Long Waitlists for Housing Vouchers Show Pressing Unmet Need for Assistance
Across the country, large numbers of families who need help to afford housing sit on long waiting lists for assistance, CBPP analysis of selected state and local housing agency program plans shows. (This analysis supplements an earlier CBPP analysis showing that the families who manage to get off of these waitlists typically have to wait years before receiving a voucher.) Due to insufficient program funding, agencies administering Housing Choice Vouchers, which help households with low incomes rent a modest unit of their choice in the private market, must generally establish waitlists for applicants, many of whom must endure homelessness or overcrowding while they wait. Providing substantial, multi-year funding for new vouchers, as the House Financial Services Committee has proposed, would help more people when they first need it instead of forcing them to accept years of hardship; it should be a high priority in the emerging economic recovery (“Build Back Better”) legislation.
“Across these 44 agencies, more than 737,000 households experiencing housing instability are waiting for help because funding for the program is not adequate to meet the need for eligible households.”Among the 44 housing agencies for which we have data, nearly all have more than 1,000 families on their waiting lists and many have more than 10,000, with as many as 109,088 households at the San Diego Housing Commission. Most of these agencies (32) have closed their waitlists to new applicants (although some allow certain populations to apply, such as older adults or survivors of domestic violence), and many of those with open waitlists have more people on their waitlist than the number of vouchers they have funding to administer. (See Figure 1.) Because so many agencies have closed or limited waitlists — some for close to or more than a decade — millions of people experiencing housing instability and homelessness haven’t ever had the opportunity to add their names to a waitlist. And the long wait times to receive help may also discourage people from applying, even if waitlists are open.
At nearly all of these agencies, most of the waiting families have extremely low incomes. Some agencies provide disaggregated data that show large numbers of families with children waiting for help and reflect large disparities along lines of race and disability. Across these 44 agencies, more than 737,000 households experiencing housing instability are waiting for help because funding for the program is not adequate to meet the need for eligible households.
Housing Choice Vouchers are highly effective at reducing homelessness, housing instability, and overcrowding and at improving other outcomes for families and children, rigorous research shows. They also give people with low incomes greater choice about where they live, enabling them to move to neighborhoods with lower poverty rates and more resources. Expanding the program could lift millions of people out of poverty. It also would reduce racial inequity: the housing affordability challenges that vouchers address are heavily concentrated among people with the lowest incomes and, due to a long history of racial discrimination that has limited their economic and housing opportunities, among people of color. Given that many Black and disabled families are left waiting for vouchers, failing to provide more assistance exacerbates existing inequities in income, wealth, education, and health.
Insufficient Voucher Program Funding Leads to Long Waitlists
Housing Choice Vouchers, the nation’s largest rental assistance program, have been proven effective in addressing housing hardship for people with low incomes. Currently more than 5 million people in 2.3 million low-income households are using vouchers to afford decent, stable housing. A family with a voucher pays about 30 percent of its income for rent and utilities, a widely used standard for the amount a household can reasonably be expected to pay for housing. The voucher covers the rest, up to a cap based on the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) estimates of typical rents in the local area.
Funding for housing vouchers and other rental assistance programs, however, falls far short of the need. Only 1 in 4 households eligible for rental assistance receive it due to funding limitations. Because housing agencies that administer housing vouchers have far fewer vouchers than their communities need, they have established waitlists for households interested in receiving assistance. On average nationally, families who ultimately receive vouchers must first spend close to two and a half years on waitlists — and many families on waitlists never get a voucher at all. Local housing agencies often prioritize specific groups for available vouchers such as veterans, working families, or people fleeing domestic violence or experiencing homelessness. This means that families who need help paying for housing but fall outside the priority groups may never get assistance.
Importantly, long waitlists and wait times are not due to agencies failing to spend their voucher funding. Over the past decade, agencies have spent virtually every dollar that lawmakers have provided for vouchers; from 2011 to 2020, agencies overall spent 99.9 percent of the funding they received, on average. Even in 2020, when the pandemic disrupted program operations, they spent 99.3 percent.
