The urgency of the need for solutions to the housing problem in the United States was heightened during and after the heat of the COVID-19 crisis. The housing safety net has proved insufficient in providing safe housing for many families even when the economy is in a healthy state.
About 580,000 are recorded to have been homeless at the same time in January 2020: a clear indication of the fact that a lot of people cannot afford housing. Most of these people are linked to low-income households and the effects that the lack of access to quality housing has on children raised under such conditions.
The U.S government through its policymakers and government agencies like the HUD has made available different kinds of rental assistance options that ease the burden of high housing costs for as many that need it.
The high cost of housing can be linked to higher risks of homelessness, housing instability, and overcrowding.
Housing vouchers are one of the rental assistance schemes deployed by the government to provide help with housing for as many as need it. These vouchers provide housing help to about 2.2 million households every year.
The Housing Choice Voucher Program was established in 1974 under Section 8 (Existing Housing Certificate Program) of the US Housing Act by Congress. This program provides housing aid by covering the difference between total local rents and what families can pay. Hence, the government covers whatever is left of the rent after a family benefitting from this scheme has paid what they can afford.
These vouchers are administered by Public Housing Agencies (PHAs) allowing low-income families to afford safe and decent housing in apartments, single-family homes, and townhouses of their choice.
This is one of the most beneficial housing assistance given to eligible households by the federal government. The program is directed at individuals who pay half or more of their income for rent and utility bills. Having a housing voucher enables them to divert funds that would have gone to housing to other pertinent needs like feeding, healthcare, and welfare.
Housing Choice Vouchers as a solution to Homelessness and Housing Instability
People who earn the lowest income are more likely to experience housing challenges and this demographic has more people of color (62%) including Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans.
A survey by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) shows that about 11.2 million households had severe cost burdens in 2018. These renters were found to have been paying more than half of their income for housing fees.
It was also pointed out that 99 percent of these respondents had low incomes (80 percent of the local median or less) and three-quarters fell into the extremely low-income class (at the federal poverty line or 30 percent of the local median).
It is also essential to note that many of these households include dependents like seniors, children, and people with disabilities.
Eligibility criteria for housing vouchers include being a member of the low-income population as defined by the HUD (earning 80 percent of the local median or less), being homeless or at risk of being homeless, and fleeing unsafe living conditions such as domestic violence, stalking, or sexual assault.
A major advantage of being a housing voucher beneficiary compared to other federal government rental assistance options is the ability to choose the housing unit to which the subsidy will be applied. This means that beneficiaries get the opportunity to move to low-poverty neighborhoods.
This can be healthy for influencing an upward progression in the lives of the members of such households.
For example, it has been observed that children in households that became beneficiaries of housing vouchers after having been homeless are more likely to exhibit positive social behaviors and since they change schools less often, they are more likely to excel in school.
Also, the permanent nature of housing vouchers makes them a more suitable option for combating the housing problem in the country. The vouchers should have inherent flexibility that allows for beneficiaries to be covered even when their income is reduced such as was seen with job losses and reduced working hours during the pandemic.
This federal government solution to housing problems is not without certain drawbacks concerning successful implementation.
Housing vouchers are one of the major renter assistance solutions provided by the federal government. However, only 1 in 4 of the eligible households benefit from this due to funding limitations.
Expanding voucher availability will be immensely beneficial for the low-income population paying over half of their income for housing. A 2015 projection by Congress revealed that 8 million households would benefit from a ten-year phasing in of voucher entitlement which would cost about $460 million today.
Setting a mandatory level of funding compared to the discretionary level being operated presently will further solidify the feasibility of this projection. Applicants have to endure long waiting lists while they stay afloat.
Though housing choice vouchers are supposed to enable the beneficiaries to choose their living units, some landlords seem to reject tenants with vouchers. It is illegal for landlords to deny people living spaces based on sex, race, gender, natural origin, disability, or color.
However, in most states, landlords are not bound by “source of income” laws which prevent them from rejecting prospective tenants that intend to use any kind of housing aid.
One can find a connection between this rejection of voucher holders and systemic racism since a larger percentage of voucher holders are colored. Women of color account for the majority of voucher holders.
Housing Vouchers vs. Housing Supply Investments
A blend of the expansion of housing vouchers for eligible households and an increase in housing supply investments will be tremendously helpful in cutting down cases of overcrowding, homelessness, and housing instability.
The expansion of voucher numbers means that more families get much-needed help with safe and quality housing in low-poverty neighborhoods of their choice. Increasing housing supply investments provides more options with affordable rent for low-income households.
This can also be used to provide housing for individuals with specific needs such as seniors, persons with disability, and people with chronic disease conditions. The discretionary funding request for the 2022 fiscal year by the Biden-led administration included funding for 200,000 vouchers.
Although this was not a comprehensive plan for the President’s goal of increasing the availability of vouchers, it shows the importance of the federal government in reducing housing problems.
Research has shown that housing vouchers are a more cost-effective housing assistance option offered by the federal government using the same amount as would be used in the construction of new housing units.
The question of the necessity of more housing units comes to bear when the nature of the housing market is observed. In places with a tight market, there is an obvious need for more units.
Hence, increasing housing supply investments will be necessary. However, where the market is soft, it is not necessary. Instead, it might counter some of the benefits of housing vouchers, particularly the beneficiaries’ right to choose.
Being able to choose one’s housing unit is necessary when we consider the possible need to be closer to a new workplace, your children’s school, or a relative that needs special care.
In a housing economy where more attention is paid to housing supply investments, these units are available at subsidized rates.
Consequently, there is an increased tendency for low-income households to dominate some areas more than others. The result of this is the segregation of these people leading to their concentration in places with substandard schools, healthcare, and other disadvantages.