BEYOND THE NUMBERS
Update: Senate Housing Bill Improves on House But Still Would Lock in Large Voucher Losses
The 2015 funding bill for the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which the Senate Appropriations Committee approved yesterday, is a significant improvement over its House counterpart but still falls short in major respects.
As we’ve reported, the across-the-board sequestration cuts eliminated housing vouchers for some 70,000 low-income families in 2013. Congress provided enough funding in 2014 to restore roughly half of those lost vouchers.
But the 2015 spending bill that the House Appropriations Committee approved on May 21 would likely lock in the loss of more than 70,000 vouchers in 2015. The Senate bill provides only $26 million more than the House bill to renew vouchers in use in 2014. This means that, like the House bill, the Senate bill provides enough funding to renew all vouchers in use this year only if housing agencies either don’t use their available 2014 funds to restore lost vouchers this year or freeze subsidies in spite of rising rent and utility costs.
In other words, the bill would either lock in the loss of more than 70,000 vouchers (see graph) or require families with meager resources to absorb significant increases in housing costs next year.
Also like the House bill, the Senate bill would make little progress against homelessness. While both bills include $75 million for new rental assistance for homeless veterans and the Senate bill raises homeless assistance grants by $40 million over last year’s level, the latter is only enough to renew existing grants. And any progress against homelessness is doubtful if Congress locks in sequestration cuts in vouchers, which are an important part of state and local efforts to reduce homelessness.
In some other areas, the Senate bill made significant improvements over the House bill with the roughly $1 billion more for HUD housing and community development programs it had available. (The Senate Appropriations Committee allocated $2.4 billion more for the Transportation-HUD bill as a whole than the House did.) The key areas of improvement include:
- $6.38 billion for public housing operations and capital needs, $200 million more than the House bill and $100 million above the 2014 level. The Senate bill also raises to 185,000 the number of public housing units authorized to participate in the Rental Assistance Demonstration and provides $10 million in new funding for this promising initiative, which enables public housing agencies to obtain more private capital for repair needs. And it provides $90 million ($65 million more than the House bill) for the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative to revitalize public housing, other assisted housing, and surrounding distressed neighborhoods.
- $1.55 billion for state and local agencies to administer vouchers, $205 million more than the House bill and $55 million above the 2014 level. While the Senate funding level is still $150 million below the President’s request, the added funding over the House level is important to enable agencies to run the voucher program effectively.
- $950 million ($250 million more than the House bill) for the HOME Investment Partnerships program, which helps states and localities develop and preserve homes for lower-income owners and renters.
To be sure, Congress faces severe budgetary constraints in writing the fiscal year 2015 appropriations bills. Yet policymakers should place high priority on protecting key safety net programs, including rental assistance programs — which enable more than 5 million low-income families to avoid homelessness and other hardships.
Congress should do more to protect low-income families as the House and Senate bills move forward in the next two weeks.