While HUD publishes data on the average time someone who received a voucher had to first wait for assistance, no similar national database exists for how many people are on a given agency’s list. Instead, agencies sometimes include this information in the annual plan they submit to HUD, which agencies often post on their websites. We reviewed the most recent annual plans available on the websites of the largest voucher agency in each state plus other agencies that were among the 50 largest voucher programs in the nation. The Appendix tables show the data we were able to obtain on who is on a waitlist at agencies meeting these criteria.
Agencies often close their waitlists to keep them manageable, so the number of households on a list doesn’t fully represent the demand for vouchers. For example, the New York City Housing Authority has 41,656 households on its list, but the list has been closed since 2007, meaning that many of those tens of thousands of families have been waiting 14 years for assistance, often experiencing housing instability and the resulting hardship during that time. (Specific categories of households, such as those fleeing domestic violence, can be added to the waitlist even though it is closed to the broader public). Of the households still waiting for a voucher in New York City as of September 2020, 62 percent had extremely low incomes and 48 percent were families with children.
Some agencies report data on the incomes and other characteristics of families on their waitlist. For the 18 agencies that collect income data, 78 percent of the families have extremely low incomes, defined as below the federal poverty line or below 30 percent of the area median income, whichever is higher. The share of extremely low-income families is even higher in some agencies: 89 percent at the Michigan State Housing Development Authority and 99.8 percent at the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority, for example. These high rates partly reflect the voucher program’s requirement that 75 percent of households newly receiving a voucher each year have extremely low incomes, but they also reflect the immense need for rental assistance among families with the lowest incomes.
Who is on a waitlist often reflects disparities in who is more likely to experience housing hardship. Black people are disproportionately likely to experience housing insecurity and homelessness due to the nation’s long history of racist housing policies and racial discrimination, which have deprived them of wealth and economic opportunities. For the 20 housing agencies that report these data, Black households are disproportionately represented on waitlists and in many cases are the majority. (See Figure 2.) Ninety-four percent of the families on the Housing Authority of the Birmingham (AL) District’s waitlist are Black (as are 98 percent of those with a voucher from the agency), in a city where 68 percent of the residents are Black. A similar disparity exists in places where a smaller percentage of the population is Black. The households waiting for a voucher from the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee (WI) are 90 percent Black, as are 87 percent of those with a voucher, in a city whose population is 41 percent Black.
Similarly, people with disabilities face high rates of homelessness and housing instability and are often overrepresented on voucher waitlists. Among the 23 agencies for which we have these data, households with at least one disabled person make up the majority of the waitlist in three agencies and more than a fifth of the waitlist in another eight. Finding and affording accessible housing can be difficult, especially for the more than 2.2 million disabled adults under 65 who rely on Supplemental Security Income (SSI) as their main source of income. The basic monthly SSI benefit in 2021 is $794 for an individual, which in many places is not enough to cover rent even if people allocate every dollar of their benefits to housing. Moreover, many disabled people who qualify for SSI don’t receive it because they haven’t successfully completed the arduous application process. And many people with disabilities who struggle to afford rent don’t meet the strict medical or income eligibility criteria for SSI.
Long Wait for Voucher Compounds Family Hardships
Households on a waiting list generally continue to lack an affordable, stable home while they wait, often years, for a voucher. Many pay large shares of their income for housing, which leaves them with less for food, medicine, child care, and other necessities and places them at risk of losing their home if faced with an unexpected expense or cut in their income. They may face eviction, live in substandard housing, be forced to double or triple up with other households, move between friends’ and relatives’ homes, or experience homelessness.
This instability causes high levels of stress that can have negative impacts on health, earnings, and parenting. Housing instability can interrupt children’s learning and can make finding and holding a job more difficult. It also can have lasting impacts, especially for children; homelessness among children is associated with increased likelihood of cognitive and mental and physical health problems and poor school performance. A wait of several years could expose children to hardship through much or all of their early childhood, with potentially far-reaching damage to their development and chances of academic and financial success.
