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Policymakers Cut Housing Vouchers in 2017

The bill that President Trump signed into law to fund the government for the rest of fiscal year 2017 has insufficient funding to renew all of the Housing Choice Vouchers in use last year, leaving a gap of roughly 60,000 vouchers. While some state and local housing agencies can use emergency reserves to close part of the gap, tens of thousands fewer low-income families will likely receive help this year, worsening the shortage of affordable housing. Already, 3 in 4 low-income families that struggle to pay rent receive no federal rental aid.

To be sure, policymakers provided $18.36 billion in the 2017 bill to renew vouchers in use last year, which is $663 million (3.4 percent) more for housing vouchers than in 2016. This includes $60 million for 7,000 new vouchers to help homeless veterans and people with disabilities and prevent families with children from being separated due to a lack of decent, affordable housing. Policymakers deserve credit for making these important investments in a year of scarce resources.

The strong funding increase won’t suffice, however, to cover the rising cost of renewing all of the vouchers that families are using. As I explained in January, tenant incomes — particularly those of seniors and people with disabilities — aren’t keeping pace with rising rents. There are also more vouchers to renew this year, largely because policymakers reversed the voucher cuts that resulted from sequestration in 2013. Due to these and other factors, tens of thousands of vouchers will remain unfunded.

This shortfall comes at a particularly bad time. No condition facing low-income families has worsened more in recent years than the shortage of affordable rental housing. The number of renters with “worst-case housing needs” — meaning they have very low incomes, don’t receive housing assistance, and either live in severely substandard housing or pay more than half their income for housing — jumped by 6 percent from 2013 to 2015 and by 63 percent from 2001 to 2015, a recent report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development finds.

Without federal aid, this problem would be much worse: about half of the housing that extremely low-income renters can afford is affordable only because it’s supported by housing vouchers or other federal rental assistance. Vouchers are also critical to reducing homelessness — indeed, they’ve played a key role in reducing veterans’ homelessness by 47 percent since 2010.

Yet only a fraction of families that struggle to pay rent and make ends meet receive assistance, and communities across the country have long waiting lists for vouchers. Cutting vouchers this year will make it even harder for families to get help, thereby increasing and prolonging homelessness and other hardships for seniors, people with disabilities, and families with children.