BEYOND THE NUMBERS
Two recent reports provide another reason why Congress should reject President Trump’s proposals to sharply raise rents on people with federal rental assistance and let housing agencies and private owners end their assistance if they don’t work a specified number of hours per week (unless they’re elderly or have a disability). We previously explained that these policies would cause hardship for low-income people — including many who already work — while likely doing little or nothing to support employment. The two reports show that the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) hasn’t adequately monitored and evaluated the impact of similar policies that some housing agencies have already implemented under a HUD demonstration.
The demonstration, called Moving to Work (MTW), lets 39 agencies receive broad waivers of laws and regulations governing the Public Housing and Housing Choice Voucher programs and shift funds from those programs to other purposes. Many MTW agencies have used waivers to raise rents for at least some low-income families, and nine agencies have established work requirements.
A report by the Urban Institute, which is conducting an extensive HUD-sponsored evaluation of MTW, concludes that “although some MTW agencies have been implementing work requirement policies for more than a decade, no systematic evaluation or attempt has been made to analyze what the impact has been on residents’ work engagement, incomes, or housing instability or on agency administrative costs.”
And a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) similarly found that due to limitations in HUD’s monitoring and evaluation process, it can’t assess how MTW’s rent and work-requirement policies affect low-income tenants. (The report separately found that MTW’s funding flexibility may have prompted some agencies to build large reserves of unspent funds and caused fewer families to receive assistance. Other data indicate this has been a serious ongoing problem under MTW.)
In addition, GAO’s report describes problems with agencies implementing hardship exemptions from higher rents. The Administration is relying on these exemptions to protect low-income people from harm under its proposal to raise rents, but experience suggests that many vulnerable families fall through the cracks. GAO found that while some agencies effectively informed families about hardship exemptions, others reportedly provided confusing information, didn’t make most tenants aware of exemptions, or didn’t respond to some families’ applications for exemptions.
Instituting work requirements and sharp rent increases on those who receive federal rental assistance would be a mistake for multiple reasons. But it’s particularly indefensible given that HUD hasn’t done enough to determine the policies’ impacts and to strengthen and enforce requirements to protect families.
Both the Urban and GAO reports include recommendations to improve the monitoring and evaluation of MTW policies. HUD already plans some such steps (mainly at the 100 new agencies it’s preparing to admit to MTW under 2015 legislation) but has said it will accept only some of GAO’s key recommendations; it should adopt the main recommendations from both reports. In the meantime, Congress shouldn’t even consider expanding work requirements and rent increases beyond MTW until the policies instituted by MTW agencies have been fully and rigorously evaluated.