Waitlists Represent Only Part of Unmet Need
Because waitlists are often closed or limited, the number of households on an agency’s list does not show the full extent of need or demand in that community. One 2016 survey found that 53 percent of voucher waiting lists were closed to new applicants, nearly two-thirds of which had been closed for at least a year. Even if a waitlist is open, many low-income households facing some form of housing instability may not apply for assistance.
Millions of people experience housing instability each year. In 2019 some 16 million low-income renter households paid more than 30 percent of their income for housing or lived in overcrowded or substandard homes.  Many people cannot access housing at all; 580,000 people experienced homelessness on a single night in January 2020. These households are then susceptible to the cascading harms linked to housing instability and homelessness, such as high levels of chronic stress, and long term-impacts on health and educational success for children.
Funding More Vouchers Would Reduce Housing Insecurity
Funding more Housing Choice Vouchers would enable housing agencies to assist more people when they first need it instead of forcing them to wait years for help. The benefits for families would be far reaching. Rigorous research shows that Housing Choice Vouchers not only reduce homelessness, housing instability, and overcrowding but also, by lowering rental costs, allow people with low incomes to spend more on other basic needs like food and medicine, as well as on goods and services that foster their children’s healthy development. Vouchers can also reduce food insecurity and the number of times children need to change schools while improving their mental and physical health outcomes.
Housing vouchers also give households greater choice about where they live, allowing them to make decisions based on what works best for them. When families choose and are able to use their voucher to move from a neighborhood with a high poverty rate and lack of investments to a neighborhood with low poverty rates and more resources, research shows, the children have substantially higher college attendance rates and adult earnings than peers who grew up in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty. Adults in these families have improved mental health and lower rates of diabetes and extreme obesity.
Providing vouchers to all eligible households would lift 9.3 million people above the poverty line and cut the child poverty rate by a third, a Columbia University study estimated. It also would shrink the gaps in poverty rates between white and Black households (by over a third) and between white and Hispanic households (by nearly half). And it would significantly reduce poverty disparities for people with disabilities.
Recovery Legislation Investment Would Help Address Need
The COVID-19 pandemic and recession have added to the nation’s already severe housing hardship, and while the federal government has provided substantial emergency housing assistance, this is not designed to address the overwhelming need that existed before the pandemic. The economic recovery package that Congress is currently crafting could provide historic investments in affordable housing programs, including Housing Choice Vouchers, and help address households’ long-term affordability needs.
The House Financial Services Committee has released language for its portion of that package, which would provide, among other major investments, $75 billion for new Housing Choice Vouchers targeted to extremely low-income households. Of that amount, $24 billion would be devoted to serving families and individuals experiencing homelessness or at imminent risk of homelessness and survivors of domestic violence and human trafficking, making it the largest-ever single investment to address our country’s homelessness crisis. Policymakers should make it a priority to include these measures in the final recovery package.
|APPENDIX TABLE 1|
|Waiting List Information for Selected Public Housing Agencies*|
|State||Authorized Vouchers||Current Waitlist Status||Households on Waitlist||Average Wait for Households With Vouchers, in Months|
|New York City Housing Authority||NY||86,751||Closed||41,656||28|
|New York State Housing Trust Fund Corporation||NY||45,004||Varies||40,613||30|
|Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles||CA||43,897||Closed||8,395||24|
