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Meeting Housing Needs of Those with Substance Use Disorders Requires More Money

President Trump and Congress have committed billions in new funding to help states and communities address the opioid epidemic and, over the next few weeks, the House is expected to move several bills to help people with substance use disorders (SUDs).  Many of these bills would improve access to important SUD services.  But one bill on the House agenda, to expand access to recovery housing for people with SUDs, takes the wrong approach:  it would divert badly needed housing aid for low-income families, seniors, people experiencing homelessness, and others.

Congress should reject that bill — the Transitional Housing for Recovery in Viable Environments (THRIVE) Demonstration Program Act — and instead help more people with SUDs obtain recovery housing by adding new funding to federal housing and health grant programs.

Recovery housing is an important part of the continuum of services for people with SUDs. It’s typically set in sober living communities — that is, homes or buildings in which every resident has sobriety as their goal — that help people access outpatient and onsite services and counseling.  Some people find this structure and support helpful in their recovery process as they seek to stabilize their lives.  Recovery housing differs from supportive housing or independent housing in the community in that residents must agree to have sobriety as a goal; in some cases, they also must participate in support services.

The THRIVE Demonstration Program Act directs the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to set aside 10,000 existing Housing Choice Vouchers each year for five years, or about $400 million in total, to cover the housing costs of residents living in transitional recovery housing. The bill, sponsored by House Financial Services Committee member Andy Barr, would create this program as a five-year demonstration.

While the bill aims to address a serious problem — the inability of many low-income people with SUDs to get recovery housing — it would reduce the availability of vouchers for people experiencing homelessness, seniors, people with disabilities, and families with children who are struggling to pay rent and make ends meet.  All vouchers that the President and Congress renew annually are already in use, and only about 200,000 vouchers become available every year to people on waiting lists when families exit the program.

The THRIVE Act would thus reduce, every year, the number of vouchers that can become available to other vulnerable people on waiting lists by roughly 5 percent — a significant loss that would undercut communities’ efforts to address homelessness and other urgent priorities.  That’s the wrong approach at a time when 3 in 4 households eligible for rental assistance don’t receive it due to funding limitations.

Given limited funding for both recovery housing and housing vouchers, policymakers should set aside some of the sizeable resources that the President and Congress have designated for opioid efforts to help meet the housing costs of people in recovery and post-recovery.  Policymakers should direct such new funding via HUD’s flexible HOME or Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) programs and programs through the Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.  These programs are better adapted to the unique requirements of recovery housing than is the Housing Choice Voucher program, which lets individuals choose their housing (rather than permanently restricting them to particular properties and support services) and typically provides rental assistance as long as it’s needed.  Moreover, administering vouchers is a complex task that recovery housing entities generally aren’t equipped to handle.

Recovery housing plays a vital role in people’s recovery from SUDs.  Stable housing enables them to get community services and supports, while housing instability can lead to stress that can trigger substance misuse and relapse.  Policymakers should invest in housing, not cut other housing resources to help people with SUDs.