No Government Shutdown (Now), But Congress May Shut Out More From Affordable Housing

If the official poverty rate ticks down at the same pace it did last year, we won’t see it cut in half until 2040, the Coalition on Human Needs reports. Not even then if we have another recession, which, of course, we will.

What this tells us, CHN says, is that economic growth won’t reduce poverty fast enough. We need bigger investments in programs with a strong anti-poverty track record.

Doesn’t look as if bigger investments are in the cards. The Republican majorities in Congress insist that appropriations for non-defense programs total no more than the budget cap set by the 2011 Budget Control Act.

What we may forget is that the cap — and caps going forward — were set after Congress cut appropriations by about $38 billion, thus lowering the baseline the caps were based on. So even if the non-defense cap were lifted by $37 billion, as the President proposed, funding would still be lower than in 2010.

Hard to know whether we will have a genuine budget for the upcoming fiscal year. We’ll have a short-term continuing resolution instead.

But not an ordinary CR because it doesn’t maintain program-by-program spending at the same level it’s been. It instead makes cuts in non-defense programs — a total of about $7 billion — so as to bring spending below the FY 2016 cap.

And we might not have even this if House Speaker John Boehner hadn’t resigned, freeing himself, it seems, to let the House vote on the CR, even though so many of his Republican colleagues signaled they’d balk that it couldn’t pass without Democrats.

So we won’t have a government shutdown. We’ll instead have the stage set for a showdown in early December — or sooner.

A more complex situation then because Congress will have to somehow deal with not only the expiring CR, but the expiration of nominally temporary tax breaks and the fact that the Treasury Department will have exhausted measures it can take to avert a default on the federal debt.

Some predict another budget deal like the one that pulled us back from the so-called fiscal cliff at the tail end of 2012. Others a year-long CR.

Assume that becomes the solution. Well, we know (or should) that even level funding doesn’t mean as many people served as well as they’ve been served.

Take Housing Choice (formerly Section 8) vouchers, for example. Actually, you probably can’t if you don’t already have a voucher — perhaps not even if you do.

We all know that rents generally rise — and have been rising faster in recent years. Utility costs are rising also. And they’re folded into what housing vouchers help pay for.

Incomes of households in the bottom tier of the affordability scale generally haven’t kept pace. So their share of rent, plus basic utilities — 30% of income — covers less. Each voucher then usually costs the agency that issues it more.

What this means is that funding for Housing Choice would have to increase each year just to maintain a steady state. But it hasn’t. Quite the contrary.

The across-the-board cuts in 2013 left a large majority of local housing agencies without funds to cover their share of rent for all the vouchers they’d issued.

By and large, they coped by holding back vouchers they’d otherwise have reissued when households that had them not longer qualified, e.g., because they’d moved out of the area or gained enough income to boost them over the eligibility cut-off.

Some pulled back vouchers they’d issued to people who hadn’t yet found apartments. At least one changed its standards, requiring voucher holders to either move to smaller units or come up with the money for rooms that were now “extra.”

And some actually shifted funds from vouchers to cope with other shortfalls, exacerbated, but not originating in the cuts — mainly under-funding for the program that covers the costs of maintaining and renovating public housing.

They could do this because they were part of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Moving to Work pilot, which essentially converted their federal housing assistance funding to a block grant.

But for a seemingly over-flexible, under-monitored MTW, about 63,000 more households would have had vouchers last year, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates.

On the other hand, more probably had apartments in public housing than if the MTW agencies hadn’t shifted funds to keep units from becoming unlivable.

So the story’s a bit more complicated than direct cuts to the Housing Choice program. But choices Congress has made nevertheless account for the shrinking number of households that make rent affordable.

The across-the-board cuts ultimately denied about 100,000 households vouchers they’d otherwise have had. Congress later restored some of the lost funds — enough to renew all vouchers issued and put some back in circulation.

Yet the boosts in the last two budgets will still leave roughly 68,560 fewer households with vouchers than pre-sequestration, according to CBPP estimates (and my calculator). And there weren’t enough vouchers well before the Budget Control Act and aftermath.

Of course, the House and Senate might agree to an actual budget. So it’s worth a look at what could then arrive on the President’s desk. Will confine myself again to Housing Choice.

House funding for HUD would reverse the progress made toward restoring lost vouchers. The White House predicts a loss of 28,000 more.

Over on the Senate side, the Appropriations Committee says its bill would “continue assistance to all individuals and families served by both Section 8 and public housing.” The White House, however, contends that the funding level falls short of what would be needed to renew roughly 50,300 vouchers.

Distressing, to put it mildly, that folks who call the shots in Congress seem disposed to make a bad situation worse.

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