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Improving the “Section 8” Rental Assistance Programs

The federal “Section 8” rental assistance programs — the Housing Choice Voucher and Project-Based Rental Assistance programs — have long received strong bipartisan support in Congress, and studies by the Government Accountability Office, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and others have found the voucher program in particular to be a cost-effective way to help low-income families afford decent-quality housing.

Nevertheless, members of Congress have periodically raised concerns that costs in the two programs are unsustainable and are crowding out other HUD housing and community development programs.  A new Center report shows that these concerns are overblown.  Indeed, Section 8’s share of total HUD spending has changed little since the late 1990s (see graph).

All the same, Congress and HUD can and should take steps to make Section 8 even more cost-effective without reducing rental assistance for needy families.  Specifically, Congress should:

  • Enact Section 8 reform legislation that would simplify program rules. The Section 8 Savings Act (SESA), the subject of a recent congressional hearing, contains a number of important reforms.  Last year the Congressional Budget Office estimated that a similar package of reforms would reduce program costs by more than $700 million in the first five years, while also reducing administrative burdens on the state and local housing agencies that administer the Section 8 programs.
  • Strengthen SESA to further improve the efficiency of the housing voucher funding policy. As the Center’s Barbara Sard recommended at that hearing, additional changes — such as establishing a system to shift voucher funds from agencies that are not using them to other agencies that will use them to assist families — would encourage agencies to serve as many families as possible with available funds and give Congress and HUD more tools to contain costs.

Some 3.3 million low-income families rely on the Section 8 programs to afford modest rental housing.  More than half of these families include people who are elderly or have disabilities; the rest are mostly families with children.  On average, these families have incomes of just $12,000, well below the poverty line (of $18,530 for a family of three and $22,350 for a family of four) — and many would be homeless without rental assistance.  By taking the two steps above, Congress can alleviate cost pressures in Section 8 and help sustain these critically important programs.