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off the charts

New Book Calls for Better Targeting of Federal Housing Money

Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond — whose new book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City shows how the lack of affordable housing drives many poor families deeper into poverty — argues for expanding the Housing Choice Voucher program to serve all eligible households, rather than the one in four that now receive rental assistance due to limited funding.  “We have the money,” he points out, referring to overall federal dollars allotted for housing assistance and homeowner tax benefits.  “We’ve just made choices about how to spend it.”  This CBPP graph illustrates his point.

As our chart book Federal Housing Spending Is Poorly Matched to Need explains, the federal government provides much larger housing subsidies to higher-income people — mostly through the mortgage interest deduction — than to lower-income people, even though they’re much less likely to need help affording adequate housing. 

In 2014, households with incomes of $200,000 or more received an average housing benefit of $6,266 — more than four times the average benefit of $1,449 for households with incomes below $20,000. 

Meanwhile, nearly 8 million low-income households pay more than half of their incomes for housing, well above what the federal government considers affordable.

Policymakers could help many low-income families avoid the hardships that Desmond’s book vividly describes by putting a larger share of federal housing money where the need is, through making housing vouchers available to all eligible households or creating a renters’ tax credit.