Urban Wire What is the real “damaging status quo” for housing?
Maya Brennan, Rolf Pendall
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As secretary of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Ben Carson views federal rental assistance as broken, part of a “damaging status quo” that creates dependency in low-income Americans.

The status quo for housing is indeed broken, but not because it supports people too much. To the contrary, today’s housing system provides life-changing and even life-saving support to too few, and it reinforces divisions among people by race and income.

The precarious state of housing assistance

Rental cost burdens are at a high-water mark in every state, but federal rental assistance reaches just one in four eligible households. As a result, 8.3 million renter households spent more than half of their income on housing or lived in severely substandard housing in 2015. These precarious housing situations lead to damaging trade-offs that undermine health and well-being, trade-offs that older and disabled households often can’t avoid when they try to get by in unassisted rental housing.

That’s why HUD and its government and private-sector partners already devote more than half of federal rental assistance to older adults or disabled people. For these households, the focus should be on sustaining health, safety, and human dignity, not on discouraging dependency. As the number of senior renters is growing faster than any other group (and 54 percent are already cost burdened despite getting the lion’s share of HUD assistance), HUD’s rental assistance budget should increase accordingly.

As for other HUD-assisted renters, Secretary Carson’s remarks perpetuate a distortion. At the median, households headed by a working-age, nondisabled person receive rental assistance from HUD for less than three years. Many of these families include children, for whom residential stability in a safe and affordable home ought to be as important as providing security and comfort to older and disabled households.

Moreover, families who must contend with private rental markets may be even more likely than HUD-assisted households to get trapped in poverty by evictions and other forms of housing instability, as Matt Desmond has documented so compellingly in his book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.

Solutions to help families realize their potential

This isn’t to say that federal rental assistance programs can’t do better at helping mothers, fathers, and children realize their full potential. Resident health, education, and financial empowerment programs carried out between housing agencies and other systems can create positive results if they have enough institutional and financial support, but housing agencies lack the budget and the incentives to build such partnerships. And renters seeking to leap into homeownership may hit a brick wall because of limited access to credit, difficulty amassing a down payment, and other barriers.

Among other changes that would help assisted renter families reach their full potential, measures to help low-income families escape neighborhoods that threaten health and safety hold the most promise. Too many children, including those in families with rental assistance, live in toxic, risky, or violent neighborhoods. These conditions can matter for kids even before they’re born. In-utero exposure to air pollution from traffic exhaust or industrial sources increases the risk of preterm birth, low birth weight, and other poor outcomes.

But HUD recently suspended ongoing reforms that would allow more assisted households to rent in high-opportunity neighborhoods where they and their children can live safely and productively. HUD assistance should change to ensure that winning the housing assistance lottery is a ticket to a safe and healthy neighborhood.

Serious housing shortages call for a more robust increase in supply in many metropolitan areas. Supply shortages are even more troubling for low-income renters when paired with a high demand for market-rate housing in transit-accessible neighborhoods. But the incentives for private investment in housing don’t do enough to spur a response. Building new housing even for moderate-income renters doesn’t pencil out in many metropolitan areas, in part because of restrictive land-use regulations. On top of that, developers of affordable housing can seldom compete for land in walkable or transit-oriented areas.                                                      

Healing the damage

The status quo has been broken for years, but demand and supply pressures have brought housing affordability to the lowest point in decades. In the middle of a housing crisis, now is the worst time for HUD to cut funding and reverse policy reforms that hold great promise for reducing dependency by breaking the cycle of instability and poverty.

As we suggest in our Housing for Equity and Inclusion papers, many big and small changes could make the housing system an effective safety net, a platform for well-being, and a building block for inclusive communities and could attract private money to inclusive development in the process. We hope HUD and Congress will use this evidence to support continued reforms to sustain and improve the nation’s housing policies and programs, which can help families and children thrive and reach their full potential.

Research Areas Housing
Tags Federal housing programs and policies Housing affordability Housing subsidies Disability equity policy
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center Research to Action Lab