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Taking Stock of the Safety Net, Part 3: Helping Families Afford Decent Housing

December 16, 2011 at 3:45 PM

No one wants to spend the holidays without a safe place to call home. Yet a growing number of families with children are homeless; a recent report estimated that one in 45 children in the United States was homeless during 2010.

Also, 7.1 million households -- with 16.6 million people -- paid more than half of their incomes for rent or lived in severely substandard housing in 2009, a jump of more than 20 percent since 2007. (The Department of Housing and Urban Development [HUD] considers housing unaffordable if it consumes more than 30 percent of a household's income.)

These problems would be much worse without federal rental assistance, which enables nearly 5 million low-income households to rent modest housing at an affordable cost, typically 30 percent of household income. (Click here for state-by-state information.) More than half of these households are headed by people who are elderly or have disabilities; roughly one-third are families with children.

While their primary purpose is to help families obtain decent-quality, affordable housing and thereby avert homelessness, federal rental assistance programs also lifted about 3 million families out of poverty in 2010. And recent research shows that families that had the opportunity to use a housing voucher to move to a less-poor neighborhood are less likely to suffer from extreme obesity and diabetes -- a benefit with potentially important savings in health costs, as well as improved quality of life.

Unfortunately, only one in four households that qualify for housing assistance receives it, due to limited funding. And the number of families receiving federally funded rental assistance has remained static over the past decade, despite growing need (see graph).

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Worse, major programs that have proven effective at helping families find stable housing will serve fewer families next year, again because of limited funding.

  • The $1.5 billion for homelessness prevention that Congress provided in the 2009 Recovery Act likely averted an even sharper increase in family homelessness in 2010, yet most local housing agencies will exhaust these funds well before the end of next year.
  • HUD's final fiscal year 2012 budget cuts total program funding by $3.7 billion (9 percent) below the 2011 level. Public housing and programs that promote the production of affordable housing will face the largest cuts. But even the programs that fared relatively well in the budget -- such as the Housing Choice Voucher program, which helps more than 2 million low-income families -- will likely serve fewer families next year due to inadequate funding.

Also, the increasingly severe caps on most "discretionary" spending due to take effect starting in 2013 under the Budget Control Act will make it difficult to prevent further severe cuts in housing assistance.


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