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Proposed Targeted Housing Voucher Expansion Is Critical to Housing Stability for People With Greatest Barriers

Congress should enact the historic investments in rental assistance for people with the lowest incomes that the House Financial Services Committee advanced as part of the economic recovery package. Providing such rental assistance and in particular Housing Choice Vouchers to people with extremely low incomes would create a path toward ending homelessness and housing instability for those facing the greatest barriers to housing.

Some of the groups that would benefit the most from these targeted voucher investments, as we explain in a series of new briefs, are people with a history of homelessness, people with disabilities, seniors, people with mental health or substance use conditions, and people with a history of incarceration or conviction.

The committee’s proposal includes a $75 billion investment in Housing Choice Vouchers targeted to families and individuals with extremely low incomes, including up to $24 billion devoted to people experiencing or at risk of homelessness and survivors of domestic violence and trafficking, as well as $15 billion for Project Based Rental Assistance. When fully phased in, these investments could make housing affordable for as many as a million more families and individuals. They would also likely improve access to health care and reduce unnecessary institutionalization and recidivism, complementing other important recovery investments under consideration.

By targeting the new vouchers to people with the lowest incomes, people experiencing or at risk of homelessness, and survivors, the committee’s proposal would ensure the vouchers reach people facing the greatest challenges to securing housing. The impact of the affordable housing crisis overwhelmingly falls on those with extremely low incomes – 30 percent of the local median income or less – and people of color, with many paying more than half their income for rent and utilities, known as having a severe cost burden. Many people with the lowest incomes also have complex health needs or conviction records or face discrimination or other circumstances that make it even harder to secure housing. People experiencing homelessness often encounter multiple such challenges, causing some to cycle through emergency rooms, nursing homes and congregate care settings, jail, and homeless shelters.

Our series of new policy briefs highlights key examples of how more vouchers would be transformative both for people who face such challenges and the public systems that serve them. A significant voucher program expansion would:

  • Create a path toward ending homelessness. More than 580,000 people were staying in homeless shelters or living on the street on a single night in January 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic. Expanding vouchers is needed to transform the homelessness response system to one that quickly rehouses people, eventually making homelessness brief and rare.
  • Help people with disabilities and seniors live in the community. Over 4 million disabled people and 3 million older adults (aged 62 and older) living in low-income households are severely cost burdened. Older adults and people with disabilities overwhelmingly want to live in their own homes instead of congregate care settings. But housing instability due to high rental costs can force many into these settings, where they are more isolated from the rest of the community. Voucher expansion could help many people with disabilities and seniors stay in or move into the community instead of congregate care settings.
  • Address the mental health and substance use crises. Homelessness and housing instability, such as frequent moves, eviction, or overcrowding, can worsen people’s mental health and undermine efforts to curb record levels of drug overdose deaths. Over three-quarters of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness — which has increased sharply in recent years — report a substance use condition, and more than three-quarters report a mental health condition. Expanding vouchers would provide more people with the stability they need to access behavioral health care.
  • Disrupt the cycle of homelessness and incarceration. Many communities respond to unsheltered homelessness with counterproductive law enforcement strategies that effectively criminalize homelessness and make it harder for people to access stable housing. More than 50,000 people entered homeless shelters directly from jail or prison in 2017, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimates, and another untold number became unsheltered following incarceration. Expanding vouchers would provide communities with a much more humane, effective, and sustainable solution to unsheltered homelessness.

Significantly expanding vouchers would also advance racial equity, cut poverty, and help improve children’s educational and health outcomes. But if we fail to make deep and lasting investments in housing in the recovery legislation, we risk continued growth in the number of people living on our streets or in unstable situations, leading to poor economic, educational, and health outcomes for millions of people.