More than a week ago, news leaked of a draft proposal by the White House to impose work requirements and increase rents for people who receive federal housing assistance. On Monday, President Trump released his budget, which confirms most of the leaked document.
The Trump administration wants to shrink federal housing assistance, in part by convincing Congress to introduce policies that "promote work." A budget document from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) calls for "giving PHAs [public housing agencies] and property owners the option to ... implement minimum work requirements."
The proposal from HUD comes at a time when the White House has signaled an interest in adding or enhancing work requirements to many safety net programs. In January, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services invited states to apply for waivers to test work requirements for Medicaid, and already approved applications from Kentucky and Indiana.
In the same budget request, the White House also calls for legislative changes to promote work in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, and the Unemployment Insurance program. The documents are short on details about how it would encourage work.
The White House budget argues that “millions of Americans are in a tragic state of dependency on a welfare system that does not reward work, and in many cases, pays people not to work.”
It would mark a historic turn for a government program designed to provide safe, stable housing for low-income individuals and families. Aside from some pilot projects, eligibility for federal housing assistance has never before been contingent on work.
"The proposals are not an indication thus far that the administration recognizes the severity of the affordable housing crisis that’s facing local leaders," says Elisha Harig-Blaine, a manager at the National League of Cities who works with local officials to prevent and end veteran homelessness. "It’s just an indication of trying to shift the responsibility around and down, and that’s not a solution.
According to the leaked proposal from earlier in February, tenants could be required to work up to 32 hours per week, on average, but they could substitute vocational training and education for some of the time. The requirement would apply to adults who are not elderly or disabled.
About 55 percent of those on federal housing assistance are elderly or disabled, and 26 percent are already working, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank. An estimated 5 million low-income households receive federal rental assistance.
"The problem that they’re ostensibly seeking to address is limited," says Will Fischer, a senior policy analyst at CBPP. "There aren’t that many rental assistance recipients who would be able to work but don’t."
But Fischer says it's likely that the requirements would penalize some working households. That's because some of the most common low-wage jobs today, such as retail sales and food service, involve unpredictable hours that change on a weekly or seasonal basis. An adult on housing assistance could be permanently employed and still fall short of the 32-hour requirement, Fischer says.
Most surveys suggest that work requirements are popular with the American public, but a recent poll about Medicaid found that a majority of respondents oppose the policy when the question makes it clear that it could result in loss of health insurance. The same poll found that most voters oppose cuts to a variety of federal assistance programs for low-income households, including affordable housing.
Aside from work requirements, the White House's official budget proposal would also raise minimum rents and make tenants contribute more of their income.
Currently, most tenants receiving federal housing assistance must pay a minimum rent of between $25 and $50 a month. Some pay nothing. Though the official budget is low on details, the leaked legislative draft proposes a monthly minimum rent of roughly $150 in general and $50 for the elderly and people with disabilities.
Also under the leaked proposal, tenants would have to contribute more of their monthly income (35 percent, up from 30 percent now). Currently, that monthly income is calculated after first deducting medical and child care expenses, but the HUD proposal does away with those deductions as well.
Congress would have to approve the White House's proposed changes. So far, Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has not expressed a willingness to put welfare reform on the agenda for 2018 because he would need the support of Democrats in the Senate to pass legislation.
Nonetheless, House Speaker Paul Ryan is reported to be preparing legislation related to work requirements for multiple safety net programs, arguing that they will keep participation and costs in public assistance programs under control.
But whatever costs the federal government saves by tightening eligibility rules might be shifted down to local governments.
“The proposal that’s coming out of HUD may on paper reduce the number of families in line waiting for assistance, but the families aren’t leaving cities," says Michael Wallace, who's in charge of federal advocacy for the National League of Cities. "They’re still going to be there, and they’re still going to draw on funding from local governments to get the services they need -- whether it’s health care or education or emergency shelter -- instead of stable housing assistance.”
*CORRECTION: An earlier version misstated the monthly rents paid by most tenants receiving federal housing assistance.