Housing Vouchers: A First Step in Addressing the Homelessness Crisis

Arianna Adirim-Lanza is a first-year law student at American University Washington College of Law. Arianna graduated from Boston University and hopes to work on policy in a government agency, on the Hill, or for a nonprofit. 

On October 28, 2021, President Biden released the Administration’s Build Back Better framework providing $150 billion for affordable housing.[1] The housing provisions are based largely on a package of housing reforms proposed by Representative Maxine Waters (D-CA), Chairwoman of the U.S. House Committee on Financial Services on June 9, 2021[2] and included in the Financial Services Committee Title of the Build Back Better Act approved by the committee on September 14, 2021.[3] Representative Waters’ package aimed to address the nation’s affordable housing and homelessness crises through various means, including investment in public housing capital repairs, rehabilitation of three million affordable housing units, strengthening and expanding housing enforcement, down payment assistance for first-time/first-generation homebuyers, and new housing vouchers.[4]

The centerpiece of the housing proposal’s goal of ending homelessness includes making the Housing Choice Vouchers Program (“HCVP”) universal. Currently, those who qualify for Housing Choice Vouchers (“HCVs”) under HCVP often find themselves on long waiting lists, sometimes for many years, due to limited funding. Making HCVP universal would ensure that those who qualify would be entitled to receive vouchers without having to wait for availability of funding.[5] HCVP assists very low-income families, the elderly, and the disabled to afford rental housing in the private market.[6] The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”) provides funds to public housing agencies (“PHAs”), which administer the vouchers locally.[7] HCVP participants may choose any housing that meets the requirements set forth by the program.[8]

As proposed, the Build Back Better framework includes $24 billion to fund new HCVs, including funds allocated to individuals and families experiencing homelessness; grants for mobility-related services; and funds for landlord incentives to participate in HCVP.[9] While this total makes up only half the funds initially proposed by the House Financial Services Committee,[10] it nonetheless represents the first time that non-emergency HCVs have been authorized on a multi-year basis, significantly reducing a critical constraint on the effectiveness of HCVs.[11]

Research shows HCVs reduce rent burdens, allow low-income families to live in less crowded homes, and minimize the risk of homelessness.[12] Research also shows that HCVs, used in conjunction with special support programs, provide a cost-effective, long-term intervention to enable homeless persons with mental illness or substance addiction to live independently in the community, rather than in institutions.[13] HCVs provide participants the opportunity to live wherever they want, rather than remaining confined to low-income housing buildings. This should reduce segregation, allow families to choose public school districts for their children, improve participants’ options to live closer to work, and provide participants’ more freedom in choosing where to live.[14]

However, many barriers to the efficacy of HCVs remain. Among other things, the effective use of HCVs is dependent on the existence of affordable housing. Zoning laws in some areas pose a barrier to building sufficient stock of affordable housing and often limit new affordable housing to areas where such housing is already concentrated.[15] This may mean that recipients of vouchers might have no choice but to rent in a segregated area. Additionally, landlords could discriminate against people paying rent with the assistance of HCVs.[16] Further work beyond the steps proposed in the Build Back Better framework will be needed to eliminate the barriers to the HCVP’s efficacy posed by discriminatory practices.[17]

[1] White House, Build Back Better Framework (October 28, 2021), https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/10/28/build-back-better-framework/. The full legislative text of H.R. 5376, 117th Cong. (2021), before the House Rules Committee as of October 28, 2021, reflecting appropriation levels approved by the various committees of jurisdictions based on the original $3.5 trillion proposed build back better human infrastructure initiative, is available at https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/BILLS-117hr5376rh/pdf/BILLS-117hr5376rh.pdf. A section-by-section summary of the Build Bark Better framework as announced by the President, reflecting the lower appropriation levels making up the current $1.75 proposal, is available at https://rules.house.gov/sites/democrats.rules.house.gov/files/Section_by_Section_BBB.pdf.

