Part 1 in our series on Solutions
We all know homelessness is a problem. Whether the problem is huge and visible (in New York City 50,000 people sleep in shelters on a single night, many more on the streets), or much less obvious, shelters throughout the country are full. Despite what Millenials may think, homelessness hasn’t always been with us, at least not at this scale. Fifty years ago, shelters, to the extent they existed, were relatively small, church-run affairs, and it was unusual to see someone sleeping in a doorway or asking passerby for change. Now such sights are familiar to city dwellers, and families have become the fastest growing demographic to end up in shelters.
So enough with dwelling on the problem. We all just want solutions.
Here’s one: rental assistance.
Rental assistance closes the gap between what a family can reasonably afford to pay in rent (somewhere around 30% of monthly income) and the cost of the rent itself. If I’m a single mom in Hartford working full time earning the minimum wage, I can afford about $450 a month in rent and utilities – meanwhile, rents for a modest apartment are at least twice that much. Rental assistance provides a subsidy paid directly to the landlord in exchange for charging me less.
Without rental assistance, I’m spending close to two thirds of my earnings on rent, stretching what is left on food, child care, and other basic necessities. And if something should happen – say I lose my job or someone in my family has a health crisis – I and my children are likely to end up homeless.
We’ve made significant progress in making homes more affordable. Rental assistance lifted 2.8 million people – including 1 million children – above the poverty line in 2012, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. But we’re not there yet. Nationwide, there are only 29 affordable and available rental units for every 100 extremely low income renter families. The Urban Institute provides a remarkable illustration of this affordability gap in communities across the country. And over the past decade, we’ve seen steady increases in the number of renters with extremely low incomes – an increase of 3 million from 2001-11, according to Harvard’s Joint Center on Housing Studies – while the number of affordable rentals has remained flat.
Rental assistance can take a variety of forms. Its most common form is the federal Housing Choice Voucher (aka, Section 8), which is administered by local housing authorities and helps more than 2 million families rent modest apartments of their choice in the private market. Connecticut and handful of other states have their own state-funded rent subsidy programs to help additional families. Some local communities have used federal HOME and Emergency Solutions Grant dollars to fund short-term rental assistance for families leaving shelter for permanent housing.
Rental assistance is an evidence-based solution. Its benefits are well documented through research: reductions in homelessness, increased housing stability, better educational outcomes for children, and, when combined with supportive services, considerable cost savings in health care, child welfare, and corrections systems. It is a fundamental component of efforts to expand permanent supportive housing, reduce unnecessary institutionalization for people with disabilities, and keep at-risk families together. A 2010 study of its effectiveness in keeping families together documented savings in the emergency shelter and child welfare systems that offset almost the entire cost of providing the rental assistance and supportive services.
So we need a lot more rental assistance – and we need to protect the rental assistance we do have from erosion. While rental assistance alone will not end homelessness, we simply cannot end homelessness without it.