With Republicans set to control both houses of Congress and the executive branch, some affordable housing advocates fear a future in which federal rental assistance programs will be starved for resources. But that does not have to be the case. The transition to a fresh set of decision-makers in Washington offers an opportunity to forge an enduring bipartisan consensus on the methods and goals of these programs.
Achieving this consensus, however, will require something that has been in short supply in Washington: a willingness to engage those with opposing views and to compromise on smaller points to achieve larger, more important objectives.
The grand bargain we envision has two key elements that incorporate thinking from both the left and the right.
The first element—a new “mobility voucher” program—has its origins within the Obama administration. Implementing it would require a significant dedication of additional federal resources. The second element involves reforms to existing federal rental assistance programs that reflect concepts with a Republican pedigree: deregulation, greater self-sufficiency through asset building, and more tightly linking federal housing aid to work.
Any discussion about funding levels for federal rental assistance programs must begin with these facts: Just one in four eligible households receives a federal housing subsidy. In many communities, the subsidies are allocated through long waiting lists and by lottery. The already strong demand for rental housing will intensify as millions of young Millennials form households for the first time and the overall U.S. population grows increasingly diverse. Federal resources for rental assistance will be stretched even thinner without additional support.
With budgets so tight, it makes sense to focus on young children first. The mobility voucher initiative would give “very low-income” families with young children the financial wherewithal to move to rental homes in neighborhoods with better schools and greater access to employment and other opportunities. Why is this important? Most people intuitively understand that where you grow up as a child has a big impact on your longer-term educational and employment prospects. This view is bolstered by new research showing that moving to a lower-poverty neighborhood significantly improves college attendance rates and earnings for children who relocated to these neighborhoods at an early age.
The mobility voucher proposal should include a long-term evaluation component to assess its downstream impacts on the children who benefit. Our expectation is that it will show higher educational attainment, higher wages, and greater tax contributions by these children when they become adults, thereby justifying the upfront investments in the program.
We believe most Democrats in Congress would eagerly support a mobility voucher initiative. But so, too, should Republicans, despite its initial costs: Just as advocates for school-choice vouchers argue that no child should be consigned to a failing school, no child should be consigned to a failing neighborhood, particularly a dangerous one.
Republicans need go no further than the 2016 Republican Party platform, which highlights the importance of where homes are located in its description of the American Dream as a “decent place to live, a safe place to raise kids, [and] a welcoming place to retire.” Importantly, the platform recognizes the negative consequences of high rental cost burdens, the very problem housing vouchers are designed to alleviate. Speaker Paul Ryan’s anti-poverty plan also recognizes the link between affordable housing and upward economic mobility. It specifically calls for greater portability of vouchers so those assisted can access other, non-housing benefits like a better education and jobs.
As part of the grand bargain we envision, Congressional Democrats must also be open-minded to Republican ideas to reform existing programs. Implementing these reforms could help insulate the programs from future funding reductions.
Earlier this year, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) introduced legislation that would remove the cap on the number of local public housing agencies (39 currently with authority to add another 100) that can participate in the Moving to Work program. Moving to Work provides an exemption from Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) regulations so that local agencies have greater flexibility to resolve the specific problems experienced in their communities. Housing agencies have successfully used this flexibility to encourage assisted tenants to increase their earnings. Others have focused on deconcentrating poverty by promoting mixed-income housing. Encouraging these types of local innovations and tracking their impact with rigorous evaluations should be a top priority.
In his anti-poverty plan, Speaker Ryan cites the failure of HUD to more broadly support self-sufficiency so that housing assistance is no longer needed. Yet HUD’s Family Self-Sufficiency (FSS) program, based originally on a proposal by President George H.W. Bush to encourage assisted households to increase their earnings and build assets, currently serves only about 70,000 households, a small fraction of those receiving housing assistance. FSS and its cousin program, Jobs Plus, have achieved some promising results. Expanding and strengthening these initiatives is long overdue.
Speaker Ryan also emphasizes the importance of requiring work for work-capable recipients of welfare assistance, including housing assistance. His anti-poverty plan estimates about 880,000 work-capable households receiving housing assistance reported no annual income from wages. While a majority of households assisted by HUD are categorized as either elderly or disabled, Democrats should not have a reflexively negative reaction when work requirements are suggested. If someone is receiving housing assistance and is capable of work, why not encourage that person to get on the path to self-sufficiency and provide the tools (counseling, child care) to begin the journey?
Add to this mix 1) a comprehensive national effort to eliminate regulatory barriers to affordable housing, 2) greater support for the low-income housing tax credit to increase the supply of affordable rental homes, and 3) a renewed commitment to reduce homelessness—three areas where there is already bipartisan consensus—and we have the makings of a serious national housing policy. What is needed now is the spark that gets the conversation started.