Urban Wire What new programs and policies should public housing authorities be testing?
Mary K. Cunningham
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Throughout this month, Urban Institute scholars will offer evidence-based ideas for programs and policies public housing agencies can test through the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Moving to Work Demonstration.

Our systems for delivering housing assistance to America’s poorest families are facing critical challenges and are in desperate need of fresh thinking and innovation.

The first challenge: there isn’t enough rental assistance to meet the tremendous need. Nearly five million households receive help paying their rent through federal programs, but only one in four of the 19 million households that qualify for rental assistance actually receive it. With nearly 11.4 million households paying more than half their income on rent, the problem of housing affordability in America has hit historic highs.

Second, housing assistance programs do not go very far in helping families access better neighborhoods and become self-sufficient. Only about 13 percent of families who receive housing vouchers live in low-poverty neighborhoods, and nearly 350,000 children live in extremely high poverty neighborhoods, leaving them exposed to violent crime, rampant drug activity, and poor-quality schools. To help families move up and out of publicly assisted housing, we know some ways to increase income, but we need to know more and we need information about how to expand the efforts that work.

How can policymakers improve housing programs? Since 1996, Congress’s Moving to Work Demonstration (MTW) has allowed a few dozen public housing authorities (PHAs) to request waivers exempting them from certain US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) regulations. Those PHAs can test different approaches to providing housing assistance and improving management practices.

The goal of the MTW is to design housing policies that increase housing choice and promote self-sufficiency among families. MTW sites have tinkered with time limits on housing subsidies, gradually reducing housing assistance, implementing work requirements, and a range of administrative efficiencies.  Unfortunately, these early MTW efforts have not yet been fully evaluated. With recent authorization from Congress, HUD plans to expand the MTW to an additional 100 PHAs over the next seven years.  

As HUD expands the MTW, the department should adopt a rigorous evaluation framework that generates lessons for policymakers, practitioners, advocates, and researchers developing the next generation of housing policy and programs. It is also important that HUD and PHAs think boldly.

At the Urban Institute, our scholars have worked to find evidence-based solutions to rental assistance challenges, offering ideas for how to improve administration of the Housing Choice Voucher Program, connect housing assistance to schools, design service programs for public housing residents, create programs that help move people to better neighborhoods, and think about new ways to structure rental assistance.

Drawing on our research and promising practices from across the country, Urban scholars will offer evidence-based ideas for HUD and PHAs to consider as they embark on the Moving to Work Demonstration. We hope this Urban Wire series offers bold, actionable ideas that can help shape the next generation of housing policy and improve housing for America’s poorest families.


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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Housing
Tags Federal housing programs and policies Housing markets Multifamily housing
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center