Urban Wire It’s Time to Reinforce the Housing Safety Net by Adopting Universal Vouchers for Low-Income Renters
Mary K. Cunningham
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As the economy comes to an abrupt halt, a lack of action to protect renters means many will likely miss their rent payments next month. With fewer people able to save for emergencies and many already struggling to make their monthly payments, renters are more vulnerable to housing insecurity than homeowners. Low-income renters—many of whom work in service industries (PDF) hit hard by the pandemic shutdown—are at high risk for eviction and homelessness during shelter-in-place measures enacted to contain the pandemic.

Although an important step, pausing evictions is not enough. Eventually, the rent will be due and someone needs to pay it. Low-income renters, especially those who lose employment during the crisis, will have a hard time paying back rent, and they could face housing situations that spiral out of control. The recent federal stimulus package didn’t do enough to address increases in housing insecurity for the nearly 11 million low-income renter households paying more than half their income toward rent before the pandemic. But there’s still time to help these renters at risk of financial instability.

We already have a system for helping low-income renters, the federal Housing Choice Voucher Program. But because of underfunding, only one in five households who qualifies for housing assistance receives it. If housing assistance were available to everyone who qualified for it before the pandemic, managing a sudden income loss would be easier to navigate. Households would simply provide documentation to public housing authorities, and they would adjust the rent. The government would make up the difference, protecting the renter and landlord from loss of income. The program would have provided social insurance against exactly the type of problem the country is facing right now.

Providing rental assistance to those who already qualify, many of whom are among the millions already on waiting lists for assistance, could help stabilize families and communities and prevent costly episodes of homelessness. It would also guarantee landlords receive rent on time and can, in turn, pay their mortgage, calming the housing market. Ensuring that people who needed assistance before the pandemic—and need it now more than ever—can receive it would stabilize a huge share of the rental market, and it could inform efforts to expand rental assistance to people who find themselves newly at risk amid the effects of COVID-19.

What would it cost to help low-income renters who already qualified for assistance stay housed during the pandemic?

We estimated the cost of providing rental assistance, modeled on the Housing Choice Voucher Program, to those four of five households currently eligible for but not receiving assistance because of inadequate funding allocations before the pandemic. Households with an income of up to 50 percent of the area median who pay more than 30 percent of their income on rent are eligible for the program. View our methodology here (PDF).

We found that expanding assistance to everyone who qualifies would cover an additional 19.7 million people in 8.2 million households beyond those currently receiving assistance. The average cost of a household subsidy for the new recipients would be $628 per month, or $7,530 for a year. The US total for extending coverage to these additional households would be about $62 billion per year.

That figure would likely be closer to $100 billion to account for the increasing number of renters who would need assistance because of income loss, to adjust the tenant rent share for those who have income loss during the pandemic, and to reflect updated rental costs (we are working on updating our model with more recent rent data). This is a large sum, but it pales in comparison with the cost of the $2 trillion stimulus, and it is critical to preventing large-scale housing instability, eviction, homelessness, mortgage defaults for landlords, and the collapse of the housing market.

Housing affordability is a challenge across the country, but rents are particularly high in places where the pandemic is concentrated. New York City, Seattle, and San Francisco have some of the highest rents in the country. Expansion of unemployment benefits and $1,200 stimulus checks will not go very far in high-cost rental markets. The map below shows the differences in the cost of providing rental assistance to renters who qualified before the pandemic across states.




How would assistance get to households?

Housing assistance is needed, and fast. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and public housing authorities could provide housing assistance through housing vouchers, or the Department of Treasury could provide more stimulus checks.

Cash assistance has the advantage of potentially moving through the system faster, but it does not address differences in rents across housing markets. In addition, there may be some road blocks in getting assistance to households who didn’t file taxes in 2018.  

Vouchers have the advantage of reflecting local rent value. They can also adjust as people go back to work and their income increases or to reflect their unemployment benefits, which could be accounted for to avoid paying double assistance.

And, importantly, with a voucher, payments go directly to landlords, which ensures rents get paid, and landlords in turn can pay their mortgages. Bureaucratic hurdles that have prevented landlords from participating in the voucher program, such as unit inspections, could be waived. Considering the alternative costs or potential vacancies, many more landlords would find participating in a program with a government guarantee much more attractive.  This program already exists and could be scaled to meet need. In the past, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and HUD provided emergency rental vouchers (PDF) during Hurricanes Rita and Katrina.

With more than a half a million people already homeless, nearly 11 million renters struggling to pay rent, and housing assistance programs that only reach one of five qualifying households, the housing safety net was woefully unprepared to survive the weight of the pandemic. The effects of long-term neglect are increasingly apparent as COVID-19 outbreaks threaten people living in congregate shelters who have no alternatives, and families are sheltering in crowded motel rooms with their children.

We could soon see a wave of stories about people who were housed at the beginning of the pandemic but who lost their housing after the eviction moratorium was lifted. Now is the time to rebuild the housing safety net with a universal housing assistance program and help millions of low-income renters stay housed.


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Tags COVID-19
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center