House Republicans Move to Expand Moving to Work (Again)

We’re familiar by now with studies showing that poor families, especially the children do better when they move to better neighborhoods. Fewer of us perhaps are familiar with Moving to Work — a program that House Republicans now want to expand to virtually all public housing authorities in the country.

Congress expanded MTW only six months ago, setting the stage for nearly tripling the number of participating housing authorities over the next seven years.

Now the House Majority Leader has introduced a bill that would ultimately let all housing authorities that like what MTW offers to have it, except those the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development had recently rated as troubled.

MTW has thus far been an experiment of sorts. The ultimate aim is to identify practices that would achieve at least one of three purposes more effectively than regular rules for Housing Choice vouchers and the main federal funding streams for public housing allow.

The demonstration project, as it’s called, still awaits a comprehensive, independent evaluation. In other words, Congress has barreled ahead — and may barrel further — without knowing whether Moving to Work works.

One can understand why House Republicans would find MTW so attractive. Basically, it converts the voucher and public housing programs into a block grant that affords participating housing authorities a lot of flexibility.

They can shift funds from one housing program to another — or to other programs, so long as they in some manner assist “substantially the same total number of eligible low-income families” as they would have if they hadn’t merged their funds.

They don’t have to assist them as much, however, or for as long. They don’t have to enable poor families to move to neighborhoods with better opportunities to work or with better transportation to get to where work is.

They don’t have to provide training and other services that would enable potentially employable family members to find gainful work in the neighborhoods they’re living in either.

Some housing authorities may have done both. We know, however, that some have achieved savings — one of those main purposes — at the expense of poor families.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities cites increases in the portion of income families must spend for their housing. Instead of the usual 30%, more than half the housing authorities have raised rents for at least some very poor families, it says.

Families in several communities had to come up with $200 a month or more — unless they sought and received hardship exemptions. Not likely, unless things have changed a whole lot for the better in recent years.

Some housing authorities have put time limits on housing assistance and/or established work requirements — in both cases, for any household with an adult assumed capable of getting a job, i.e., not disabled or elderly.

Here too one can see why leading House Republicans fancy MTW — just as they still do Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which, as you probably know, features both time-limited benefits and work requirements.

The flexibility MTW provides has had another, apparently more general consequence — fewer housing vouchers that families can use to help pay rent wherever they can find a moderately-priced apartment a landlord will rent to them.

Two years ago, MTW housing authorities shifted nearly a fifth of the funds they’d otherwise have had to use for vouchers to “other purposes,” the Center reports. Or to no purpose, as was the case in Chicago.

More often, housing authorities have used their voucher funding stream for other defensible purposes. Many, I gather, have tapped it to repair and renovate public housing units — or replace them with subsidized units in new mixed-income developments.

We can’t altogether blame them for this sort of fund shift. As I’ve written before, Congress has persistently shortchanged the public housing capital fund, leaving them with far less money than they need to keep their public housing units habitable.

And for some poor and near-poor people, public housing is a better option than a voucher that would require them to find a suitable apartment — people with disabilities that require features most apartments don’t have, for example.

But you’re not going to find much public housing in those neighborhoods where families could move to work. So fund shifts that left some 63,000 eligible families without housing vouchers two years ago seems a reason to hit the pause button on MTW.

Not the only reason, however. I’ve already mentioned several others. but one of the biggest is the fate of block grants generally. TANF is a prime example — now worth 32% less in real dollars than when Congress created it.

It’s not the only block grant that’s significantly shrunk. Two that HUD administers have lost well over half their value — and in less time than TANF.

All this said, MTW seems to have enabled some housing authorities to innovate in ways that benefit low-income families. Some, for example, have streamlined administration by rechecking income eligibility only every couple of years instead of annually.

So they’ve cut costs, thus freeing up funds they could shift to providing more and/or better subsidized housing, while also relieving households of a time-consuming, burdensome routine imposed more often than needed.

Some have used more funds than they otherwise could have for project-based vouchers, i.e., the kind that subsidize specific housing units, rather than whatever unit a holder can find to rent.

Flexibility here may have enabled agencies to provide more affordable housing in those better neighborhoods — and to lock in affordability, wherever the projects are, says Abt Associates, the source of these and other examples.

“May,” you note, not necessarily did. And “some” because we’ve no study that’s looked across-the-board at what MTW agencies have done — let alone in light of results that matter, e.g., less homelessness, fewer poor families stuck in poor neighborhoods.

HUD has appointed a committee to advise on MTW evaluations, as Congress required. This seems a step toward assessing the outcomes of policy changes housing authorities have adopted.

Whether these assessments can show whether Moving to Work works is a question mark. Surely Congress should wait for an answer before deciding whether to expand the block grant further.

 

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