[2] Virtual Hearing – Universal Vouchers: Ending Homelessness and Expanding Economic Opportunity in America Before the H. Comm. on Fin. Serv., 117th Cong. (June 9, 2021), available at https://financialservices.house.gov/calendar/eventsingle.aspx?EventID=407952.

[3] Hybrid Markup – Reconciliation Pursuant to S. Con. Res. 14, the Concurrent Resolution on the Budget for Fiscal Year 2022; H.R. 5195 and H.R. 5196 Before the H. Comm. on Fin. Serv., 117th Cong. (Sept. 13-14, 2021), available at   https://financialservices.house.gov/calendar/eventsingle.aspx?EventID=408300.

[4] Memorandum from H. Comm. on Fin. Serv. Majority Staff to H. Comm. on Fin. Serv., June 9, 2021, Full Committee Hearing entitled, “Universal Vouchers: Ending Homelessness and Expanding Economic Opportunity in America” (June 4, 2021), available at https://financialservices.house.gov/uploadedfiles/hhrg-117-ba00-20210609-sd002.pdf.

[5] Id; see also Statement, Ctr. on Budget & Pol’y Priorities, Updated – Parrott: New Build Back Better Legislation a Historic Step Forward (October 28, 2021), available at https://www.cbpp.org/press/statements/updated-parrott-new-build-back-better-framework-a-historic-step-forward.

[6] U.S. Dep’t of Hous. & Urb. Dev., Housing Choice Vouchers Fact Sheet, https://www.hud.gov/topics/housing_choice_voucher_program_section_8 (last visited Oct. 31, 2021).

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] H.R. 5376 – Build Back Better Act Before the H. Comm. on Rules, 117th Cong. (Oct. 28, 2021), available at https://rules.house.gov/bill/117/hr-5376. See section-by-section summary of the Build Bark Better framework at https://rules.house.gov/sites/democrats.rules.house.gov/files/Section_by_Section_BBB.pdf.

[10] Hybrid Markup – Reconciliation Pursuant to S. Con. Res. 14, the Concurrent Resolution on the Budget for Fiscal Year 2022; H.R. 5195 and H.R. 5196 Before the H. Comm. on Fin. Serv., 117th Cong. (Sept. 13-14, 2021), available at   https://financialservices.house.gov/calendar/eventsingle.aspx?EventID=408300. See Section 40009(a)(1), Housing Vouchers, of the approved Financial Services Committee Title at https://financialservices.house.gov/uploadedfiles/hmkp-117-ba00-20210913-sd004.pdf.

[11] See Statement, Ctr. on Budget & Pol’y Priorities, supra note 5.

[12] Ingrid Gould Ellen, What Do We Know About Housing Choice Vouchers? 80 Reg’l Sci. & Urb. Econ. (Jan. 2020).

[13] Robert Rosenheck, MD et al, Cost-Effectiveness of Supported Housing for Homeless Persons With Mental Illness, 60 Archives of Gen. Psychiatry 940 (Sept. 2003).

[14] Steven Swann, Economic Mobility and Build Back Better, Enter. Cmty. Partners (Oct. 29, 2021), https://www.enterprisecommunity.org/blog/economic-mobility-and-build-back-better-1.

[15] Memorandum from H. Comm. on Fin. Serv. Majority Staff to H. Comm. on Fin. Serv., October 15, 2021, Subcommittee Hearing entitled, “Zoned Out: Examining the Impact of Exclusionary Zoning on People, Resources, and Opportunity” (Oct. 9, 2021), available at https://financialservices.house.gov/uploadedfiles/hhrg-117-ba04-20211015-sd002.pdf.

[16] See, e.g., Kayla Cann, ‘We don’t take that:’ Why illegal discrimination toward Section 8 tenants goes unchecked in NJ, Asbury Park Press (Oct. 26, 2021, 10:25 PM), https://www.app.com/in-depth/news/investigations/2021/10/26/section-8-nj-housing-choice-voucher-discrimination-law-new-jersey/5602044001/.

[17] See Statement, Ctr. on Budget & Pol’y Priorities, supra note 5.

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