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Rising Need for Housing Assistance Reaches Lowest Point in Nearly 25 Years

As the safety net has expanded over the past generation, the food stamp rolls have doubled, Medicaid enrollment has tripled and payments from the earned-income tax credit have nearly quadrupled.

But one major form of aid has grown more scarce.

After decades of rising rents, housing assistance for the poorest tenants has fallen to the lowest level in nearly a quarter-century. The three main federal programs for the neediest renters — public housing, Section 8, and Housing Choice Vouchers — serve 287,000 fewer households than they did at their peak in 2004, a new analysis shows. That is a 6 percent drop, while the number of eligible households without aid grew by about a quarter, to 15 million.

“We’re not just treading water — we’re falling further behind,” said Chris Herbert, the managing director of the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, which prepared the analysis at the request of The New York Times. “That was an eye-opener, even for me.”

In an exception to the trend of falling aid, the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit helped build several million subsidized apartments, but most are not affordable to the neediest renters without additional aid.

Nearly two-thirds of renters in the bottom income quintile face “severe cost burdens,” the Harvard analysis found, meaning they spend more than half their income for shelter. That is a record high, up from about half two decades ago, and it coincides with government findings of record homelessness this year.

Unlike entitlement programs such as food stamps or Medicaid, which automatically grow with need, rental aid is set by Congress each year and reaches only a small share of eligible households.

Rising rents have constrained the programs’ growth by making aid more expensive.

Housing aid also lacks the business allies that support other programs. It suffers from the stigma left by problems in public housing, though most help now consists of vouchers for private dwellings. And housing aid is especially concentrated among Black households, exposing it to racial opposition.

“For a whole variety of reasons, it’s been harder to expand housing assistance than other programs for low-income families, though they generally serve the same people,” said Ingrid Gould Ellen, a housing expert at New York University.

The experience of Tiffany Frazier illustrates the weakness of the housing safety net. A caseworker with the South Carolina Department of Mental Health, Ms. Frazier, 35, lost Section 8 housing two years ago when faulty plumbing flooded her Charleston apartment.

With the waiting list for subsidized apartments closed and private rents beyond reach, she lives in her cousin’s converted garage and shares a bed with her 14-year-old son, Kam’Ryn — a bed mate bulky enough to play high school football.

They tease each other about snoring, but the displacement has unsettled them. Kam’Ryn’s grades fell, and Ms. Frazier got so depressed from doubling up, initially with her sister, that she took a medical leave from her previous job.

“Dear God, I’m dying!!!!!!!” she wrote in her journal. “I can’t sleep. I can’t focus. I feel like I’m failing.”

Though she recently earned a master’s degree and a raise to $40,000 a year, an apartment would consume about half her income, a burden too high to sustain.

“I wish people could understand — there’s just no place for people like me to go,” she said.

While housing assistance has never reached all who qualify, for decades it rapidly expanded. From the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s, the three core programs, which generally limit shelter costs to 30 percent of income, grew by 3.7 million households — about 125,000 a year.

That ended in 1995, when Republicans took control of Congress. Conservatives saw the programs as failed welfare efforts, with rents as low as zero, no work requirements and a constituency of urban Democrats.

The expansion stalled, then aid shrank. Since peaking in 2004, the number of households served has fallen by 16,000 a year, the Harvard analysis shows.

The decline stems partly from the demolition of distressed public housing, with only partial replacement of the lost dwellings. The number of Section 8 apartments also declined, as contracts let old properties switch to market rents. Vouchers grew but not enough to compensate.

While vouchers seek to give tenants more choice, many landlords refuse to take them. About 40 percent of voucher holders do not sign leases in the allotted time, and most forfeit the assistance.

In the past three decades, Medicaid has added more than 60 million people, but housing aid reaches fewer households than in 1994. These are among the explanations:

Nothing constrains housing aid more than its status as discretionary spending: The programs can spend only what Congress approves each year. Entitlement programs get automatic funding increases to serve anyone who qualifies.

Discretionary spending is the part of the budget most frequently targeted by opponents of government spending, and discretionary status makes housing compete with more popular causes: Roads and bridges are financed by the same appropriations bill.

In the past 40 years, entitlements have grown 15 times as fast as discretionary programs outside of defense, Robert Greenstein of the Brookings Institution has found. “The fact that housing aid is discretionary has really hindered its growth,” he said.

More than 19 million households qualify for rental aid by having “very low incomes”— half the local median or less — but only 4.3 million get help. (In Charleston, a very low income for a family of four is less than about $49,000.)

“What we have by design is a housing lottery, where only one in every four or five eligible households gets assistance,” said Diane Yentel, who leads the National Low Income Housing Coalition, an advocacy group.

It costs more than $11,000 a year on average to provide a voucher. To reach all who qualify would require tens of billions a year, and the price is growing.

Vouchers fill the gap between what shelter costs and what the government says tenants can afford, generally 30 percent of their income. With rents rising faster than wages, especially at the bottom, the cost of the subsidy keeps rising. Since 2000, the average voucher cost, adjusted for inflation, has grown more than 30 percent.

