If Congress Cuts Section 8 Housing, These States Will Suffer
The Housing Choice Voucher program helps 2.3 million households pay rent. Biden has called for small increases to the program, while GOP leaders are eyeing cuts that will hit some states especially hard.
After years of slow-growing momentum for federal action to address America’s housing challenges, is the country’s already-patchy housing safety net once again on the chopping block?
Advocates worry it may be. Since last November’s election, groups like the National Low Income Housing Coalition have been sounding the alarm that a Republican-controlled Congress may renew efforts to cut public assistance programs. As Roll Call recently reported, GOP leaders have hinted that they may demand spending cuts to the Housing and Urban Development budget as part of debt-ceiling negotiations. And according to a report in The New York Times, House Republicans are developing their budget proposal using a former Trump administration official’s outline that calls for phasing out the Housing Choice Voucher program, a critical source of rental support for 2.3 million U.S. households.
The Housing Choice Voucher program, also called Section 8, helps low-income renters find housing on the private market by paying the difference between what they’re able to afford and what landlords charge for rent. Families must earn less than 50 percent of the area median income (AMI) in order to qualify for a voucher, and three quarters of vouchers are reserved for “extremely low-income” renters who earn less than 30 percent of AMI. The program cost about $30 billion last year — by far the largest part of HUD’s annual budget.
President Joe Biden’s recent budget proposal calls for modest increases to the Housing Choice Voucher program to keep up with rising rental costs and extend vouchers to an additional 50,000 households. As a candidate, Biden called for making vouchers available to everyone who qualifies — a longtime goal of housing advocacy groups. Currently, local housing authorities administer only enough vouchers to serve about 1 in 4 eligible families.
“It’s a very important program. Any cuts to it would exacerbate the huge problem we already have of not having enough housing for extremely low-income renters,” says Andrew Aurand, senior vice president for research at the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
Longstanding Conservative Opposition
The Section 8 program has come under fire from conservatives as part of their broader critiques of America’s welfare programs. Some have argued that the design of the program discourages voucher holders from trying to increase their income and become self-sufficient. Lawmakers have occasionally considered proposals to put time limits on vouchers.
Those critiques have sometimes been tied to gendered tropes about “welfare queens” living on taxpayer support. In a 2000 City Journal piece titled “Let’s End Housing Vouchers,” Howard Husock, now a senior fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, wrote that “marriage and thrift,” rather than public assistance, were the best path to good housing in good neighborhoods. House Republicans are currently considering trying to impose work requirements on more public benefit programs, according to reports.
But the Section 8 program itself originated out of critiques and calls for reform of other HUD programs, like traditional public housing. The program, partly reliant on private-market housing providers, is intended to give people who received housing assistance choices in where to live, rather than concentrating them in one place.
“If you go back far enough in history, the voucher program was a conservative idea,” Aurand says.
Bipartisan Support Remains
In practice, voucher holders still have limited options for where to live. Some landlords in poor neighborhoods have found ways to recruit voucher holders and use the Section 8 program as a financial lifeline, while other landlords outright refuse to rent to voucher holders at all. Voucher holders operate under a patchwork of state laws related to source-of-income discrimination in the housing market.
Despite perennial cost concerns about the Housing Choice Voucher program and other aspects of the social safety net, Congress has only prevented the program from keeping up with rising costs once — during the budget sequestration of 2013, says Peggy Bailey, vice president for housing and income security at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Both Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), the chair and vice chair of the Senate Appropriations committee, respectively, have shown support for the program in the past, Bailey says. While there’s good reason to believe that bipartisan support for the program would prevent it from being eliminated or scaled back dramatically, Bailey says, even small cuts to a single year’s budget could compound over time and leave more people vulnerable to homelessness.
“People often think that housing assistance is an entitlement, and it’s not,” Bailey says. “Only 1 in 4 households that are currently eligible for the program receive rental assistance. And we know that incomes, while they may increase a little, they don’t keep up with rent costs. So whatever we do today that continues to prevent three-fourths of people who are eligible from getting assistance, and would increase that, only makes the affordable housing crisis worse.”