BEYOND THE NUMBERS
By sharply expanding the Housing and Urban Development Department’s (HUD) Moving to Work (MTW) demonstration, the Senate Appropriations Committee’s 2016 funding bill for HUD and the Transportation Department would likely mean higher rents that would make it even harder for some of the nation’s most vulnerable families to keep a roof over their heads.
Normally, families assisted through public housing and Housing Choice Vouchers pay 30 percent of their income for rent, but housing agencies can require them to pay $50 a month, even if that exceeds 30 percent. MTW allows waivers of this limit (and many other program standards) and more than half of the 39 agencies in MTW today have raised rents for at least some families with little or no income — in several cases to $200 or more.
These amounts may appear modest, but many families struggle to pay even $50 a month. In their new book, $2 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, Kathy Edin and Luke Shaefer find that 1.5 million families with about 3 million children had cash incomes below $2 per person per day in early 2011. These families receive little income from work (despite often intensive efforts to find and keep a job) and usually no cash assistance, and they struggle to get small amounts from activities such as donating plasma or recycling cans. Rental assistance can greatly reduce their risk of living in severely overcrowded housing, bouncing from one temporary double-up to another, or becoming homeless. But minimum rent policies can jeopardize these benefits by making it harder for the poorest rental assistance recipients to hold their lives together.
Both MTW and non-MTW agencies must have policies to exempt families facing hardship from minimum rents, but these typically provide little protection. That’s partly because they require destitute tenants, many of whom have little education and may have trouble meeting bureaucratic requirements, to seek exemptions. For example, Edin and Shaefer report on a family of four that couldn’t pay a $25 public housing minimum rent and — despite the theoretical availability of hardship exemptions — was evicted and wound up in a motel room “that was overrun by bedbugs and had no kitchen, waiting for space to open up at the only family shelter in town.” A 2010 HUD study found that 82 percent of housing agencies that imposed minimum rents exempted less than 1 percent of affected households.
In recent years Congress has considered raising the $50 cap on minimum rents at all non-MTW agencies but has wisely refrained from doing so, partly due to the risks for vulnerable families. Congress should also prevent widespread minimum rent increases through MTW, by rejecting expansion of the demonstration (which poses a number of other risks as well) or enacting reforms to protect the neediest families.