To Prevent COVID-19 Housing Instability, We Need Expanded Voucher Programs
August 27, 2020
Over the last few months, we have talked about the need for a massive investment in housing resources to offset the risk of housing instability and homelessness during COVID-19. Several different federal programs can be expanded to create an effective housing safety net. One of the most crucial is the Housing Choice Voucher program, commonly known as Section 8.
There are many benefits to funding housing assistance through a voucher program. HCVs – and similar programs, such as Connecticut’s Rental Assistance Program (RAP) – are flexible, effective, and easy to implement and scale up or down as needed. Vouchers are far from the only housing assistance program needed during COVID-19, but they are an important tool to have in preventing homelessness and preserving housing stability across the country.
One benefit of tenant-based HCVs is their flexibility. Unlike “project-based” rental assistance like low income housing tax credits or HOME, where housing subsidies are tied to a specific rental home or apartment complex, HCV money follows the person that receives it. This approach helps to ensure geographic mobility, which could be especially useful during COVID-19 when job turnover is at extremely high levels.
HCVs are also flexible by income, meaning that the subsidy can either increase or decrease to reflect changes in earning over the year. The difference is paid by the voucher, ensuring that the landlord receives their full rental payment. Again, this is especially useful during a time when tens of millions of Americans are either unemployed or underemployed.
Another benefit of HCVs is their effectiveness in preventing an acute housing crisis. A 2011 study prepared for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) concluded that “access to vouchers essentially eliminated homelessness, greatly reduced crowding and doubling up, and somewhat improved the neighborhoods in which extremely low-income families lived.” With federal and state eviction moratoriums expiring, millions of families are now at risk of homelessness. They need rapid, effective housing assistance, and HCVs are one of the many tools that should be used to prevent housing instability.
Like any housing program, HCVs are not perfect. For one, the program is not fully funded – meaning that unlike SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) most people who qualify for an HCV cannot immediately receive one. Public housing authorities that administer vouchers often have years-long wait lists that rarely open to accept new applicants. Discrimination against voucher holders is pervasive; most cities and states allow landlords to discriminate based on source of income, meaning that a landlord can decline to rent to a tenant based on their receiving an HCV subsidy. Even in states like Connecticut, where source-of-income discrimination is banned, informal (and illegal) discrimination is still common. Furthermore, HCVs are subject to certain rent-limit restrictions known as fair market rent. Because these limits way are calculated by HUD, often covering a large geographic area, certain higher-rent areas are off-limits to most HCV holders.
With the need for housing assistance at an all-time high, expanding HCV and other voucher programs has become a top priority of housing advocates. As part of their COVID-19 rent relief proposals, the National Low Income Housing Coalition recommends supplementing Emergency Solutions Grant (ESG) and emergency rental assistance funding with 100,000 new emergency vouchers. On the state level, we at the Partnership have proposed an expansion of Connecticut’s RAP program to meet the needs of renters struggling to pay for housing.
It is yet to be determined whether funding for HCVs and other housing programs will be included as part of the next stimulus package, but there are promising signs. The HEROES Act, passed in May by the U.S. House of Representatives, contains nearly $200 billion in funding for housing programs, including funding for 100,000 emergency vouchers. As of August 25, however, the Senate has still not worked out a deal on COVID-19 relief. With the need for housing assistance still unmet, expanding HCVs and other housing programs should be a top priority for the next stimulus.