How does someone get ahead in life? At the root is something basic: a safe, comfortable place to live.
That’s why it’s such a serious problem that so many Maine families struggle to afford adequate housing and that the struggle hasn’t subsided even with the recession officially over.
More Maine people today are busting their budgets on housing than before the recession, spending more than half of their income on rent and utilities, and more Maine people are homeless. But there’s less help available to them today than three years ago.
Policymakers in the nation’s capital have a chance to change that this month as they divvy up resources after Congress’ recent approval of a budget deal that lifts 3-year-old, across-the-board spending caps. Given an expanded ability to help and the fundamental need for affordable housing, Congress should do these three things to ensure more families in Maine and across the U.S. have an affordable place to call home.
Offer more rental assistance. The Housing Choice voucher is one major federal tool that keeps housing affordable for more than 11,000 low-income Maine families. It’s a subsidy the federal government pays to landlords to ensure that qualifying low-income families spend no more than 30 percent of their income on rent and utilities. But while the need for vouchers has grown, there are about 500 fewer housing vouchers available today in Maine than in 2012. That’s a result of across-the-board federal budget cuts, known as sequestration, that took effect in 2013. Meanwhile, the statewide waitlist for housing vouchers exceeds 20,000.
Members of Congress should use additional resources the budget deal has made available to, at the very least, restore all of the vouchers lost because of sequestration — about 60,000 nationwide — and add as many as possible. In Maine, 500 vouchers wouldn’t meet the full need, but it would mean help for 500 households struggling to pay the rent.
Ensure a steady affordable housing supply. While housing vouchers can help families afford existing housing, there also is a need for more housing that doesn’t break the bank.
To that end, the federal government’s HOME Investment Partnerships Program subsidizes affordable housing developments — new construction or rehab projects — so private-sector developers have an incentive to build low-rent units.
HOME funding was already dropped by half between 2010 and 2015, and an appropriations bill approved earlier this year by the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development would have cut the program’s remaining budget by 93 percent if it became law. In Maine, the amount of 2016 funding would drop to $309,000 from $4.1 million.
With additional resources available, Senate appropriators should spare this program from such drastic cuts.
Ensure housing assistance money is spent wisely. Since 1996, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has allowed about three dozen housing authorities to experiment with new, presumably cost-effective ways of providing rental assistance — including work requirements for renters, less frequent housing inspections, higher rents for some and alternative ways to pay out assistance. In exchange, HUD waives many of the strict rules governing Housing Choice vouchers and public housing.
Senate appropriators now want to expand this program, called Moving to Work, by allowing up to 35 percent of the nation’s housing agencies to participate. It’s worthwhile for the federal government to continue refining how it doles out rental assistance based on best practices, but this expansion isn’t warranted.
The pilot program has been in place nearly two decades, but HUD has never properly evaluated its impact. It’s never set quantifiable performance measures nor ensured participants are meeting their legal obligations. In 2013, HUD’s inspector general said the agency’s “program oversight was inadequate.” Plus, HUD data that year showed that participating agencies distributed fewer of their allotted housing assistance vouchers than other housing authorities (86 percent vs. 99.5 percent), meaning less assistance made its way into the hands of those who needed it.
Sen. Susan Collins is in a key position to influence these policies as chair of the Senate appropriations panel that determines HUD’s budget. Collins and others should stick to housing assistance programs that work, regain ground lost because of sequestration and direct assistance to those most in need of affordable housing.