|Michigan State Housing Development Authority||MI||27,260||Varies by county||37,608||23|
|State of New Jersey Department of Community Affairs||NJ||23,752||Closed||13,216||18|
|Los Angeles County Development Authority||CA||23,375||Closed||37,388||27|
|Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development||MA||21,287||Open||30,708||54|
|Philadelphia Housing Authority||PA||17,719||Closed||13,519||10|
|Houston Housing Authority||TX||17,545||Closed||18,318||39|
|Housing Authority of Baltimore City||MD||17,347||Closed||23,361||18|
|Housing Authority of the City of Atlanta||GA||17,208||Closed||24,539||Missing|
|Housing Authority of New Orleans||LA||16,966||Closed||24,196||50|
|Housing Authority of the City of Dallas||TX||15,348||Closed||25,821||8|
|San Diego Housing Commission||CA||15,281||Open||109,088||Missing|
|Boston Housing Authority||MA||14,565||Closed||1,483||22|
|Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority||OH||13,933||Open||2,855||31|
|San Antonio Housing Authority||TX||12,700||Closed||14,045||30|
|D.C. Housing Authority||DC||12,223||Closed||39,481||26|
|Oakland Housing Authority||CA||11,768||Closed||1,618||89|
|Southern Nevada Regional Housing Authority||NV||11,590||Closed||5,206||39|
|Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority||OH||11,228||Closed||6487||27|
|Santa Clara County Housing Authority||CA||10,516||Closed||3,856||167|
|Seattle Housing Authority||WA||10,262||Closed||1,225||22|
|Housing Authority of the County of San Diego||CA||10,185||Open||39,500||93|
|Housing Authority of King County||WA||10,041||Closed||2,455||Missing|
|Housing Authority of Portland||OR||9,966||Closed||1,679||Missing|
|Housing Authority of the County of San Bernardino||CA||9,933||Closed||20,300||12|
|Tampa Housing Authority||FL||9,913||Closed||7,141||64|
|Louisville Metro Housing Authority||KY||9,637||Open||6,944||16|
|Rochester Housing Authority||NY||9,243||Closed||3,557||25|
|Housing Authority of the County of Riverside||CA||8,628||Open||68,000||45|
|Housing Authority of Kansas City||MO||7,519||Open||10,589||59|
|Charlotte Housing Authority (Inlivian)||NC||6,629||Closed||5,820||Missing|
|Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee||WI||5,517||Closed||3,000||70|
|Housing Authority of the Birmingham District||AL||5,086||Closed||2,305||34|
|Alaska Housing Finance Corporation||AK||4,750||Closed||4,663||Missing|
|Housing Authority of the City of Columbia||SC||3,785||Closed||1,810||36|
|City and County of Honolulu||HI||3,783||Closed||5,154||21|
|Maine State Housing Authority||ME||3,764||Open||18,000||31|
|Vermont State Housing Authority||VT||3,537||Closed||249||15|
|Idaho Housing and Finance Association||ID||3,143||Open||4,067||24|
|Charleston/ Kanawha Housing Authority||WV||2,952||Open||1,619||8|
|Housing Authority of the City of Little Rock||AR||2,759||Closed||3,371||29|
|Wichita Housing Authority||KS||2,678||Closed||2,675||39|
|APPENDIX TABLE 2|
|Households on Waiting Lists at Selected Public Housing Agencies, by Income and Type*|
|Extremely Low Income**||Families With Children||Senior-Led||With Disabled Household Member(s)|
|New York City Housing Authority||25,739||19,873||13,051||10,831|
|Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles||7,574||3,442||4,869||3,358|
|Michigan State Housing Development Authority||33,605||14,667||3,761||6,393|
|Los Angeles County Development Authority||-||-||10,469||11,216|
|State of New Jersey Department of Community Affairs||-||5,091||2,079||8,252|
|Housing Authority of the City of Atlanta||19,551||-||-||-|
|Housing Authority of the City of Dallas||22,161||-||1,860||5,364|
|Housing Authority of New Orleans||17,742||10,991||1,175||50|
|Boston Housing Authority||1,372||814||85||359|
|Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority||2,796||2,110||72||51|
|Housing Authority of the County of San Diego||-||-||5,135||7,505|
|Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority||6,473||6,425||402||1,454|
|Southern Nevada Regional Housing Authority||294||2,427||333||971|
|Tampa Housing Authority||6,156||3,312||37||182|
|Rochester Housing Authority||-||-||306||896|
|Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee||2,265||1,536||85||486|
|Housing Authority of the Birmingham District||2,079||1,808||56||253|
|City and County of Honolulu||4,184||1,306||407||936|
|Maine State Housing Authority||4,285||2,254||9,477|
