Both the Senate and House of Representatives have passed a bill that seeks sweeping reforms to the nation’s rental assistance programs.

The Housing Opportunity Through Modernization Act of 2016 received unanimous support in both houses. The House passed H.R. 3700 on Feb. 2, and the Senate approved the bill on July 14, sending the legislation to President Obama for his signature.

Sunia Zaterman
Sunia Zaterman

“This bill is significant for being the first low-income housing authorizing bill passed since QHWRA (Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act) in 1998,” says Sunia Zaterman, executive director of the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities. “It includes mostly noncontroversial provisions that have been under consideration for many years with strong bipartisan support focused on simplifying and streamlining existing programs.”

The bill makes several changes to the “project-basing” of housing choice vouchers. An agency would be able to project-base up to 20% of its authorized number of vouchers, plus an additional 10% of its vouchers to assist households in areas where vouchers are difficult to use or to assist people with disabilities, formerly homeless individuals, veterans, or seniors. The maximum term of an initial contract or extension is also increased from 15 to 20 years.

“Streamlining and expanding the use of project-based vouchers will give more tools to housing authorities to redevelop and replace aging housing stock, to create more housing options in low-poverty neighborhoods, and to better serve homeless and special-needs populations in supportive housing settings,” Zaterman says.

Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, also notes the significance of the changes to the nation’s rental assistance program.

Diane Yentel
Diane Yentel

“The bill will allow public housing agencies to project-base a greater share of their voucher assistance, as well as to project-base a greater share of units within a development,” she says. “The bill will also improve residents’ income review process, allowing families to retain 100% of increased earnings for longer periods, ensuring that subsidized rental housing programs incentivize work. And, the legislation makes important changes to the Family Unification Program (FUP), expanding access for youth aging out of foster care who are at risk of homelessness.”

The bill calls for FUP eligibility to be extended to former foster youth up to age 24 and to otherwise eligible youth who will leave foster care within 90 days and are homeless or at risk of homelessness. In addition, the bill extends the period for which youth who have left foster care may receive assistance to 36 months, according to an analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

It’s surprising and notable that H.R. 3700, which was introduced by Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-Mo.) received unanimous support.

“At a time when Congress seems more polarized than ever, it is heartening to see both representatives and senators from both sides of the aisle come together to unanimously enact important, substantive legislation to streamline and improve affordable housing programs,” Yentel says.

Several important factors were key to its passage, according to Zaterman.

“The House Financial Services Committee had a deliberate strategy to address the ‘low-hanging fruit,’” she says. “Most provisions were not controversial and had strong bipartisan support in Congress. There was also a strong pent-up demand for simplifying and streamlining existing programs by a broad spectrum of housing advocates and interests including public, private, and community-based organizations. In addition, the Congressional Budget Office projected $311 million in savings over five years, appealing to fiscal conservatives.”