The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
September 23, 2014

What happens when families lose housing assistance? We don't know

September 23, 2014

Recently, the Washington Post profiled Nkechi Feaster, a woman whose short-term housing assistance had ended and was struggling to pay her rent in DC’s increasingly expensive housing market.

Homeless after losing her job during the recession, Feaster ended up in the District’s rapid rehousing program, which paid her rent for a year with the hope that she’d find work and stabilize her situation during that time. At the end of the year, she faced a steep cliff when her housing subsidy ended and she still had not found a steady job. Instead, she was back to the cycle of instability and toxic stress that undermines the quality of life for too many low-income families.

The Post notes that while the District and other cities are placing their bets on rapid rehousing strategies, we actually know very little about what happens to families when they lose their housing assistance. Unlike other kinds of federal benefits, federal housing assistance—public housing and vouchers—have no mandatory time limits and, as long as they follow the rules, most recipients can continue to receive deep subsidies until they “income out,” i.e., their income gets too high to qualify.

But with cutbacks to housing assistance over the past decade and rising need, housing authorities are under pressure to do more with less, and some are beginning to impose time limits for new participants. Unlike the run up to welfare reform in the 1990s, there has been no formal evaluation of these policies, or experiments to test how different strategies affect how participants fare when they leave assistance.

Our new report takes advantage of the federal Moving to Opportunity demonstration, which tracked nearly 5,000 assisted families over 15 years, to look at what happens to households when they stop receiving housing assistance. What we found suggests that the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and local housing authorities should proceed with caution and make sure that families are truly prepared for what is often a very bumpy and traumatic transition.

Like the woman in the Post article, even those who had managed to earn—or marry—their way off assistance struggled because of unstable jobs or changes in the housing market that left them unable to afford to pay their rent or mortgage. And those who had lost assistance for negative reasons—lease violations or evictions—were more likely to experience homelessness.

Preventing these problems and reducing the trauma for housing assistance leavers at both ends of the spectrum will require creative solutions. For those who are working hard to improve their situation, it would make sense to gradually reduce their subsidy rather than eliminate it all at once. This gradual reduction should be coupled with financial counseling, including debt repair and budgeting.

Some housing authorities are experimenting with these graduated kinds of systems, and HUD should invest in a rigorous evaluation to see if they can help prevent some of the instability we found in our research.

At the other end of the spectrum, housing authorities should develop intensive eviction prevention protocols, targeting households with lease violations with crisis intervention services to try to ensure they remain housed. And, if they can, housing authorities should find partners who can help them to provide wraparound services to target at-risk families, such as those provided through the Urban Institute’s dual-generation HOST model. HOST provides vulnerable families with intensive case management, clinical services, and employment services for adults coupled with mental wellness and out-of-school time programs for youth.

Services like these are costly, but without them, our research shows that troubled families are likely to end up homeless, where the costs to help them will be far higher.

PhotoA formerly-homeless Chicago family in the home they received through a housing assistance program. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

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