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Upcoming Recovery Legislation Can Make Lasting Progress Against Housing-Related Hardships

The recovery legislation that policymakers will craft in the coming month is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make real progress in addressing the nation’s most urgent housing problems, and they should make the most of it — including by providing multiyear, guaranteed funding to expand housing vouchers to many more low-income families, seniors, and others who are struggling to pay rent and make ends meet.

The Administration’s 2022 discretionary budget request released on April 9 calls for 200,000 new Housing Choice Vouchers, which would increase voucher supply by approximately 9 percent. It also adds funding for several other programs that reduce homelessness and make housing more affordable for low-income families, seniors, and others. Congress should make these proposals a priority when crafting 2022 funding legislation later this year. But policymakers should also make more substantial, potentially transformative, progress this year in making housing affordable.

As the economy recovers from the COVID-19 crisis, high housing costs will remain a serious problem for low-income people. Even before the pandemic, 11 million renters struggled to pay rents that ate up more than half their household budgets, and on any given day, half a million people were experiencing homelessness. These hardships are concentrated among people with incomes below the poverty line, especially among people of color, and they affect a wide range of people — including families with children, seniors, and people with disabilities — in nearly every community.

A wealth of evidence shows that federal investments in housing vouchers and other rental assistance reduce housing-related hardships and can improve adults’ health and children’s chances for long-term success. But the available resources are inadequate — for instance, only 1 in 4 eligible households receive a housing voucher or other federal rental assistance.

Targeted programs to expand housing supply — such as those the President has proposed in the American Jobs Plan — are also essential. However, in communities outside large coastal cities, the supply of housing is often adequate but the costs are unaffordable to people with incomes below the poverty line, leaving many people facing significant housing insecurity. And, even where supply is inadequate, supply investments generally don’t result in housing that is affordable to poor renters (who make up the great majority of those who struggle most with high housing costs) because the ongoing costs of operating and maintaining properties typically far exceed the rents that they can afford to pay. Rental assistance is essential to make both new and existing rental housing affordable in all communities.

Policymakers have made incremental progress in tackling the problem of inadequate rental assistance over the past decade through targeted investments. For instance, they have funded roughly 100,000 new housing vouchers for veterans, which have played a critical role in reducing veterans’ homelessness by 50 percent since 2010. They have also enacted policy innovations that have helped local housing agencies begin preserving nearly half a million units of public housing, in part by expanding their ability to attract private capital to repair and rehabilitate properties. But the broader, deeper challenges remain untouched.

The 2022 Biden discretionary budget request takes an important, yet still incremental, step forward to help more renters afford decent, stable housing. While few details have been released thus far, the request highlights several constructive proposals, including:

  • Funding for 200,000 new housing vouchers, primarily to help people experiencing homelessness or fleeing domestic violence. The proposal also includes funding for services and support to help low-income families — particularly Black families and other families of color — to overcome barriers that have limited their housing options and often segregated them in communities with fewer resources and opportunities.
  • A $500 million increase in homeless assistance grants, which would enable communities to provide rental assistance and other support to help 100,000 additional households avoid or recover from homelessness, the Administration estimates. These resources, combined with the new housing vouchers proposed above and the substantial resources already provided in recent pandemic relief legislation, could enable communities to make considerable progress in reducing homelessness.
  • Added funding to make badly needed repairs to public housing ($435 million), modernize public housing and other assisted housing to improve energy efficiency and living conditions ($800 million), and improve housing conditions in tribal areas ($75 million).

These important investments are well designed to expand affordable housing and improve living conditions for the people most severely affected by high housing costs. But they are only single-year funding to meet a small share of the need. Against the backdrop of 11 million households paying more than half of their income for rent, expanding rental assistance by 200,000 in 2022 would constitute just an initial step. To make substantial, lasting progress in reducing homelessness, housing instability, and other hardship among renters will require larger, long-term investments.