In the months since giving $1.9 trillion in tax cuts to the richest Americans and wealthy corporations, the Trump administration and the congressional majority have continued to work in lockstep. Their aggressive agenda proposes financing these tax cuts by taking away health care; housing; and, most recently, food from tens of millions of U.S. residents. Earlier this month, for example, House Republicans sought to pass an ultrapartisan and callous Farm Bill that would have stripped food assistance from 2 million financially strapped people across the country. At a time when 43 percent of all U.S. households do not earn enough to afford housing, groceries, and other necessities such as medical and child care, U.S. families need these supports more than ever.
Yet in late April, the Trump administration doubled down on its efforts to roll back support for struggling households by proposing legislation, through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), that would severely weaken the nation’s main housing assistance programs. Shortly after its release, a retiring House Republican lawmaker unveiled preliminary legislation modeled after the administration’s draft bill. HUD’s proposed changes to housing policy will likely increase occurrences of evictions and homelessness for low-income households—including many that include seniors, children, veterans, and people with disabilities, who already struggle to afford basic necessities.
Affordable housing is becoming harder and harder for U.S. families to find and keep. In 2016, for example, landlords filed an average of roughly four evictions per minute. Within the past year, more than one-quarter of U.S. residents had trouble covering their housing costs. Today, nearly 4.7 million households—which include almost 4 million children—rely on federal rental assistance programs. But even as the need for this assistance grows, only about 1 in 4 of the eligible lowest-income renters actually receives federal support.
Instead of supporting families who struggle to afford shelter, HUD’s proposed legislation will:
- Jeopardize the housing of unemployed and underemployed workers. Private owners of project-based subsidized properties and public housing authorities would be given the discretion to set standards, through so-called work requirements, on the minimum number of hours that individuals and families must work in order to qualify for federal assistance. The same owners and authorities could also be authorized to sanction those who cannot find work, who lose their job, or who cannot get enough hours at work. Yet the legislation does not require housing authorities or owners to provide participants subject to these requirements with means to access jobs or skills training.
- Require at least triple the minimum rent from those who can least afford it. Currently, most households in public housing and with tenant-based vouchers must pay a minimum of $50 per month in rent. Most households with project-based subsidies, meanwhile, must pay at least $25 per month, no matter how low their income. The draft legislation would increase the minimum rent for all these households to $150 per month.
- Raise rents—even for households in which all members are elderly or have disabilities. Families in any type of federally subsidized housing that include a nondisabled adult ages 18 to 64 would face a dramatic increase in rent. While these renters currently must pay 30 percent of their household income after taxes and deductions, the proposed legislation would require them to pay 35 percent of their household income before taxes and deductions. This change would mean that they would spend an even greater share of their already scarce resources on rent.* Households in which all adults are over age 65 or have a disability—as narrowly defined by HUD—are currently not subject to any minimum rent. The Trump administration, however, has proposed that these households be required to pay a monthly rent of either 30 percent of their income or a flat $50, whichever is higher. This change is especially callous because many seniors and people with disabilities live on fixed incomes. For these households, paying higher rents likely will mean making cuts to spending on other necessities such as food, medical care, or utilities.
- Eliminate income deductions that help reduce rents for elderly tenants and people with disabilities. Under the proposed legislation, HUD would no longer adjust household incomes for expenses such as child care or medical costs before rent is calculated. This change would disproportionately harm households that include older adults, people with disabilities, and families with children.
- Stick participants with high rents for years at a time. While the draft legislation would take the modest positive step of increasing the required income recertification period from one year to three years, households with a nondisabled adult ages 18 to 64 could only request an interim review of their income and rent calculation if their household income were to decrease by 20 percent or more.
America already faces a long-standing housing crisis
The nation’s long-standing rental affordability crisis is getting worse. As of 2016, 47 percent of all U.S. renters—and 83 percent of renters with annual incomes below $15,000—had unaffordable rents, meaning that they spent more than 30 percent of their incomes on housing costs. And 25 percent of renter households were severely rent-burdened, spending more than 50 percent of their incomes on housing. It is impossible for any full-time worker earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour to afford a modest two-bedroom rental unit at the fair-market rent. In fact, the National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that, on average, a renter would have to earn nearly three times this much—$21.21 per hour—to afford such a unit.
