Congress is on the brink of passing a historic recovery package... but it may not include expansion in rental assistance.
How are the housing investments in the recovery package historic? Let’s look at the proposed expansion of the Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program that received $75 billion out of the $339 billion from the House Financial Services Committee (one of the largest shares out of all housing investments). It would be easy to take comfort that HCVs are funded through Congress’ annual budget process. But a closer look at the history of how it is funded shows that funding over the past several decades have remained sluggish (hovering around $20 billion to $25 billion) and those funds Congress appropriated mostly pay for existing vouchers. That’s right – annual funding has been used sparingly to create new vouchers, despite the rising need for long-term rental assistance. The proposed $75 billion would create an estimated 750,000 new vouchers that can be funded for the next 10 years. This would be the single largest expansion of the HCV program since its creation in the 1970’s. The expansion would not be enough to create a universal rental assistance program (currently estimated to cost about $65 billion per year) to meet the urgent need for affordable housing, but it would be a significant downpayment towards that goal.
What are the threats to the housing investments in the recovery package? Currently, the size of the package remains at $3.5 trillion. Advocates and lawmakers expect this size to shrink in the coming weeks as Congress and the White House continue negotiations on the package’s size and scope. A smaller package, which could be between $1.9 and $2.2 trillion, would require lawmakers to make tradeoffs and difficult choices as to which policies will be on the chopping block. If Congress significantly scales back on the size of the package, housing investments – including HCVs - may be the first to go. Further complicating the future of housing investments in the recovery package is the White House’s potential lack of appetite to prioritize housing in negotiations, as it continues to push for other investments in children (including the Child Tax Credit), addressing climate change, and expanding access to health care while lowering prescription drug prices.
Why is it important to include rental assistance and other housing investments in the recovery package? Expanding rental assistance would help address the growing housing affordability, evictions, and homelessness crises that have been exacerbated by COVID-19 and that have disproportionately affected communities of color (households of color are more likely to rent their homes). Funding HCVs to create new vouchers would reduce long wait times for those who need housing assistance; reduce homelessness, housing instability, and overcrowding; and make housing more affordable for millions of households that would allow them to meet other necessities. Broadly speaking, Congress must not cut housing investments in the recovery package because it includes other critical supports and services for both renters and homeowners that would address racial disparities in housing and the racial wealth gap. There are critical investments in communities that have long been neglected and investments (like mobility services) that would provide households with greater housing choice to move to neighborhoods with more opportunities and resources to thrive and succeed.
What can you do now? Take action! We have a short window of opportunity to influence Congress as it negotiates the size and scope of the recovery package. Your work in the next few days is critical to making this happen. Urge your representatives to sign on to a letter to Congressional leadership and President Biden to preserve housing investments in the recovery package. Tell key committees and leadership to pass a bold recovery package that includes at least $90 billion in rental assistance, with the highest possible funding for HCVs.