By Freddie Allen
Senior Washington Correspondent
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – For many Americans living in poverty, housing vouchers mean the difference between having a home of your own or living in a homeless shelter. As many as 85,000 low-income families could lose access to those vouchers under policies crafted in a new funding bill approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee, according to a recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
The cuts would come through an expansion of the Moving to Work (MTW) deregulation program that, “allows participating state and local housing agencies to obtain broad waivers of federal statutes and rules governing the public housing and Housing Choice Voucher programs, shift funds from those programs to other purposes, and receive funding under special block grant formulas,” the report said.
The Senate Appropriations Committee, led by Senator Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), the chairman, and Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), the vice chairwoman, also approved policies that would seek to prevent the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) from reforming current MTW programs, while mandating that the department expand MTW to more than one-third of all voucher and public housing units.
That’s despite research that showed that vouchers “sharply reduce homelessness, crowding, and housing instability, problems that have been linked to long-term, harmful effects on children’s health and development,” the report said.
The CBPP report cited a recent study that found homeless families that received vouchers were nearly 60 percent less likely, “to become homeless again, 55 percent less likely to report incidents of domestic violence, and 42 percent less likely to have their children placed in foster care or temporarily housed with other family members.”
In 2014 alone, agencies that implemented MTW diverted nearly $600 million allocated for housing vouchers to cover administrative costs, public housing repairs and affordable housing construction, the report said. Some of the voucher funding was even held in reserves.
“About 63,000 families who could have been assisted with available funds were left without vouchers as a result,” according to the report. “These activities often have benefits, but they do little or nothing to offset the loss of vouchers by extending assistance to additional families.”
The report warned that deeper cuts could be on the horizon if more funds designated to housing vouchers are shifted to block grants and more agencies apply MTW policies to current and new housing programs.
The Senate appropriations bill proposes greater latitude in how MTW policies are implemented, even as findings suggest that the effective housing voucher program is under-utilized.
“Fewer than one in four low-income families eligible for vouchers receive any federal rental assistance, and there are long (often multi-year) waiting lists for assistance in most of the country,” the report said. “HUD estimates that in 2013, some 7.7 million renter households that had incomes below half of the median income in their area and did not receive any rental assistance either lived in substandard housing or paid more than half their income for housing.”
Instead of promoting independence and economic mobility, other MTW polices such as work requirements and time limits on housing assistance, could drive working-poor families deeper into poverty.
The CBPP report recommended limiting the transfer of voucher funds to other programs, including a 90 percent stipulation on funds used for rental assistance and requiring MTW agencies to provide greater diversity in housing choices. The report also recommended “controlled evaluations” for work requirements and time limits in order to assess the effectiveness of the policies.
“Research shows that using vouchers in low-poverty neighborhoods can have a major positive impact on young children’s adult earnings and rates of college attendance, along with other positive effects,” the report said.
In a joint statement in late July, U.S. Representative Nita Lowey (D-NY), Ranking Member of the House Appropriations Committee, and Senator Mikulski, said that it’s time to negotiate a bipartisan budget deal that eases the burden of sequestration.
“The spartan sequester-level caps on discretionary spending have resulted in Appropriations bills that hollow out America,” the statement said. “These bills fail to keep promises to our veterans and seniors, and shortchange critical investments in safe roads and bridges, education, scientific discovery and innovation, clean air and water, and our national security. The sequester makes America weaker.”
The statement continued: “As the Ranking Democrats on the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, we call on Republican leadership in both bodies to end the political gamesmanship, and engage with Democrats to negotiate a new budget deal modeled after the bipartisan agreement of 2013, that removes the threat of a government shutdown and allows for responsible investments in America’s future.”