Sequestration’s automatic budget cuts last year meant that about 70,000 fewer low-income families were getting housing vouchers to help cover rent in December compared to the year before, according to new projections from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. That’s more than the organization had originally projected.
Sequestration cut the Housing Choice Voucher Program, which funds rental assistance for low-income families, by almost $1 billion last year. That meant about three-quarters of state and local housing agencies had to reduce the number of families that got help.
While Congress passed a budget in December that restored some of the funding that had been cut by sequestration, housing agencies will still only be able to restore less than half of the vouchers this year that they had to cut last year. President Obama’s upcoming budget will include funding to put spending back to pre-sequestration levels, although some programs would still face cuts.
Rental assistance was one of the programs that was immediately impacted by sequestration cuts, even before they went into full effect in March of last year. Over the winter, housing authorities began to slow down the number of people who moved off of waiting lists in anticipation of cuts — already long, as only one in four eligible families gets any kind of rental assistance. When the cuts actually hit, some people who had been given vouchers actually had them rescinded, a devastating blow given that most people wait months or even years to get help. Authorities then froze the waiting lists and didn’t give any freed up vouchers to new applicants, reducing the number being served even further. Housing authorities also reduced the amount of rent covered by a voucher, increasing how much needy families need to cover themselves.
Things could get worse this year even with some relief from sequestration. To deal with last year’s cut, agencies dipped into unspent funds from previous years, but those will have run out for 40 percent of them by the end of last year or the beginning of this one. The Department of Housing and Urban Development was also allowed to give agencies extra funds to avoid cutting off assistance, but it likely doesn’t have anything else to give out this year. To completely undo these reductions, Congress would have to give the program $17.7 billion for voucher renewals and at least $1.69 billion for administration.
These cuts have come at a terrible time for low-income Americans. Wages and incomes have been stagnating but rents remain high. That means a record number of Americans now can’t afford their rent, with a third who face a “severe burden” of paying at least half of their income. The numbers are worse for the people served by housing vouchers: More than 80 percent of low-income people paid more than they could afford on rent, including 71 percent who face a severe burden.
As Ben Miksch, state and federal policy associate at the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, previously told ThinkProgress, “We’re seeing more and more people who need assistance, and at the same time we’re reducing the assistance we’re giving them.”