|Vermont State Housing Authority||183||104||55||46|
|Housing Authority of the City of Columbia||1,726||629||73||78|
|Wichita Housing Authority||-||-||-||1,418|
|Charleston/ Kanawha Housing Authority||1,345||744||95||274|
|Housing Authority of the City of Little Rock||2,979||94||81||704|
|APPENDIX TABLE 3|
|Households on Waiting Lists of Selected Public Housing Agencies, by Race/Ethnicity*|
|Asian||Native American and Native Hawaiian||White||Other|
|New York City Housing Authority||27%||52%||3%||0.3%||10%||8%|
|Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles||53%||22%||2%||-||34%||-|
|Los Angeles County Development Authority||45%||29%||6%||-||30%||19%|
|Housing Authority of the City of Dallas||85%||8%||1%||2%||14%||5%|
|Housing Authority of New Orleans||92%||2%||0.2%||0.2%||4%||3%|
|Houston Housing Authority||83%||10%||1%||1%||5%||-|
|Boston Housing Authority||43%||34%||2%||0.5%||20%||-|
|Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority||86%||-||-||-||11%||2%|
|Housing Authority of the County of San Diego||21%||35%||6%||-||66%||-|
|Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority||86%||-||0.1%||0.6%||13%||-|
|Southern Nevada Regional Housing Authority||79%||11%||10%||0%||22%||-|
|Tampa Housing Authority||81%||-||0.3%||0.3%||12%||29%|
|Rochester Housing Authority||61%||23%||0.4%||0.4%||27%||30%|
|Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee||90%||8%||-||-||13%||6%|
|Housing Authority of the Birmingham District||94%||0.04%||-||-||0.3%||5%|
|City and County of Honolulu||8%||10%||66%||1%||17%||-|
|Vermont State Housing Authority||1%||4%||0.4%||4%||92%||-|
|Housing Authority of the City of Columbia||79%||0.8%||0.1%||0.3%||7%||0.3%|
|Charleston/ Kanawha Housing Authority||33%||3%||-||-||-||-|
|Housing Authority of the City of Little Rock||90%||-||0.1%||0.1%||7%||0.9%|
 Brianna Guerrero is an intern at the Center.
 As this paper explains, there are no national data on the number of families on waiting lists, but some agencies report the number of families on their waiting lists in publicly available annual planning documents. We reviewed the websites of selected agencies to obtain those plans.
 Sonya Acosta and Erik Gartland, “Families Wait Years for Housing Vouchers Due to Inadequate Funding,” CBPP, July 22, 2021, https://www.cbpp.org/research/housing/families-wait-years-for-housing-vouchers-due-to-inadequate-funding.
 This report uses the terms “people with disabilities” and “disabled people” interchangeably in recognition of people’s different preferences for person-first or identity-first language.
 Acosta and Gartland, op. cit.
 Will Fischer, “Rental Markets Can Absorb Many Additional Housing Vouchers,” CBPP, May 28, 2021, https://www.cbpp.org/blog/rental-markets-can-absorb-many-additional-housing-vouchers.
 New York State Homes and Community Renewal also administers some vouchers in New York City, and opened its waiting list to 15,000 new applicants in May 2021.
 CBPP, “Majority of Low-Income Renters With Severe Cost Burdens Are People of Color,” May 13, 2021, https://www.cbpp.org/majority-of-low-income-renters-with-severe-cost-burdens-are-people-of-color.
 Meghan Henry et al., “The 2020 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress,” U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, January 2021, https://www.huduser.gov/portal/sites/default/files/pdf/2020-AHAR-Part-1.pdf.
 Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Government Segregated America, Liveright, 2017.
 Data on households served from HUD 2020 Picture of Subsidized Households. Data on population from 2019 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates.
 They are the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, Wichita Housing Authority, and Maine State Housing Authority.
 CBPP, “Policy Basics: Supplemental Security Income,” February 8, 2021, https://www.cbpp.org/research/social-security/supplemental-security-income; Gina Schaak et al., “Priced Out: The Housing Crisis for People with Disabilities,” Technical Assistance Collaborative, Inc. and Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities Housing Task Force, December 2017, https://www.tacinc.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/priced-out-in-2016.pdf.
 Social Security Administration, “SSI Monthly Statistics, April 2021,” May 2021, https://www.ssa.gov/policy/docs/statcomps/ssi_monthly/2021-04/table01.html.
