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Delivering Housing Assistance More Efficiently

At a time of tight federal budgets and growing need for housing assistance, policymakers are looking to make federal rental assistance programs more efficient without hurting low-income families.  Our new report discusses proposals before Congress to do just that, by streamlining administration of the federally funded public housing and housing voucher programs.

Nearly 4,000 public housing agencies (PHAs) around the country operate the two programs, which together help more than 3 million low-income families afford housing.  Many of these PHAs are small:  three-fourths of them administer a total of just 13 percent of all public housing units and vouchers.

This imbalance creates oversight burdens and costs for both the federal government and PHAs that are disproportionate to the number of families that these PHAs serve.

Plus, the large number of PHAs in some states and metro areas — 40 small agencies plus 20 larger ones in the Boston metro area alone, for example — can make it harder for families in need of housing assistance to apply for it because they would have to apply in multiple locations to have a better chance of receiving assistance.  The balkanization of rental assistance administration also makes it harder for families to use vouchers to move to a nearby community that has better schools or more jobs because that community might be in a different PHA’s jurisdiction.

A recent bill by Senators Mike Johanns (R-NE) and Jon Tester (D-MT) would try to address the problem mostly by eliminating various federal rules and safeguards for small PHAs and making them less accountable to the federal government and local communities.

That’s the wrong approach.  For one thing, it would create two different sets of rules based on agency size, which would complicate federal oversight and could increase complexity for some low-income families and private owners renting to voucher holders.  It could cause other problems as well, such as by allowing small PHAs to require families to pay a much larger share of their income for rent than they can afford.

Other housing reform legislation before Congress — in particular, the bipartisan Affordable Housing and Self-Sufficiency Improvement Act of 2012 (AHSSIA) — would streamline and improve the public housing and voucher programs for all PHAs, not just small ones, and without posing the risks that the Johanns-Tester bill does.  (Two promising proposals in the Johanns-Tester bill would directly address the problem of too many small PHAs and should, with some changes, be part of any final legislation.)  Our report gives the specifics.

Research shows that housing assistance not only dramatically reduces homelessness but can also help low-income families live healthier, more productive lives — yet only one in four eligible families receives it, due to limited funding.  Policymakers thus should place a high priority on program reforms that — like AHSSIA — stretch federal dollars further while protecting low-income families.  Tackling the outdated proliferation of small local agencies should be part of the reform agenda.