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Why and How Congress Should Restore Lost Housing Vouchers

A big question facing the Housing Choice Voucher Program next year, I noted recently, is whether policymakers will provide enough funding to restore all 70,000 vouchers lost last year due to the sequestration budget cuts.  Given the large and growing need for affordable housing, policymakers need to make this a priority.  And, they should accomplish it in ways that also promote other important policy goals, like reducing homelessness, keeping vulnerable families together, and eliminating unnecessary institutionalization of people with disabilities.

More than 2 million low-income families use vouchers to rent modest units of their choice in the private market.  We’ve highlighted research showing that vouchers not only reduce housing instability and homelessness but also reduce poverty, help low-wage workers make ends meet, and give families access to neighborhoods with better opportunities.  They also can reduce the cost of other public services, like health care and emergency shelters.

Unfortunately, only 1 in 4 households eligible for any type of federal rental assistance receives it because of limited funding.  Low-income seniors, people with disabilities, and working families with children eligible for the voucher program often must wait years for assistance.  Sequestration worsened the funding squeeze, cutting the program by nearly $1 billion last year and causing the loss of 70,000 vouchers.

December’s Murray-Ryan budget agreement provided partial relief from sequestration for 2014 and 2015, but in 2014 that relief will enable housing agencies to restore fewer than half of the lost vouchers.  To finish the job, next year’s funding must cover all vouchers in use in 2014 plus another 40,000 vouchers.

The President’s 2015 budget would achieve the first goal but not the second.  Congress should go further, providing funding for the 40,000 additional vouchers targeted to three areas:

  • Reducing homelessness and keeping at-risk families together (30,000 vouchers).  Public housing agencies in every state could compete for these vouchers by showing, among other things, how the vouchers would reduce costs in health, criminal justice, or child welfare systems.  Agencies that had to distribute fewer vouchers last year because of sequestration would receive priority in the competition if they met other requirements.
  • Reducing unnecessary institutionalization of people with disabilities (5,000 vouchers).  The Supreme Court ruled in the 1999 Olmstead case that the unjustified segregation of people with disabilities in settings such as nursing homes and public mental health institutions violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.  At least 13 states are required by Olmstead-related legal action to rely less on segregated institutions for adults with disabilities, and litigation is pending in other states.  These vouchers, distributed through a national competition, would help states to meet these obligations to people with disabilities.
  • Protecting victims of domestic violence seeking emergency transfers (up to 5,000 vouchers).  The Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 requires the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to devise procedures under which victims of domestic violence and related crimes who live in assisted housing can obtain vouchers in order to relocate quickly and safely.  These vouchers would enable HUD to fulfill that directive.