A Case for Universal Housing Vouchers in DC

MANNA is a strong supporter of the continuum of housing.  The continuum entails a range of housing services and options, which consists of various forms of supportive housing, assisted rental housing, and assisted homeownership. Every aspect of the continuum is important, and in order for the continuum to be effective there have to be mechanisms in place that allow people to move from supportive housing, to homeownership. It is also important to note that each component of continuum is unique, and that it serves a particular function. When one aspect of the continuum is weak, it places excess pressure on the other parts of the continuum. For example: gaps in supportive housing result in individuals becoming homeless. Lack of affordable rentals forces families to turn to shelters, when what they really need is an apartment that they could afford on their salary. While lack of assistance for or development of affordable homeownership forces people to continue to rent, when many of those people can become mortgage ready and some desire to have a place they can call their own. There needs to be funding support for all of the housing options on the continuum, but an equally important endeavor is ensuring that enough affordable housing exists to house people.

According to the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, 64 percent of DC’s lowest income residents spend half or more of their income on housing. Many moderate-income families in the District have been identified as being cost burdened as well. This is problematic, because being cost burdened prevents a household from being able to afford basic necessities. It also leaves them without a safety net in the event of an emergency, and makes them susceptible to homelessness (Hendey et al 2014). Furthermore, in DC, the cost of rent has been steadily increasing, while incomes have remained stagnant (Rivers 2015). “The number of apartments renting for less than $800 a month fell from almost 60,000 in 2002 to 33,000 in 2013” (Rivers 2015). Moreover, recent findings suggest that there are very few low-cost housing options in the private market, other than subsidized housing.

Subsidized rentals can take different forms. They can be restricted to a certain building such as public housing, or to an apartment complex that designates some of their units as “affordable”. Research is finding that housing vouchers are the most economical way to provide affordable rentals. However, the problem is that there are not enough affordable housing vouchers to go around. According to the DC Housing Authority, 10,500 families in the city participate in the Housing Choice Voucher Program, and thousands more are on the waiting list. DC has seen an increase in the number of available rental units, but the problem is that the number of affordable rentals is decreasing. In order to address the lack of vouchers provided by the federal government, DC created its own Local Rent Subsidy Program in 2007. However, that program is unable to serve everyone who needs rental assistance.

Research has been conducted in other states, exploring the idea of providing housing vouchers to everyone who needs them. In Wisconsin, and Indiana, an experimental housing program was implemented for 10 years. The program provided housing vouchers to all low income residents who qualified. These residents would pay up to 30% of their income towards their rent; if their rent exceeded that 30% mark, the voucher would cover the rest of the cost. The study found that the vouchers encouraged landlords to keep up with building maintenance because all of the low-income residents had vouchers, and in order to use the vouchers, certain building codes had to be met. Furthermore, the vouchers spurred the development of additional market rate units, and the study also found that the vouchers did not have a substantial impact on market rents (Currie 2006). Of course DC’s housing market is different from that of Indiana and Wisconsin in a number of ways however, hypothetically, a universal housing voucher system could be modified to meet the District’s needs.

Currently, the housing voucher system in the U.S. works like a lottery, in which only the “lucky” low income earners are able to receive them. Conversely, if a housing voucher program was expanded so that everyone who qualified received the voucher, it could prevent renters from being cost burdened, incentivize the market to supply additional non-luxury units, and protect families from slipping into homelessness. DC has been making strides towards addressing our affordable housing crisis. I wonder whether the District would be open to taking a step, as big as implementing a universal housing voucher, in order to address this issue.

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