by Ann Oliva
Congress should act now, through the Build Back Better Act, to make historic improvements in housing assistance for people experiencing the greatest hardships.
The current system of housing assistance was insufficient long before the COVID-19 pandemic increased the number of people struggling to pay the rent. As Congress crafts recovery legislation, policymakers should make once-in-a-generation investments in key affordable housing programs, including the highly effective Housing Choice Voucher program.
These investments would help create a path toward ending homelessness and significantly reducing housing instability for households with the lowest incomes, including families with children, people living with disabilities, seniors, and others.
The budget resolution, passed in August by both the Senate and House, makes clear that the Senate Banking Committee and the House Financial Services Committee have the opportunity to make major investments in programs within their jurisdiction, which includes most federal housing programs. It is critical that policymakers meet this moment and not squander the opportunity to make the changes our nation’s housing system desperately needs.
In January 2020, months before the pandemic gripped the nation, communities across the country reported that more than 580,000 people were staying in homeless shelters or living on the street. Thirty states reported a rise in homelessness and the number of individuals living on the streets exceeded the number of individuals living in shelters for the first time since the Department of Housing and Urban Development started gathering these data.
At the same time, some 24 million people in low-income renter households — most of whom (62 percent) are people of color — paid more than half of their income for rent and utilities. People often wait years to receive rental assistance, if they can get it at all. In fact, only 1 in 4 eligible households receives assistance at all.
Today, an estimated 11.4 million adults living in rental housing are not caught up on rent.
This housing instability is felt even more acutely by people of color, people living with disabilities, and families with children.
The pandemic shined a light on the harsh realities that people experiencing housing instability and homelessness face.
If we fail to make deep and lasting investments in housing in the recovery legislation, we risk continued growth in the number of people living on our streets or in unstable situations, leading to poor economic, education, and health outcomes for millions of people, including children, who face a myriad of negative outcomes when their families are unable to afford stable housing.
Lawmakers can make significant progress toward a more stable future for millions of households with extremely low incomes with investments in three critical areas:
- Support affordability by significantly expanding the Housing Choice Voucher program. A substantial, ten-year investment in rental assistance would effectively end homelessness for families and individuals. Vouchers phased in over ten years — targeted to families and individuals with incomes below 15 percent of the area median income and extremely low-income households that include a senior or person living with a disability who receives Supplemental Security Income — could help millions of households struggling to afford rent. Vouchers are highly effective at helping low-income people afford adequate, stable housing. Rigorous research shows that vouchers sharply reduce homelessness, housing instability, and overcrowding (see third chart). They have a strong positive impact on the lives of children and they can improve children’s long-term chances for success. Vouchers can also play a critical role in advancing racial equity, since the housing problems they address are disproportionately concentrated among people of color. More than two-thirds of households participating in the voucher program are headed by a person of color. By lowering rental costs, vouchers also allow low-income people to spend more on other basic needs like food and medicine, as well as on goods and services that enrich their children’s development.
- Increase the supply of affordable housing through a major investment in the national Housing Trust Fund to build more homes affordable to people with the lowest incomes. The Housing Trust Fund is exclusively targeted to building and preserving rental homes affordable to people with the lowest incomes, who have the greatest and clearest needs.
- Preserve existing affordable housing by providing significant funding to repair public housing. Our nation loses thousands of public housing units every year. The preservation of this community asset must be included in any strategy to address America’s housing and homelessness crisis.
It’s time for Congress to make these investments and support overdue changes to fill the gaps in our housing safety net. It’s in our best interest to support homes where families and children can thrive and to put an end to our national housing affordability and homelessness crisis.
Ann Oliva is Vice President of the Housing team at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, she was the Senior Policy Advisor at the Corporation for Supportive Housing. From 2007 to 2017 Oliva was a career federal official at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), most recently overseeing the Department’s multi-billion-dollar homelessness and HIV/AIDS housing portfolio as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Special Needs.