A woman walks past new public-assisted housing in New Orleans. (AP Photo / Gerald Herbert)
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When President Donald Trump released his first budget proposal last year, it called for the deepest cuts to the Department of Housing and Urban Development since the early 1980s. Congress didn’t go along—the budget deal that legislators just passed after a brief shutdown actually increased HUD funding by $2 billion over previous levels—but Trump and his team are undeterred. The White House budget released this week calls for a $68 billion cut to HUD, or a 14 percent reduction, which is even deeper than what Trump demanded last year and, according to experts, the most radical attack on federal housing aid since the US Housing Act became law in 1937. If enacted, the Trump budget would be a vicious eviction notice to millions of low-income families.
The Trump budget provides only $18.6 billion to renew Housing Choice Vouchers in the upcoming fiscal year. That’s $900 million less than HUD itself estimates will be necessary to renew these vouchers in 2018, and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities believes it’s $1.9 billion short for 2019 when you factor in rent inflation and other factors.
More than 5 million people rely on the Housing Choice voucher program to obtain housing from state and local housing agencies nationwide. Seventy-five percent of the people who use these vouchers must be “extremely low income,” with incomes at or below 30 percent of the local median or poverty line. (The rest can have incomes up to 80 percent of the local median.) A plurality of voucher recipients are adults with children; nearly a quarter are elderly Americans. Twenty-seven percent are disabled. Only 13 percent of recipients are childless, non-disabled adults.
If these cuts take effect, it would essentially halt the issuance of new housing vouchers. As it is, it’s extremely rare for housing vouchers to be issued for new purposes, according to Barbara Sard, a vice president for housing policy at CBPP and a former senior adviser at HUD under President Obama. Only one in four people who need a voucher end up receiving one.
State and local housing agencies generally operate a one-in, one-out process for vouchers. A family has to first stop using their voucher for a new family to get one. With drastic budget cuts of 9 percent in a single year, when a person stopped using a voucher, the state and local housing agencies would be forced to simply not reissue a new one in order to stay on budget. Nine percent is roughly equivalent to the national turnover rate for Housing Choice vouchers, according to Sard.
Moreover, some people would have their vouchers canceled outright—CBPP estimates this would happen to 200,000 people nationwide. These families would immediately face extreme financial hardship and, quite likely, eviction. This would mainly be concentrated in big cities where rental costs most dramatically outstrip local incomes, like New York City and Washington, DC. The turnover rate in areas like that is much lower than 9 percent—it’s closer to 3 percent—since the housing is so badly needed. “That means that gap is going to have to be met, in terms of the funding reduction, by terminating the vouchers of current families,” said Sard.
The same is true in areas that have unusually high percentages of elderly or disabled people receiving rental assistance, because they tend not to suddenly earn enough money to forgo a housing voucher. Such communities might also see outright voucher cancellations.
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Housing Choice vouchers are the single most effective tool the government can wield to end homelessness. A three-year HUD study looked at homeless families that were unable to obtain vouchers, and 38.1 percent experience housing instability. Only 17 percent of the families who were offered vouchers still experienced that. Vouchers also reduced food instability, domestic violence, and child separations among the homeless families HUD studied.
For the families who are able to stay in federally subsidized housing, the Trump budget would make it much harder for them to remain there or afford their rent.
Trump asked Congress to change federal housing policy to allow the state and local agencies that administer Housing Choice vouchers, as well as private owners who allow Project-Based Rental Assistance, to implement work requirements for recipients. As with many work-requirement proposals, this is largely a solution in search of a problem: 74 percent of working-age, non-disabled people getting HUD rental assistance either work or are already subject to work requirements for another federal benefit.
Given the income requirements for federal housing assistance, many if not most of these recipients are likely to work low-wage hourly jobs with highly variable hours. This could mean that if they can’t get the hours they need in a given month, they might quickly find themselves without rental assistance—and the eviction that would likely follow would make it more difficult to get or keep a job.
Even more perniciously, the Trump budget aims to change the formula for how much people have to contribute to their federally subsidized rent in a way that would uniquely victimize large families with children and force them onto the street.
Right now, if you receive federal rental assistance, you must pay 30 percent of your adjusted income in rent, after accounting for child care and other costs. The Trump budget proposes raising this to 35 percent of someone’s gross income—meaning no deductions for children or other expenses. If you have four children and receive rental assistance, the four standard deductions you take for each child would be gone. “Larger families are going to see a big rent increase just from the change from adjusted to gross [income],” said Sard.
Finally, the Trump budget would put every resident in federally subsidized housing at greater risk thanks to poor living conditions. Public housing already has $26 billion in repair needs, and the Trump budget proposes spending $0 to close that gap. Instead, it just directs state and local authorities to pay for the repairs.
It’s not likely that money would materialize, especially since state and local tax deductions were eliminated in the recent Trump tax legislation, making it much harder for many states to raise revenue. If those $26 billion in repairs are never made, it puts the health and safety of public housing residents at risk, and raises the specter of a Grenfell Tower situation where a mass calamity could take place in subsidized housing thanks to poor safety provisions.
Taken together, this appears to be an aggressive push to force people out of public housing, either by foisting difficult employment and rent demands on residents, making living conditions unbearable, or canceling vouchers outright—all while this same population would face reduced food-stamp and health-care benefits thanks to Trump’s proposed drastic cuts to SNAP and the Medicaid program. That this could occur alongside the trillion-dollar handout Republicans have given to very wealthy Americans is downright obscene.