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Testimony: Barbara Sard, Director of Housing Policy, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

Before the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity

I appreciate the opportunity to testify concerning the proposed Section 8 Voucher Reform Act. I am Barbara Sard, director of housing policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The Center is an independent, nonprofit policy institute that conducts research and analysis on a range of federal and state policy issues, with particular emphasis on fiscal policies and policies affecting low- and moderate-income families. The housing work of the Center focuses primarily on the housing voucher program. We receive no government grants or contracts and are funded by foundations and individual donors.

Overview The Section 8 voucher program is the nation’s largest low-income housing program. It has proven effective in reducing homelessness and severe housing costs burdens, and improving housing and neighborhood quality and family well-being. As with any government program, the voucher program needs to evolve over time, as circumstances change and lessons are learned. Nine years have passed since the 1998 enactment of the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act (QHWRA), the last major authorizing legislation affecting the voucher program. The Section 8 Voucher Reform Act (SEVRA) represents a timely, balanced, carefully-crafted effort to improve certain aspects of the voucher program, while at the same time leaving in place the core characteristics that have underpinned the program’s success.

SEVRA’s most important provisions would establish a fair, efficient and comprehensive funding formula to make permanent the reform begun by the fiscal year 2007 appropriations resolution. Largely as a result of flawed funding formulas that HUD and Congressional appropriations committees put in place from 2004 to 2006, the number of families receiving voucher assistance has declined by about 150,000 since early 2004. The SEVRA funding formula would bring badly needed stability to the program, allowing and encouraging agencies to serve additional families and meet other key program goals while maintaining incentives to contain cost growth.

In addition, SEVRA would streamline and strengthen program rules in several key areas --including voucher housing quality inspections, targeting of vouchers on extremely low-income families, and rules for determining tenant rents in the voucher program, public housing, and privately owned assisted housing – while maintaining vital tenant protections.

We understand that the version of SEVRA to be introduced shortly will omit a section from the version of SEVRA considered in the last Congress (H.R. 5443) which would have expanded the “Moving to Work” demonstration without assurance of meaningful evaluation or adequate opportunities for the families served by the voucher and public housing programs to participate in the development of new local policies. We opposed this provision, and are pleased that the committee has reconsidered its inclusion. Any extension or expansion of MTW should be limited in scope, and carefully designed to ensure that tenants retain fundamental protections of federal housing law and have real opportunities to participate in policy development, and that the demonstration produces real research findings that can be applied broadly to improve the low-income housing programs of the future.

We also would like to draw the committee’s attention to several potential improvements to the voucher program that are not included in the discussion draft.

  • Simplifying the process used to administer “portability” of vouchers from the jurisdiction of one agency to the jurisdiction of another;
  • Ensuring that caps on the rents vouchers can cover, or “payment standards,” are adequate to prevent unreasonable rent burdens for poor families and enable families to live outside areas of concentrated poverty;
  • Making it easier for housing agencies to use the “project-based voucher” option to promote a range of housing goals;
  • Allowing greater use of vouchers in mobile homes; and
  • Improving the performance measurement requirement in SEVRA by adding agency performance measures relating to deconcentration of poverty and other important social objectives.

Click here to read the full-text PDF of this testimony (17pp.)