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House Unanimously Passes Bill Improving Housing Programs

By an extraordinary 427-0 vote, the House has now passed housing reform legislation that — through its rental assistance provisions — would deliver important benefits to low-income families, seniors, and people with disabilities.  The Senate should act promptly on this important bipartisan measure.

The Housing Opportunities Through Modernization Act, which the House passed yesterday, would improve federal rental assistance programs while retaining the core characteristics that make them effective — such as income-based rents that ensure that even very poor families can keep a roof over their heads and rules targeting most assistance on the neediest families.  Moreover, the Congressional Budget Office estimated, it would reduce program costs by $311 million over five years.  (This figure doesn’t reflect amendments that the House approved, but they’ll likely have only a modest impact on costs.)  Policymakers set housing program spending each year through appropriations legislation, but the bill’s savings would enable policymakers to continue helping the current number of families at a lower cost or help more families for the same amount of spending.

As I’ve explained, the bill would:

  • Expand low-income tenants’ access to low-poverty areas with less crime and well-performing schools.  The bill allows state and local housing agencies to use more “project-based” housing vouchers in these higher-opportunity areas.  (Unlike regular “tenant-based” vouchers, which families use to rent a unit of their choice in the private market, project-based vouchers are attached to specific units whose owner contracts with the agency to rent the units to low-income families.)  Research shows that using a rental voucher to move to a low-poverty neighborhood improves children’s rate of college attendance and their long-run earnings, as well as adults’ health.
  • Help address homelessness.  The bill allows housing agencies to use project-based vouchers more to help the homeless (as well as veterans, the elderly, and people with disabilities).  It also revises the rules for inspecting units that families with tenant-based vouchers wish to rent in order to get vulnerable families into homes more quickly, while protecting them from eviction if the agency suspends payments to an owner due to housing-quality violations.  And it strengthens voucher assistance for former foster children, who face a high risk of homelessness.
  • Reduce administrative burdens for housing agencies and private owners of assisted units.  The bill streamlines the rules for determining tenants’ rents (which are based on their incomes), allowing both agencies and owners to target more resources on activities that directly benefit low-income households, such as providing supportive services and maintaining assisted developments.
  • Strengthen work incentives.  The bill encourages work by delaying rent increases for tenants who start employment or whose earnings rise because they get better-paying jobs or boost their hours.
  • Help preserve public housing and improve residents’ quality of life.  The bill gives agencies more flexibility to use public housing funds for pressing renovation needs.

The House approved a number of amendments to the bill, though most of its main provisions remained unchanged.  One amendment removed provisions changing the deductions for dependents and for child care expenses that are applied to families’ incomes when determining their rents.  The provisions were designed to reduce administrative burdens, but they would have raised rents for some families with high child care expenses (while lowering them for other families with children).  The House voted to remove them to address strong concerns by some lawmakers that the rent increases would hurt families and discourage work.