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Senate Should Follow House and Streamline Rental Assistance for People With Fixed Incomes

The Senate should move quickly to approve a measure that the House passed this week to reduce administrative costs for the state and local housing agencies and private owners that administer federal rental assistance, while easing compliance burdens for many low-income tenants.

The bipartisan Tenant Income Verification Relief Act (TIVRA), co-sponsored by House Financial Services Committee members Earl Perlmutter (D-CO) and Steve Stivers (R-OH), allows agencies and owners to review tenants’ incomes every three years — instead of annually — for households with fixed incomes helped by programs such as Housing Choice Vouchers, public housing, and Section 8 project-based rental assistance.

Currently, agencies and owners must review and verify all households’ incomes each year to determine how much rent they can afford to pay.  But annual reviews make little sense for households that receive most or all of their income from benefits such as Social Security or Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which change little from year to year.  More than half of rental assistance recipients are elderly or have disabilities (see graph), and they often have fixed incomes.

TIVRA, which is nearly identical to a proposal in the President’s 2016 budget, would produce substantial administrative savings, since income reviews are a major source of agencies’ and owners’ administrative costs for rental assistance.  It would also benefit fixed-income households, who must gather and submit information to verify their income and deductions and sometimes travel to agency offices when their income is reviewed.

Research shows that rental assistance is highly effective at reducing homelessness and housing instability.  TIVRA is one of a series of bipartisan efforts to make careful, targeted improvements to federal rental assistance while preserving the key standards and rules that have underpinned the programs’ success.  These targeted measures offer a more promising approach than radical proposals such as expanding the Moving to Work (MTW) demonstration, which eliminates important federal standards and allows agencies to shift voucher funds to other purposes, or merging rental assistance into a block grant with other low-income programs.

House passage of TIVRA is an important step, and the Senate should move promptly to enact the bill.  Congress should also build on this progress by enacting other targeted, common-sense improvements to federal rental assistance.

For example, Senators Jack Reed (D-RI) and Roy Blunt (R-MO) introduced legislation in 2013 to strengthen the Family Self-Sufficiency program, which provides financial incentives and employment services to raise earnings among rental assistance recipients.   Other proposals with bipartisan support would improve housing quality inspections, modify tenant screening rules to help rental assistance reach more homeless people, and make it easier for agencies to tie vouchers to particular buildings (known as “project-basing”) to support affordable housing development or provide supportive housing.