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House Bill Provides Vital Housing Aid, But More Vouchers Needed

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s coronavirus relief bill includes urgently needed funds to help low-income people rent safe, stable housing during the pandemic and deep economic downturn. Without this aid, many could face eviction and homelessness, exposing them to hardship and health risks. The final bill that the President and Congress enact should include these rental assistance funds and add more resources for Housing Choice Vouchers to help more people with the lowest incomes.

The bill has several crucial provisions to help low-income people keep a roof over their heads. It provides $100 billion for rental assistance for up to two years, which — along with the bill’s funding for emergency income assistance and increased food assistance — would go a long way toward enabling families to meet basic needs through this crisis. It also provides close to $3.5 billion to help keep families in public housing and privately owned, subsidized housing safe and housed during the crisis. And it has $11.5 billion in homelessness assistance funds to help people move out of encampments and shelters, where they risk contracting COVID-19.

Lastly, the bill provides $4 billion for housing vouchers, which help low-income families afford modest rental housing in the private market. Without these funds, many state and local housing agencies would have to cut the number of families they assist with vouchers to offset the likely increase in average voucher costs; many voucher holders have lost earnings, so agencies will need to spend more per family to help them afford rent. The funds would also support 100,000 new emergency housing vouchers for people who are homeless, at risk of homelessness, or fleeing domestic violence. These new vouchers are critical because they’re the bill’s only funding for new sustained housing assistance for people who need longer-term help.

Indeed, the final bill should fund far more than 100,000 vouchers. Before the pandemic, 568,000 people in America lacked homes, and mostly lived in group shelters or on the street. Homelessness funds in this bill and the CARES Act, which policymakers enacted in March, would help many of them move to safer, temporary housing but, once that shorter-term rental aid runs out, many of them likely won’t be able to afford housing and could land back on the streets. Vouchers would help people avoid that fate by renting modest housing until they can afford rent on their own.

Vouchers would also help other low-income people who are not homeless but need sustained help to rent safe, stable housing. For example, some families are at risk of homelessness because their current housing is severely overcrowded or substandard and thus can’t get them through extended quarantines. Others need help to flee homes where they’re exposed to violence. Like people now experiencing homelessness, these households could use shorter-term assistance to move temporarily to more secure homes but, when that assistance expires, they risk having to go back into unsafe arrangements or onto the streets.

Housing vouchers are highly effective at reducing homelessness, housing instability, and overcrowding, rigorous research shows. They only reach 1 in 4 low-income families in need today, however, due to funding limitations. With the needed funds, housing agencies could quickly distribute more vouchers. The House bill would only expand the program temporarily, since each voucher would expire (rather than be reissued to another family) when the family using it no longer needs it. But while they’re in use, the vouchers would help protect the lowest-income people who now face serious health and safety risks.