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A Program to Vouch For

As last week’s New York Times story on a new federal anti-homelessness program shows, the sharp recent rise in homelessness highlights the importance of helping low-income families afford decent housing. For years, one of our most effective tools has been the Housing Choice Voucher Program, which helps roughly 2 million low-income families — those at risk of homelessness as well as other families — cover the cost of renting modest units of their choice in the private market.

By making housing more affordable, vouchers:

  • Reduce homelessness. Noted researcher Jill Khadduri has written, “An extensive body of careful research has demonstrated that housing vouchers are critically important both for preventing families with children from becoming homeless and for helping those who do enter the shelter system to leave it for permanent housing and not become homeless again.”
  • Boost a weak economy. Vouchers are targeted on people with low incomes, who spend most or all of any income they receive. By offsetting part of families’ housing costs, vouchers enable them to spend more of their limited income on other needs, such as food and clothing. That spending helps preserve local businesses and jobs at a time when overall consumption is weak.
  • Help stabilize the housing market. Vouchers increase the demand for housing and reduce vacancies by enabling more families to afford rental housing.

Fortunately, policymakers are showing a renewed commitment to the program. Following a period of neglect (2004 to 2006) in which flawed funding rules and chronic underfunding wiped out vouchers for about 165,000 families, Congress has provided enough funding to restore more than half of the lost vouchers (see graph). It has also funded 40,000 new vouchers for homeless veterans, people with disabilities, and vulnerable families with children.

The President’s proposed budget for 2011 would continue this trend by fully funding all vouchers now in use.

Also, Congress is considering a major voucher reform bill that would enable housing agencies to help more needy families with the available funding, among other improvements. The House passed a similar bill in 2007.

Given vouchers’ proven benefits and market-based approach, the program deserves broad support on both sides of the aisle.