Congress Should Restore Housing Vouchers

Congress Should Restore Housing Vouchers

Communities across the country face a serious affordable-housing crisis. High rents and a shortage of options strain family budgets and make it harder for low- and moderate-income people to make ends meet. Many school districts are reporting increasing numbers of homeless students and some cities, like Los Angeles, have even declared "homelessness emergencies."

Amid this backdrop, however, is one important solution: Housing Choice Vouchers, a key part of the safety net that sharply reduces homelessness, lifts more than a million people out of poverty, and helps families move to safer, lower-poverty neighborhoods.

Vouchers are federally funded but are administered by a network of state and local housing agencies. Across the country, more than more than 2 million low-income families use vouchers to rent modest units of their choice in the private market.

Federal rules ensure that vouchers are targeted at the families who need them most. Of the new households admitted each year, 75 percent must be "extremely low-income." The vast majority of vouchers go to low-income families with children, seniors, or people with disabilities. And most voucher households that can reasonably be expected to work are working or have worked recently.

The benefits of this access to affordable housing are hard to overstate. The latest Census data show that federal rental assistance lifted more than 2.8 million people out of poverty, more than half of whom likely used vouchers. Other research has shown that housing vouchers are the single most effective tool to help homeless families with kids find and keep stable housing.

Just as important, many families who receive housing vouchers use them to move out of neighborhoods plagued by extreme poverty. Groundbreaking studies released in May reaffirmed just how important housing location can be for low-income kids. Living in safer, low-poverty neighborhoods, which often have better schools, dramatically increases children's academic performance, likelihood of attending college, and income as adults.

These strongly positive results have led to bipartisan praise for vouchers. However, the success of this important program has been placed at risk by federal budget cuts known as sequestration. After sequestration caps hit the program in 2013,100,000 housing vouchers were eliminated, as most state and local housing agencies had no choice but to sharply reduce the number of families receiving vouchers.

Congress reversed a portion of the sequestration cuts in 2014 and 2015, allowing housing agencies to restore 30,000 vouchers. However, Congress urgently needs to make up the remaining lost ground and restore the remaining 70,000 vouchers to families in need, as low-income families continue to face substantial hardship. Only one in four families eligible for federal rental assistance receives it, and the growing gap between housing costs and incomes is squeezingan increasing number of low-income renters.

Unfortunately, sequestration isn't the only threat to the success of Housing Choice Vouchers. Legislation currently pending in Congress would vastly expand a program known as Moving to Work, a deregulation initiative that exempts participating housing agencies from key federal rules that hold them accountable for the way they use scarce federal funds to assist families. Such an expansion could cut as many as 85,000 fewer vouchers from low-income families.

By rejecting this ill-conceived expansion and including funding to renew every current housing voucher and restore those cut by sequestration, Congress can take a critical step to help low-income families, seniors, and people with disabilities keep a safe, affordable place to live.

Housing vouchers have a proven track record of effectiveness. Congress should recognize this and ensure that they continue to serve as a vital resource for low-income families.

Douglas Rice is a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

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