Above Photo: Brookland Manor in Washington, DC. The majority of residents here receive vouchers that subsidize their housing. Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images.
Expanding Program Would Reduce Hardship, Improve Equity.
Due to limited program funding, families struggling to afford housing that manage to get off the waiting list for a Housing Choice Voucher must typically wait for years before receiving a voucher, CBPP analysis of Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) data shows. Among the 50 largest housing agencies, only two have average wait times of under a year for families that have made it off of the waiting list; the longest have average wait times of up to eight years. On average nationally, families that received vouchers had spent close to two and a half years on waitlists first, exposing many to homelessness, overcrowding, eviction, and other hardship while they wait. (See the Appendix for data on average wait times by state and among the largest agencies.)
Moreover, these figures understate the unmet need for assistance. Millions of other families eligible for rental assistance never receive it because their names never rise to the top of the waiting list or they live in communities where the housing agency has closed or doesn’t keep a waiting list. Also, because of insufficient funding, local housing agencies often prioritize specific groups for available vouchers such as veterans, working families, or people fleeing domestic violence or experiencing homelessness. Setting priorities in the face of limited funding makes sense, but it means that families that need help paying for housing but fall outside the priority groups may never get assistance. For all of these reasons, an agency’s average wait for people receiving vouchers does not reflect the average wait for someone who puts their names on a waiting list for one.
Significantly expanding the federally funded voucher program, which helps households with low incomes rent a modest unit of their choice in the private market, would help more people access rental assistance when they first need it instead of facing years of hardship. A top priority for policymakers in the upcoming recovery package should be to provide substantial, multi-year funding for new housing vouchers.
The state and local housing agencies that administer the voucher program use virtually all the voucher assistance funds they receive, but a shortage of resources for rental assistance leaves the vast majority of eligible households without aid. In 2019, for example, 2 million households used vouchers to rent housing but more than 16 million unassisted renter households paid more than 30 percent of their income for housing or lived in substandard or overcrowded homes. (The federal government considers housing unaffordable if it exceeds 30 percent of income.) Households on agency waiting lists typically continue to experience homelessness, overcrowding, or other housing insecurity for years before receiving a voucher. And many other households needing vouchers either don’t get on a waitlist — 53 percent of agencies had closed their waiting lists to additional applicants, a 2016 survey found — or drop off without ever obtaining assistance, even after waiting years.
Housing vouchers, when available, 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.
Inadequate Funding Creates Long Waits
The Housing Choice Voucher program, the nation’s largest form of rental assistance, offers a proven, evidence-based tool to address housing hardship. Currently it enables roughly 2.3 million households with low incomes to afford decent, stable housing. The family 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 HUD estimates of typical market rents in the local area.
Despite the demonstrated benefits of rental assistance and effectiveness of vouchers specifically, resources fall far short of need. Only 1 in 4 households eligible for rental assistance receive it due to funding limitations. Because the need is so much greater than the supply of vouchers, housing agencies establish waitlists for households interested in receiving assistance, and for each agency HUD publishes the average time someone who received a voucher had to first wait for assistance. While these data leave out millions of people in need who never get a voucher (see discussion below), they provide a useful indicator of the inadequacy of federal rental assistance funding by showing how long even people who succeed in obtaining a voucher must endure hardship before receiving help.