Additionally, there are not enough affordable rental units to accommodate the increasing number of renter households in the nation, particularly in large metropolitan areas, because the private market is failing to meet the soaring demand. And while there has long been a stunningly insufficient number of affordable-rent units, most new additions to the rental housing stock have been and continue to be expensive, luxury apartments built to court moderate- to high-income renters. At the same time, the public housing stock continues to shrink and currently serves only a very small fraction of the people who need it.
As a result, only a tiny portion of households who qualify for housing assistance are able to secure a dwelling or a voucher, often after a yearslong waiting period. Nationwide, 53 percent of voucher waitlists and 11 percent of public housing waitlists were closed in 2016 to new applicants, leaving low-income renters with few or no affordable options. The proposed changes to federal rental assistance programs would further exacerbate the rental affordability crisis.
Threatening the housing of people struggling to find work is ineffectual and counterproductive
So-called work requirements—which often function as punitive time limits on assistance for unemployed or underemployed workers—are designed to penalize struggling families. The Trump administration and its allies in Congress have sought fervently to institute or harshen these punitive measures across multiple programs that help families meet basic needs—from nutrition assistance to Medicaid, and now housing assistance. But studies show that stripping struggling workers of basics such as food and health care, as well as safe and stable housing, not only fails to connect people to well-paying work that improves families’ economic security, but it is also affirmatively counterproductive to the goal of work.
Federal rental subsidy participants have long battled racialization and stigma. The proposed HUD legislation is premised on the common misperception that federal rental subsidy participants rely on these programs because they do not have jobs. But in reality, most who can work already do. Those who are employed often face low wages and must juggle multiple part-time jobs, which often have unpredictable and insufficient hours. With such undependable work schedules, it can be nearly impossible for a worker to make ends meet, much less pull their family out of housing insecurity.
Many people who experience housing insecurity live in isolated neighborhoods with few job opportunities. Even if a job seeker in such a neighborhood is considered “able,” under HUD’s strict definitions, to secure a well-paying job, there is no guarantee that they will find one. Rather, households in this demographic often face barriers to work such as insufficient, inaccessible, and unreliable transportation; lack of required work experience or educational attainment; and lack of affordable, high-quality child care or disability services. HUD’s proposal does not help families overcome these obstacles. Significantly, it also overlooks the value of the unpaid work that millions of Americans do as caregivers for a loved one with an illness or a disability.
HUD’s proposed legislation would further squeeze the hardest-hit households
In the face of an inadequate and diminishing national housing support structure, families urgently need access to stable housing. Current rental assistance programs—including Housing Choice Vouchers, public housing, and Project-Based Rental Assistance—provide a crucial floor of stability, albeit a fragile and insufficient one, that helps financially insecure families facing low wages focus on meeting other vital needs such as child care, groceries, education, and medical care. The draft legislation would add cost burdens and punitive requirements, making it much harder for households relying on rental subsidy assistance to afford basic necessities. The changes would put these already insecure renters at a higher risk of evictions and homelessness. Moreover, HUD’s proposed cuts to public housing Capital and Operating Funds would mean that many families continue to live in unhealthy units in dire need of repair, placing an additional burden on their quality of life.
A structural failure that requires a systemic solution
Today’s housing insecurity crisis has been decades in the making—and HUD’s proposed legislation would not solve or abate it. Rather, HUD’s legislation would make the crisis worse by putting safe, stable housing even further out of reach for struggling families. In the wake of a $1.9 trillion tax cut for the wealthy and corporations, the HUD proposal is not only incredibly cruel but also fiscally absurd.
The United States’ housing insecurity crisis requires policy solutions that fully confront the persistent segregation and deepening inequities present in the housing market. These policies must increase—not decrease—investments in the nation’s housing resources and overall infrastructure. HUD and Congress should focus on aggressive and innovative investments in both existing and new comprehensive initiatives that help ensure that all households—especially those in historically marginalized communities—have access to safe, supportive, and stable housing, as well as gainful opportunities to fully participate in the workforce.
* Authors’ note: Specifically, these households will have to pay 35 percent of gross family income, or 35 percent of the amount earned from working 15 hours per week at the federal minimum wage—whichever is higher.
Heidi Schultheis is a policy analyst for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress. Michela Zonta is a senior policy analyst for Housing and Consumer Finance Policy at the Center. Rejane Frederick is an associate director for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center.