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Making Rental Assistance Work Better for People Struggling to Afford Housing

Housing Choice Vouchers are highly effective at helping people with low incomes afford housing, but they could do better in important ways. Lawmakers should prioritize enacting legislation to make the voucher program more efficient and more responsive to the needs and choices of the people it serves, as CBPP’s Vice President for Housing and Income Security Peggy Bailey explained in congressional testimony on March 12.

Housing vouchers, the nation’s most common form of rental assistance, assist over 5 million people in about 2.3 million households, most of them seniors, people with disabilities, and families with children. Households with vouchers generally pay 30 percent of their income to rent a unit of their choice in the private market and the voucher covers the rest, up to a cap based on typical rents in the area. Research shows that vouchers sharply reduce homelessness, overcrowding, and housing instability.

But too many people aren’t able to use their vouchers. Vouchers can expire after just 60 days, even though the family may have waited years to receive the voucher. One reason vouchers can be difficult to use is that many landlords refuse to participate in the program. Sometimes this is because of bias against people with low incomes or people of color (who make up more than two-thirds of voucher holders), and sometimes landlords don’t wish to comply with program requirements (for example, to hold a unit vacant until the housing agency conducts an inspection that is required before subsidies can begin).

Vouchers can broaden families’ housing choices and help them find homes in higher-cost, lower-poverty neighborhoods, but more needs to be done to ensure families receiving assistance can move to these communities if they wish. In addition, unnecessarily strict screening and eligibility determination policies can delay assistance and deny it to some of the people who need it most.

In her testimony, Bailey outlined ten key changes (see box below) that should be part of legislation to make rental assistance more effective at helping people with low incomes — especially those with the greatest need — to rent housing of their choice. For example, policymakers should streamline requirements for housing inspections in cases where the risk of severe quality problems is low. Sens. Chris Coons (D-DE) and Kevin Kramer (R-ND) and Reps. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO) and Lori Chavez-DeRemer (R-OR) have introduced legislation that would take modest steps in that direction. But more should be done, for example by eliminating the requirement for an advance inspection when a voucher holder wishes to rent a recently built unit (where quality problems are far less common) but still allowing the family to request an inspection later if problems arise.

Other important changes include allowing voucher subsidy funds to be used for security deposits, providing funding to help voucher holders search for a home, and giving them more time to look before their voucher is revoked. Policymakers should also give housing agencies greater flexibility to promptly assist families on a provisional basis — especially those who are homeless or urgently need assistance for other reasons — even if the agency needs more time to gather all the documentation needed to verify eligibility. And they should establish demonstrations to test policies that can improve rental assistance further, such as providing rental assistance directly to renters rather than to owners.

Making the voucher program more efficient and user friendly will become even more important if policymakers substantially expand rental assistance funding — a crucial step since such funding is now inadequate, causing vouchers and other federal rental assistance to reach just 1 in 4 households in need. But program improvements would also deliver major benefits today, easing administrative burdens for housing agencies and owners and making it much easier for people with low incomes to use rental assistance to help them afford safe, stable housing.