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Housing Bill Would Boost Rental Assistance’s Effectiveness

December 9, 2015 at 4:00 PM

The House Financial Services Committee approved a bill today with bipartisan support that would build on the many strengths of federal rental assistance through measured, targeted improvements that, taken together, would deliver important benefits to local housing agencies, private owners, and low-income families.  The nation needs its housing assistance programs to be as efficient and effective as possible, and this legislation — the Housing Opportunities Through Modernization Act (HOTMA) — would take major steps toward that goal.  Congress should pass these bipartisan reforms promptly, and the President should sign them into law.

As Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, a Missouri Republican, the bill’s lead sponsor, and chairman of the committee’s Housing and Insurance Subcommittee, stated: “It’s time the Congress put these changes on the President’s desk.”

The nation’s rental assistance programs help more than 5 million low-income households — most of whom are senior citizens, people with disabilities, and working-poor families with children — afford decent housing.  HOTMA, which affects the Housing Choice Voucher, project-based rental assistance, and public housing programs, would modernize federal rental assistance, reducing administrative burdens for housing agencies and private owners and providing more flexibility to further key goals such as reducing homelessness, boosting families’ access to higher-opportunity neighborhoods, and addressing much-needed public housing repairs.  It would prudently update and streamline federal rental assistance while retaining the key characteristics that have underpinned its success.   

The bill would make particularly important improvements in three areas: 

  • Providing more flexibility to “project-base” vouchers to support affordable housing development and preservation and enable more homeless families or individuals with disabilities to live in appropriate housing.  (Project-based vouchers are the largest, most available tool to create new project-based rental assistance, as we explain in a new backgrounder.)
  • Simplifying rules for setting tenant rent payments, while continuing to maintain key affordability protections.  Tenants in federal housing assistance programs generally must pay 30 percent of their income for rent and utilities, after certain deductions are applied.  HOTMA’s rent-streamlining provisions maintain this basic principle while streamlining determination of tenants’ incomes and deductions.  As a result, the bill would reduce burdens on housing agencies, property owners, and tenants.  The changes would also reduce the likelihood of errors in rent determinations. 
  • Streamlining housing quality inspections in the voucher program to encourage more private owners to participate and enable families to occupy their homes more quickly and avoid a precipitous loss of housing if their homes fall into disrepair.

Congress could extend the bill’s positive impact by adding provisions in two other areas that other bipartisan bills have addressed: strengthening the Family Self-Sufficiency program, which offers housing assistance recipients job counseling and incentives to work and save; and making the rental assistance admissions process fairer by limiting screening to criteria related to tenant suitability.

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