SACRAMENTO, CALIF.—There’s a rare opportunity to reform the nation’s rental assistance programs, according to leading housing experts.

Led by Secretary Shaun Donovan, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has proposed a major initiative aimed at improving the existing set of programs while serving more low-income Americans.

Donovan’s deep knowledge of rental housing and other factors have come together to make it the right time to act, according to Barbara Sard, senior adviser for rental assistance at HUD. Donovan’s experience includes serving as commissioner of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

While stressing that the Transforming Rental Assistance (TRA) initiative continues to evolve, Sard recently outlined the latest proposal at the Housing California conference.

She and other HUD officials have emphasized that changes are necessary to the existing ways of providing rental help in order to maintain a strong subsidized rental program and to address the physical needs of aging properties.

However, some housing groups have raised concerns about changing the familiar project-based rental assistance programs at a time when the financial markets are risk averse. They fear that a change will affect the comfort level of lenders and investors.

HUD provides rental assistance to more than 4.6 million households. Sard, who has been in her role for about nine months, said she has counted 13 different rental assistance programs at the agency, each with its own set of rules.

One of the goals of TRA is to simplify the hodgepodge of programs so they are governed by a single set of rules. The idea is to combine the best features of the existing voucher programs as well as to create a plan that will enable the housing owners to access private capital. Another goal is to encourage resident choice in their housing options.

The initiative was announced as part of the 2011 budget proposal, which seeks $350 million to preserve about 300,000 units of public and assisted housing and increase administrative efficiency.

HUD officials estimate that the units in phase one would be able to leverage about $7.5 billion from various sources for property improvements.

Sard said conversion will be on a voluntary basis and will not require a change in ownership. Owners would have to maintain the same number of deeply affordable units.

“We hope we will design a product people will want to participate in,” she said.

A number of project-based voucher policy changes are under consideration. One is to possibly allow public housing authorities to designate up to 25 percent of its vouchers, up from 20 percent, to be project-based, with a focus on supportive housing and areas where vouchers are difficult to use.