Congress Does Yet Another Pretty Good Thing … Unanimously

Just before Senators left the capital for a long summer break, they passed by unanimous consent a bill that’s had strong support from leading advocates for policies that make housing affordable for low-income people.

The House had earlier passed it. No dissents there either. Nor objections from the White House. So we’ll soon have a law in effect that does various things styled as “housing opportunity through modernization.”

It’s a complex piece of work — administrative streamlining here and there, some new data collection and disclosure requirements, further support for ending veterans’ homelessness and more.

The most significant changes, it seems, will make more public housing units available for low-income individuals and families and perhaps subsidize more units in another type of housing.

Public Housing for Low-Income Only

The law tightens up income eligibility standards for public housing tenants. The standards for renting to them initially remain the same — generally no more than 80% of the median income for the area.

The law instead addresses a problem that sometimes surfaces later — income increases that put households substantially over the maximum. Yet they still occupy fully-subsidized units that could house some of the many people on waiting lists.

Public housing authorities will no longer be able to cover all but 30% of these households’ incomes year after year. They’ll have to either charge higher rents or evict the tenants when their incomes exceed 120% of the area median for two years in a row.

This accommodates relatively short-term income increases — a spate of paid overtime, for example. And it surely addresses Republicans’ oft-made claim that safety net programs discourage gainful work.

But it reserves ongoing subsidies for people who’d have a hard time finding an apartment they can afford on their own. So it’s likely to free up some units for more, though not many nationwide, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ summary of the bill.

Public Housing Rehabs

A separate provision might make more public housing units available in a different way — or at least, make occupied units safe and otherwise livable.

Housing authorities can henceforth supplement their share of the capital fund, which is supposed to cover major repair and renovation costs, with up to 20% of the funds they get for operations.

Congress has shortchanged the capital fund for years. We seem not to have comprehensive figures on the number of units empty or scheduled for demolition because the costs of renovating them would break the budget.

We do, however, know that large-scale repairs would have cost well over $25 billion in 2010 — and an additional $3.4 billion each year thereafter. The country as losing “thousands for units” a year then, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said.

Whether the new law will make much difference is an open question. Many PHAs haven’t had enough for operations either, CBPP reports. But some may have funds they could shift, especially because of the various administrative streamlining provisions.

More Affordable Units in Better Neighborhoods

The law will allow PHAs to use a higher percent of the funds they receive for housing vouchers to subsidize units in privately-operated projects — or so it seems. The law changes the way the percent is calculated — from their share of the funds appropriated for vouchers to their voucher allotment itself.

The project-based vouchers require that specific units remain affordable for at least 15 years. The new law lets PHAs increase that to 20 years, thus doing more to preserve such affordable housing as we still have.

But it makes more significant changes. One will allow PHAs to use an additional 10% of their funded vouchers for the project-based sort so as to provide stable, affordable housing in neighborhoods where it’s hard to use the tenant-based, i.e., portable, kind.

These are the so-called high-opportunity neighborhoods that the voucher program — and two HUD pilots — have sought to move more families into.

Trouble is that rents in those neighborhoods are generally quite high — many higher than the maximum vouchers can now subsidize. And owners of lower-cost units have proved reluctant to rent to voucher-holders.

So the project-based option may move more families to opportunity — to to work, as the newer version of HUD’s pilot is called.

No evidence that moving to a low-poverty neighborhood gets more low-income adults into the workforce. But it does, as you’d expect, improve their mental health. And it benefits children in ways that later translate into higher earnings — provided they’re moved when quite young.

Vouchers for Targeted Populations

PHAs don’t have to use their additional project-based allotment for housing in higher-cost neighborhoods. They may instead use some or all to create housing elsewhere, but only for certain populations —  homeless people, veterans, seniors and people with disabilities.

They have some further flexibility to use these vouchers for housing with supportive services — the preferred solution for chronically homeless people, as you probably know.

Another piece of this very complex law expands a program to prevent children from being placed or kept in foster care because their parents can’t afford “adequate” housing. The expansion, however, addresses cases where “family unification” failed.

It makes former foster care youth eligible for vouchers until they’re 24 years old, rather than 21. They can have these vouchers for three years — twice as long as before. And youth who are about to leave foster care can get them if they’re likely to become homeless then — a high risk for many, the research shows.

More Flexibility, But No More Funds

The downside of these and other reforms is that the law gives PHAs no more money. So, for example, the additional project-based vouchers they create will mean fewer of the tenant-based kind. And those do have virtues — housing choice, among them.

If PHAs respond to the big push on veterans’ homelessness, they can’t move as many families with children to neighborhoods where they’ll fare better. And so forth.

The new law may save federal funds, however — $311 billion over the next five years, the Congressional Budget Office estimates, assuming Congress follows through with the needed appropriations.

It could, of course, use the project savings for anything — or nothing, which would make a nick in the deficit. But it could plow them back into affordable housing programs, as CBPP hopefully notes.

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