Urban Institute nonprofit social and economic policy research

Housing Assistance Matters Initiative

Decent and affordable housing has far-reaching consequences for people’s health, quality of life, and access to opportunities, but these consequences are not always well understood. To inform public debate about assisted housing policy and strengthen policy outcomes, Housing Assistance Matters highlights research and analysis about the need for and benefits of well-managed public and assisted housing. Using a multimedia approach, this initiative draws upon research by Urban Institute scholars and others to explore key connections between all forms of rental assistance and outcomes for individuals, families, and communities.


One in Four: America's Housing Assistance Lottery


Housing policy has the ability to exacerbate or mitigate extreme income inequality in American cities. Where incomes are growing and inequality is increasing, cities like New York and San Francisco, rising prices and rents can displace poor families. But affordable housing secures a place for low-income people in communities with growing tax bases and improved services. Having access to better schools, good transportation networks, recreational facilities, and other community services enables families to improve their quality of life and provide greater opportunities for their children.

Unfortunately, affordable housing is a scarce resource in many cities. America's housing policy has never fully met the demand for affordable rental housing, and the number of households served by federal rental assistance has essentially plateaued. Today, only 24 percent of the 19 million eligible households receive assistance—basically, only one in four households wins the housing assistance lottery.

Who are those winners? How great is the need? What happens to those who don't win?

Mapping America's Rental Housing Crisis


Many Americans struggle to afford a decent, safe place to live in today’s market. Over the past five years, rents have risen while the number of renters who need moderately priced housing has increased. These two pressures make finding affordable housing even tougher for very poor households in America. For every 100 extremely low-income (ELI) renter households in the country, there are only 29 affordable and available rental units. As defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), extremely low-income households earn 30 percent or less of area median income.

Not one county in the United States has an even balance between its ELI households and its affordable and available rental units. As a result, ELI households have to search harder for a place to live, spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent, or live in substandard housing.

Some markets are tighter than others. Of the top 100 US counties in 2012, Suffolk County, Massachusetts, has the smallest gap in units affordable and available for every 100 ELI households; Cobb County, Georgia, has the largest.

This situation would be much worse without HUD rental assistance, which helps almost 3.2 million ELI households afford homes. HUD assistance comes in three forms: public housing, Housing Choice Vouchers, and privately owned but federally assisted housing. Without HUD rental assistance, the number of affordable and available rental units for ELI households would significantly decrease.

The Urban Institute will update this map periodically. And, as data become available, we will track the affordability gap for ELI households, as well as very low income and low-income households.

Crossroads: The Intersection of Housing and Education Policy

When low-income families struggle to find a place to live, the debilitating effects afflict everyone in the household, including children. When families frequently move from house to house, or worse yet, have no home, students experience difficulties with classroom participation and academics, sometimes leading them to repeat grades or drop out of school.

But the damage is not just limited to the students experiencing housing insecurity. When new students enter schools throughout the year, whole classrooms can be disrupted by the turbulence, leading to worse academic outcomes for all students, not just those who move.

Under such conditions, educators can do little to help their students learn and prepare for life. Seeing their students come and go in a matter of weeks, not years, robs teachers of the chance to get to know the kids, evaluate their strengths and weaknesses over time, and adjust their lesson plans to help them improve in their areas of need.

And this problem is growing. During the 2012–13 school year, the number of homeless public school students grew by 8 percent to about 1.3 million kids—a new record high.

One city that has been on the front line of this struggle is Tacoma, Washington, where residents and schools have battled homelessness and housing instability for years.

To tackle the problem, Tacoma’s housing authority and school district launched a collaborative program that aims to help 50 poor families with children in the city’s most disadvantaged school find stable housing, job training, and treatment for substance and physical abuse, while simultaneously stabilizing the school’s student population.

This interactive feature chronicles the theory and practice behind the McCarver Elementary School Special Housing Program and the buzz it’s creating in the housing, education, political, and philanthropic spaces. The feature also maps out the current research about using housing as a platform for delivering social services and highlights areas researchers need to continue exploring.

The Housing Assistance Matters Initiative is a project of the Urban Institute, made possible by support from Housing Authority Insurance, Inc. (HAI, Inc.), to provide fact-based analysis about public and assisted housing. The Urban Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization and retains independent and exclusive control over the substance and quality of any Housing Assistance Matters products. The views expressed in this and other Housing Assistance Matters Initiative products are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute or HAI, Inc.