BEYOND THE NUMBERS
A job loss, illness, or car breakdown shouldn’t threaten a family’s housing, but that’s the reality for many Americans with low incomes who experience eviction or other types of housing instability because they don’t have the resources to weather even a short-term income loss or large unexpected bill. Senators Michael Bennet and Rob Portman have introduced bipartisan legislation, the Eviction Crisis Act, that aims to reduce such evictions and their aftermath by boosting resources for legal representation for tenants and improving eviction data collection and analysis . The bill would also create an Emergency Assistance Fund grant program to help renters facing a financial emergency to remain in their homes.
For nearly 10 million households that live on less than $30,000 per year, housing costs consume more than half of their income, which means they often struggle to pay for food, transportation, health care, and other essentials. In many cases, their incomes are also unstable due to variable hours, fluctuating pay cycles, or seasonal work. These factors can make it tough for families to meet their basic needs and save for emergencies.
When facing a job loss or large and unexpected bill, and with little or no savings, such families can quickly fall behind on rent and face eviction or otherwise be forced to move. Evictions and involuntary moves exacerbate families’ immediate hardship, and research shows that they also may have harmful long-term effects, particularly for children. Families not only experience significant psychological distress after losing their homes, for instance, but frequent moves may disrupt children’s academic progress and are linked to poorer long-term health outcomes.
Housing loss can also create challenges for adults to find or keep a job, and a formal eviction may make it harder for families to find decent replacement housing because landlords don’t like renting to people with eviction histories. Sociologist Matthew Desmond describes in his book, Evicted, how evictions can contribute to a downward spiral from which families find it difficult to recover. “Eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty,” he writes.
Building on the results of several promising studies of homelessness prevention programs (here, here, and here), the proposed Emergency Assistance Fund grant program aims to keep families’ difficulties from snowballing by intervening before they lose their homes. Under the proposal, state and local agencies would receive federal grant funds to give households facing a financial crisis:
- Short-term financial assistance to help them pay rent arrears, utility bills, or other expenses that they must pay to avoid eviction or an involuntary move; and
- Support services that promote housing stability, such as assistance in mediating disputes with landlords or searching for suitable alternative housing, or connect families to community-based income, employment, or behavioral services.
Eligibility for assistance would be limited to households with extremely low incomes, which are much likelier than higher-income households to experience housing instability as a result of income loss or unexpected bills. (Under HUD’s definition, “extremely low income” means incomes below 30 percent of the area median or below the poverty line, whichever is higher).
There’s promising evidence that crisis assistance can prevent housing instability, but also much to learn about what types of financial assistance and services are most effective in promoting long-term housing stability, what types of households are most likely to benefit from such assistance, and how to deliver such aid efficiently. To improve understanding of these issues, the legislative proposal also includes funding for rigorous, multi-year evaluations of grantees’ programs. And while the Emergency Assistance Fund could be a cost-effective strategy to prevent housing instability for some individuals and families, it won’t replace the need for more housing vouchers and investments in affordable housing.