Even as the three programs reach fewer people, their costs are at a record high. “HUD faces a growing challenge just to pay for what it’s got,” said Whitney Airgood-Obrycki, an analyst at the Harvard center, referring to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which runs the programs.

Some poverty programs attract business allies, who profit from and bolster their growth. Medicaid finances hospitals. Food stamps support grocery stores. Rental aid generally lacks corporate supporters, who can bridge partisan divides.

In theory, landlords would lobby for vouchers, which offer billions in rent. But small owners with little clout dominate the market, and many complain that vouchers bring burdensome inspections and slow pay.

The popularity of a different rent subsidy shows the support that the core programs lack. The Low-Income Housing Tax Credit benefits developers and attracts a vigorous lobby of deep-pocketed builders, investors and financial intermediaries, who have helped it flourish.

Conservatives also like it because its cost is deemed a tax cut, rather than government spending. “It plays an important role, but in most cases it doesn’t serve the lowest-income groups,” Mr. Herbert said.

Few programs have produced such vivid images of failure as public housing. Pruitt-Igoe, a complex of towers in St. Louis, became so uninhabitable it was demolished in 1972 in televised explosions.

Housing advocates say the worst projects were a small part of an inventory desirable enough to attract long waiting lists and emphasize that vouchers now supply most aid. Still, the stigma of public housing has weakened support for other housing aid.

“Most people see the failure of public housing as representative of all forms of subsidized housing — wrongly,” said Edward G. Goetz, a housing scholar at the University of Minnesota.

Resistance to housing aid also involves race. Assistance disproportionately serves Black households because they are disproportionately poor. And opposition to integration has concentrated low-income housing in Black neighborhoods, adding to its stigma.

African Americans, 13.5 percent of the population, account for 19 percent of the nonelderly Medicaid population and 26 percent of food stamp recipients whose race is known, but 42 percent of those with housing aid. In New Orleans, Detroit and Washington, D.C., Mr. Goetz found the Black share of public housing residents as high as 99 percent.

Research suggests that the more that programs are thought to favor minorities, the less political support they attract.

Unlike food or medical assistance, housing aid often triggers local opposition. If Congress expands food stamps, local governments play no role, and no one frets about property values or crime. But local officials decide where housing gets built, often as opponents cry “not in my backyard.”

Local opposition crippled public housing, by preventing projects or steering them to segregated neighborhoods. It also has thwarted the voucher program by limiting the supply of affordable private housing. The limited supply raises costs, including for millions who lack aid.

The Democratic Party broke new ground in 2020 with a platform that pledged housing aid “for every eligible family”— essentially an entitlement.

President Biden followed his Democratic primary rivals in endorsing the idea but rarely mentions it and has made little progress. He omitted the idea from his $1.9 trillion “rescue plan” to address the coronavirus pandemic, and Congress rejected a later bill that included a voucher expansion. His record includes large sums of pandemic rental aid and about 125,000 new vouchers, far short of the millions needed for “every eligible family.”

Marcia L. Fudge, the housing secretary, declined an interview request but said in a statement that the administration was “working to expand both the supply of affordable homes and the availability of housing assistance.”

Critics of housing aid, in addition to blanching at its costs, say it discourages tenants from working. For every dollar earned, rents typically rise 30 cents.

Conservative proposals include regulatory reform, like faster permits or more permissive zoning, to reduce construction costs.

Some of those plans have bipartisan support, but there is a limit to how much prices can fall, given materials and land. While markets can produce food and clothing that low-income households can afford, that has not been true for shelter.

Kevin Corinth of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, a proponent of eased regulations, said a housing strategy needs to look beyond housing alone. “You want to raise people’s incomes, so they can afford to rent or purchase the homes they want,” he said.

Ms. Frazier, the Charleston social worker, said hopes for more income propelled her through college and graduate school, after a childhood of poverty.

“I used to dream growing up, ‘I can’t wait to have a big house,’” she said. But as her income grew, so did rent, and the loss of subsidized housing two years ago left her with few options.

While a recent raise brought her salary to about $3,300 a month, even a basic two-bedroom apartment would consume nearly half her income, according to federal estimates of local rents. That leaves her doubled up with her cousin and sharing a bed with her son.

Kam’Ryn, a genial ninth grader protective of his mother, rarely complains. But he frets about exhausting his relatives’ patience (“Your nerves are always high because this is their house.”) and has not told “this girl I like” that he shares a room with his mother. “I feel like maybe she wouldn’t like me as much,” he said.

An avid diarist, Ms. Frazier keeps a journal of housing dreams. She awoke from one thinking she was in a trailer tumbling end over end — as if unstable housing were a literal fate.

She once saw her life as a hard-fought rise from a hard-luck start. Now she feels like a failure.

“It’s not like I’m not trying,” she said. “Nobody would ever think that somebody with an advanced degree and a state job would be so close to living on the street.”

Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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