 Pamela Herd et al., “A Targeted Minimum Benefit Plan: A New Proposal to Reduce Poverty among Older Social Security Recipients,” RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, Vol. 4, No. 2, February 2018, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7758/rsf.2018.4.2.04#metadata_info_tab_contents. The authors write: “SSI take-up rates are quite low: between 40 percent and 60 percent of those who are eligible do not even apply for benefits.”
 Sonya Acosta, Anna Bailey, and Peggy Bailey, “Extend CARES Act Eviction Moratorium, Combine With Rental Assistance to Promote Housing Stability,” CBPP, July 27, 2020, https://www.cbpp.org/research/housing/extend-cares-act-eviction-moratorium-combine-with-rental-assistance-to-promote.
 Andrew Aurand et al., “The Long Wait for a Home,” Housing Spotlight, Vol. 6, No. 1, Fall 2016, http://nlihc.org/sites/default/files/HousingSpotlight_6-1_int.pdf.
 CBPP, “3 in 4 Low-Income Renters Needing Rental Assistance Do Not Receive It,” updated July 2021, https://www.cbpp.org/research/housing/three-out-of-four-low-income-at-risk-renters-do-not-receive-federal-rental-assistance.
 Henry et al., op. cit.
 LaDonna Pavetti, “Children in Distress Due to Increased Hardship: An Interview With Dr. Philip A. Fisher,” CBPP, February 23, 2021, https://www.cbpp.org/blog/children-in-distress-due-to-increased-hardship-an-interview-with-dr-philip-a-fisher; Jack P. Shonkoff et al., “The Lifelong Effects of Early Childhood Adversity and Toxic Stress,” Pediatrics, Vol. 129, No. 1, 2012, http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/129/1/e232.
 Lauren Taylor, “Housing And Health: An Overview Of The Literature,” Health Affairs, June 2, 2018, https://www.healthaffairs.org/do/10.1377/hpb20180313.396577/full/.
 Jelena Obradovic et al., “Academic Achievement of Homeless and Highly Mobile Children in an Urban School District,” Development and Psychopathology, Vol. 21, No. 2, February 2009.
 Will Fischer, Douglas Rice, and Alicia Mazzara, “Research Shows Rental Assistance Reduces Hardship and Provides Platform to Expand Opportunity for Low-Income Families,” CBPP, December 5, 2019, https://www.cbpp.org/research/housing/research-shows-rental-assistance-reduces-hardship-and-provides-platform-to-expand.
 Sandra J. Newman and C. Scott Holupka, “Housing affordability and investments in children,” Journal of Housing Economics, Vol. 24, June 2014, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1051137713000600.
 Daniel Gubits et al., “Family Options Study: 3-Year Impacts of Housing and Services Interventions for Homeless Families,” prepared for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, October 2016, https://www.huduser.gov/portal/sites/default/files/pdf/Family-Options-Study-Full-Report.pdf .
 Fisher, Rice, and Mazzara, op. cit.
 Sophie Collyer et al., “Housing Vouchers and Tax Credits: Pairing the Proposals to Transform Section 8 with Expansions to the EITC and Child Tax Credit Could Cut the National Poverty Rate by Half,” Columbia University Center on Poverty and Social Policy, October 7, 2020, https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5743308460b5e922a25a6dc7/t/5f7dd00e12dfe51e169a7e83/1602080783936/Housing-Vouchers-Proposal-Poverty-Impacts-CPSP-2020.pdf.
 Will Fischer, Sonya Acosta, and Erik Gartland, “More Housing Vouchers: Most Important Step to Help More People Afford Stable Homes,” CBPP, updated May 13, 2021, https://www.cbpp.org/research/housing/more-housing-vouchers-most-important-step-to-help-more-people-afford-stable-homes.
 Ann Oliva, “Recovery Legislation’s Housing Voucher Investments Would Make Major Progress in Cutting Homelessness, Housing Instability,” CBPP, September 9, 2021, https://www.cbpp.org/blog/recovery-legislations-housing-voucher-investments-would-make-major-progress-in-cutting.