A year ago, the pre-pandemic world was already plagued by a nationwide affordable housing crisis. Then COVID-19 hit and brought this long-simmering crisis to a full boil. It’s time to take the first step toward a more sustainable, more durable housing system: we need massive new investment in federal housing assistance, including universal housing vouchers.
By the start of 2020, rents were so high that a person working full-time, year-round would have to earn $24 per hour—more than three times the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour — to afford the average rent for a modest two-bedroom apartment in any state or the District of Columbia and still have enough money for food, utilities, and other necessities. Nearly 2.6 million poor or near-poor families were spending at least half of their income on housing and receiving no housing assistance from the government.
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit last March, the country was already primed for a disaster because of policymakers’ failure to address the underlying affordable housing crisis. The widespread housing insecurity that existed prior to the pandemic has been amplified over the past year as families dealt with the economic impact of Covid-19. By February 2021, more than a quarter of renter families with children were behind on their rent and nearly 4 in 10 of those families reported little or no confidence in their ability to pay the next month’s rent. Even more shockingly, almost half of renter families with children said it was either somewhat or very likely that they would lose their home within the next two months due to eviction.
To date, a federally-declared eviction moratorium has helped prevent a surge in evictions, though the moratorium is currently facing heavy opposition in court by individual landlords claiming it is unconstitutional. If it is struck down or otherwise allowed to lapse by the administration or Congress, 12 million children and families whose lives have already been upended by the pandemic could be at risk of losing their home due to eviction.
The acute problems caused by COVID-19 require emergent solutions—a massive short-term influx of rental assistance—but the underlying affordable housing crisis will require permanent, structural policy changes. So where do we start?
The first step toward eliminating housing insecurity is adequately investing in federal housing assistance and making housing assistance a mandatory program not subject to budget caps or cuts. Housing insecurity and homelessness are exacerbated by a lack of accessible federal assistance like housing vouchers that help families pay the rent in private apartments. This type of assistance is extremely effective, but these programs do not come close to meeting families’ needs because they are woefully underfunded, subject to the whims of Congress, and vulnerable to change every year during the appropriations cycle.
Even though federal rental assistance is proven to help reduce child poverty, homelessness, housing instability, and overcrowding, only 1 in 4 eligible households receive it. Rental assistance currently helps more than 6 million people in families with children remain stably housed, but underfunding means many millions more are left without any help and are stuck on wait lists for years in their communities with nowhere else to turn. That means millions of children at greater risk of the health problems and education disruption associated with housing insecurity and millions of children living on the brink of homelessness.
Guaranteeing a universal housing voucher to every eligible family would dramatically reduce child homelessness and cut child poverty. According to an analysis by researchers at Columbia University, a fully-funded housing voucher program would cut child poverty by 36 percent. When coupled with an improvement to the Child Tax Credit like the one included in the current Covid-relief package, guaranteed housing vouchers would reduce child poverty by an astonishing 72 percent. For Black and Hispanic children, the anti-poverty effects would be even more profound; poverty would fall by 81 percent for Black children and 80 percent for Hispanic children.
Ultimately, a massive new investment in federal rental assistance will have to be coupled with robust investment in public housing and the broader supply of affordable housing, strong tenant protection laws, and improved enforcement of the Fair Housing Act to ensure that the housing market is free of discrimination. But we must get started now and guarantee a housing voucher to every eligible family.