Real help for renters

By Michelle Chen Apr 20, 2009

The economic crisis has pulled hundreds of thousands of families toward homelessness. Yet public resources for rental assistance remain out of sync with growing needs, according to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The Center projects that while joblessness and poverty forces more families into homelessness, Congress has for years failed to upgrade a crucial mechanism to keep people housed. An increase in federal "Housing Choice" vouchers would give direct subsidies to poor families so they could rent housing they would otherwise not be able to afford. A large portion of those affected by the foreclosure epidemic are renters, and yet the Center notes that the federal stimulus has fallen short meeting the burgeoning need for rental assistance. Though homelessness may be tied to underlying financial and social struggles, typically, the real problem is that people first and foremost just need a place to live. Services like food banks and shelters provide marginal help, but for many families, homelessness is mainly just that: a lack of affordable housing. Housing Choice vouchers, administered through the Department of Housing and Urban Development and local agencies, offer what shelters and charity don’t: stability and permanence, argues the Center:

Housing vouchers are flexible, cost-effective, and successful in making rental housing affordable even for families with very low incomes, and numerous studies show they can play a critical role in reducing homelessness among families with children. Because families can use vouchers almost immediately, vouchers can rapidly address rental housing needs when homelessness is rising.

From 2003 to 2007, according to the analysis, Congress stopped funding new vouchers, after incremental increases over the previous roughly 25 years. The same period saw the snowballing of the foreclosure crisis as well as a 25 percent increase in the number of poor households devoting at least half of their income toward housing. The roughly two million low-income families lucky enough to have vouchers represent the racial dimension of the housing crisis. In many cities, according to Harvard’s DiversityData project, people of color are starkly overrepresented. Blacks and Latinos make up roughly 80 percent of voucher holders in New York City, and in Miami, 95 percent. Still, voucher rental assistance alone won’t resolve the housing crisis, since the government ultimately has to build more affordable housing stock across the country. Moreover, the voucher program’s mission of promoting integration and countering housing discrimination has in many respects failed. But until federal housing policy is revamped, many houses and apartments (including, potentially, a massive number of units left vacant by foreclosure) are sitting empty, while streets and shelters teem with dispossessed families. It’s the paradox of an overinflated housing market that squeezes out the neediest. Vouchers help correct that imbalance in the short term, and could lay the groundwork for a housing system aligned with real need instead of speculative fiction.