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A Stronger Case for Restoring Housing Vouchers

Two important studies reinforce the already strong case for restoring the rest of the 100,000 Housing Choice Vouchers cut by sequestration and using a large share to reduce homelessness, our new paper explains.

  • Reducing homelessness.  Interim results from the Family Options Study — the first rigorous, large-scale evaluation of alternative strategies to reduce homelessness among families with children — found that vouchers sharply reduce homelessness and housing instability (a broader category that also includes living doubled up with friends and family), and do so much more effectively than the other interventions. 

    The housing stability that vouchers provide appears to help families in other ways as well.  For instance, children in families receiving vouchers were less likely to miss school days or change schools — and less than half as likely to be placed into foster care (which can be triggered by parents’ inability to afford suitable housing) — than families receiving no other assistance.  Adults in families with vouchers had lower rates of psychological distress, drug and alcohol dependence, and domestic violence.  (See first graph.)  Vouchers were also cost-effective relative to the other interventions tested.
  • Producing long-term gains for children.  Harvard economists led by Raj Chetty reanalyzed data from Moving to Opportunity, an experimental study of poor families in public housing in distressed neighborhoods, some of whom received vouchers to move to low-poverty neighborhoods.  Children whose families moved to low-poverty neighborhoods when they were young were likelier to attend college and less likely to become single parents as adults than control group families that did not receive a voucher; they also earned significantly more as adults.  (See second graph.

The 2011 Budget Control Act required across-the-board sequestration cuts in most discretionary programs in March 2013, including a $938 million cut for vouchers.  That forced state and local housing agencies to cut the number of families using vouchers and, as of July 2014, agencies were helping 100,000 fewer families than they had before sequestration.

Funding increases in 2014 and 2015 have enabled agencies to restore roughly a third of the lost vouchers.  But the need for housing assistance continues to grow, and the new studies highlight vouchers’ effectiveness in reducing homelessness and producing other short- and long-term gains for families. 

In the 2016 funding legislation that policymakers will negotiate over the next several weeks, they should include sufficient funding to renew all vouchers that families are using by the end of this year, provide an additional $470 million to restore the remaining vouchers cut by sequestration, and target these vouchers to reduce homelessness and meet other urgent needs.  This recommendation is similar to one in the President’s budget and would expand on provisions in the Senate Appropriations Committee-approved bill providing $95 million to help homeless veterans and vulnerable children.