalized communities. It falls short of Biden’s campaign promise calling for the voucher program to be funded so that every qualifying family can receive one. But in a statement, HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge said the request “turns the page on years of inadequate and harmful spending requests and instead empowers HUD to meet the housing needs of families and communities across the country.”

While the final budget will be negotiated in Congress, Douglas Rice, a senior fellow on the housing policy team at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, says the request would be a substantial reversal of a long and steady reduction of funding for housing vouchers and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Since the 1990s, Rice says, federal funding for housing assistance programs, as a share of the overall economy, has shrunk by about a third. At the same time, the number of low-income families paying more than they can afford for housing, and sometimes much more, has climbed into the millions. More than 62 percent of renters who pay more than half of their income are people of color, as the CBPP noted in a recent analysis. And the federal government has not effectively responded to the growing affordability crisis.

“That [budget] decline has been steady,” Rice says. “There’s been some ups and downs, but the reality is we’re spending a much smaller amount [on housing assistance] than we were decades ago.”

Vouchers are not a cure-all. As Next City has reported, landlord discrimination against voucher holders has limited the program’s success at providing mobility to tenants who want to live in neighborhoods with better employment and educational opportunities — one of its key purposes. At the same time, some landlords in places like Baltimore, as one researcher has demonstrated, have come to rely on voucher holders, and found ways to draw voucher-holders into apartments they might have a harder time renting to tenants without subsidies. Many voucher holders still live in disadvantaged communities, Rice says, and layers of discriminatory policy make it hard to move. But the voucher program is still currently one of the most effective tools the federal government has to help people find stable housing, and expanding it would only make it easier to use. Rice says he hopes that Congress will continue expanding the program, but that it’s encouraging to see the Biden administration beginning to follow through on some of the housing initiatives that were promised during the campaign.

“It’s really important that policymakers look to expand rental assistance in a much more substantial way,” Rice says. “The fact that this request did include significant resources for new housing vouchers, as well as some other key areas targeted on homelessness and so on, I think it’s an important signal of what their priorities are going to be in terms of low-income housing policy.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has only further revealed how thin the U.S. social safety net is, says Cunningham. When shutdowns began and the economy tanked, millions of people were suddenly not only unemployed but in danger of losing their homes. The U.S. government and state and local jurisdictions designed a response on the fly, and HUD itself did not play a central role, Cunningham says.

“If we had had a solid safety net, we could have just flicked the switch and said, ‘these people are protected and we’re going to provide them housing assistance,’” she says. “But instead we had to go through months and months of anticipation and doomsday scenarios of, what does it look like if millions of people are evicted? And I don’t think we’re in the clear yet.”

The White House discretionary budget request would be a step toward building a better baseline for responding to future crises, she says.

“I hope this is the start of moving toward a universal housing voucher program where everyone who is eligible for assistance can receive it,” Cunningham says.

This article is part of Backyard, a newsletter exploring scalable solutions to make housing fairer, more affordable and more environmentally sustainable. Subscribe to our weekly Backyard newsletter.

Jared Brey is Next City's housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.

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