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Housing Investments Made During the Pandemic Are Effective, But More Is Needed

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January 25, 2022: We have updated this post to reflect the total number of households served by emergency rental aid.

Substantial investments to serve people experiencing homelessness and housing instability made as part of the nation’s pandemic response are helping keep families in their homes and providing critical resources for people experiencing homelessness. Over 3.2 million households received emergency rental aid from January to November 2021, according to Treasury Department data, with over half of these households receiving aid between September and November. But more investments are needed to address affordable housing shortages, community capacity challenges, and the legacy of racist housing policies. We need bold action to fully address the homelessness crisis or it will persist, with harmful consequences for the people experiencing it and for those on the brink.

Investments made through pandemic relief bills — including the Emergency Solutions Grants-COVID (ESG-CV) program, the Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) program, Emergency Housing Vouchers, and the HOME Investments Partnerships program — have been a good start and are making a significant difference in communities that received them. As of January 19, public housing authorities had issued more than 21,000 emergency housing vouchers to households experiencing or at risk of homelessness and more than 8,000 units had been leased. ERA is highly targeted to households with the highest needs: of the households (excluding those served by tribes) served by the first allocation of ERA funds between January and September 2021, 88 percent have incomes at or below 50 percent of the area median income. ESG-CV funding has helped communities respond to the needs of people living unsheltered and in shelters, and HOME funds will help communities build permanent and supportive housing.

Families continue to face challenges in affording and securing stable housing, and people of color, children, and seniors are experiencing outsized burdens, recent data from the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey show. Over 11.5 million adult renters were behind on rent, and nearly half of those renters reported that eviction is either very or somewhat likely to occur in the next two months, according to data collected between December 29, 2021, and January 10, 2022.

More than 580,000 people experienced homelessness on a single night in January 2020 and nearly 1.5 million people experienced sheltered homelessness at some time in 2018 (the most recent data available). Unsheltered homelessness has risen every year since 2015. In 2020, for the first time since we started gathering this data, the number of people in families with children living unsheltered rose, and the number of individuals living on the street exceeded the number of individuals living in shelters.

Homelessness assistance systems face daunting challenges. Some are long-standing issues, such as the scarcity of available supportive and affordable housing units and supportive services. But some challenges — including steeply rising rents and utilities, staff turnover and burnout, and criminalization of people experiencing homelessness — have grown more severe during the pandemic. These systems need help, because they cannot and should not do this work alone.

Federal rental assistance currently reaches only about 1 in 4 eligible families due to funding limitations (see chart). This shortfall is one of the biggest gaps in the nation’s economic support system and causes families with pressing housing needs to face long waiting lists and homelessness. Giving all eligible households a voucher would lift 9.3 million people above the poverty line, one study estimated. These benefits would be greatest among people of color, who would experience the steepest declines in poverty.

76% of Low-Income Renters Needing Federal Rental Assistance Don't Receive It

Unassisted vs. assisted households, headed by someone who:

Note: Groups of household types are sized (on left) by number "needing assistance," which means they pay more than 30 percent of monthly income on housing and/or are living in overcrowded or substandard housing. "Low income" = 80 percent or less of median income. For more on how we count assisted renters, please see our federal rental assistance factsheets methodology.

Sources: Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) custom tabulations of the 2019 American Housing Survey and CBPP tabulations of 2018 HUD administrative data; 2020 McKinney-Vento Permanent Supportive Housing, Transitional Housing, Safe Havens, and Other Permanent Housing bed counts; 2019-2020 Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS grantee performance profiles; and the Department of Agriculture's FY2020 Multi-Family Fair Housing Occupancy Report.

The most important and effective step Congress can take to address this crisis is to significantly expand the Housing Choice Voucher program to make more housing affordable to extremely low-income households. Congress should also fund the construction of new units for communities that need them through well-targeted programs such as the National Housing Trust Fund. Together with investments needed to repair public housing, these resources would positively affect communities nationwide.

The Build Back Better Act, as passed by the House, includes a Housing Choice Voucher expansion that would serve about 300,000 extremely low-income households after phase-in, with about 80,000 vouchers for households experiencing or at risk of homelessness. We estimate that more than 70 percent of people served through this proposed expansion would be people of color. Congress should also enact the House’s current fiscal year 2022 appropriations proposal for a 125,000-voucher increase.

The Ending Homelessness Act of 2021 would go further, establishing a universal Housing Choice Voucher program that would provide rental assistance to all eligible households after its phase-in.

People who have experienced homelessness and housing instability consistently say that policymakers should provide sufficient affordable housing options targeted to those most impacted by structural inequity, and develop dignity-based services led by the communities that homelessness affects most. These priorities are unsurprising — every person wants and needs a safe, stable place to live and access to physical and mental health care and other services that can help them thrive.

The need is urgent, especially for historically marginalized people. It’s time to act boldly to address housing supply and affordability, to partner with people with lived expertise to define solutions, and to set communities up for success by making supportive services more accessible. We can learn from the government’s investments during the pandemic and make lasting change if we have the will to do so.