Urban Wire Housing and Human Services Programs Aren’t Meeting Rural Renters’ Needs
Anna Morgan, Corianne Payton Scally
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Housing is foundational to individual and family outcomes. Unaffordable, unstable, or unsafe housing damages health and economic well-being and limits access to services and opportunities.

But finding and maintaining quality affordable housing can be a challenge for families in rural areas. Many have disproportionately low incomes because of chronic economic decline in rural America. This, combined with lack of housing supply, means one in four rural renters spends more than 50 percent of their income on housing.

Federal housing programs can reduce rent burdens and exist so families can use their income for other basic needs. Human services programs help families meet other needs through supports like cash and food assistance, job training, and supports for parents and children. When functioning effectively, human services and housing programs can work in tandem to ensure rural families are stable and supported. 

To understand how well housing and human services programs are meeting rural needs, we spoke with human services providers in 12 diverse rural counties with our partners 2M Research, focusing on four human services programs: Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood; Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting; Health Profession Opportunity Grants; and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Through our research, we found housing and human services delivery programs aren’t currently meeting rural renters’ needs—but a few strategies could strengthen both types of programs to ensure renters are getting the supports they need.

Programs to reduce housing costs for rural renters do not fully meet the need

Human services providers told us the rural families they served lacked affordable housing options and faced additional challenges because of low-paying jobs, poor quality of available housing, and high-cost burdens for renters. 

The following federal programs provide affordable rental options in rural America, but few have significantly expanded supply in the recent past.

Human services staff explained that these housing supports don’t adequately meet the needs of the families they serve. They shared concerns that federal income requirements for the programs they administer result in benefit cliffs for families, which limits their ability to maintain stable housing and meet basic needs. Staff expressed further frustrations with funding limitations and federal guidelines that prevent human services programs from providing direct support to address a client’s immediate needs, including finding and keeping housing.

How can policymakers and service providers meet rural families’ needs?

Our research underscores a few solutions policymakers and service providers can consider to fill the gaps.

  • Expand federal housing programs in rural areas. Expanding the programs above and increasing their budgets could help reach more rural families.
  • Partner with nonprofits and local organizations. Non-federal human service providers, like nonprofits, have more flexibility in service provision because they have more diverse funding streams, such as private donations. They can help fill gaps—such as through rental assistance, utility assistance, housing application fees, furniture donations, short-term housing, and emergency shelter—when federal program resources don’t cover all the need.

    Interviewees said local partnerships with other human service programs, local nonprofit organizations, religious institutions, and, in some cases, local landlords, were also critical to meeting residents’ needs. Some staff explained that they create and share regional resource guides to help point families to other resources they may need, including transitional housing and financial literacy and savings programs.
  • Deliver services to the recipients’ homes. Housing in rural areas is often more spread out than in urban areas and public transportation may be unreliable, nonexistent, or too costly for families. Some interviewees said their clients rely on neighbors to drive them to service locations if they lacked their own car or driver’s license. 

    The COVID-19 pandemic offered some human services programs flexibility, and they received additional resources bring services directly to participants’ homes, such as improving their internet access via hotspots and service discounts. Others had home visits as an integral program component already and simply shifted to meeting in safe spaces outdoors during the pandemic.

Rural families urgently need adequate housing supports and effective human services. Without these interconnected supports, families are forced to make harmful trade-offs between essential needs. Our research shows boosting available housing supports and strengthening human service programs—by increasing their flexibility, growing partnerships, and continuing innovations to overcome service delivery barriers—are key to improving rural families’ social and economic well-being.


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Research Areas Housing
Tags Rural people and places Housing stability Welfare and safety net programs
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center
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