Economy

Congresswoman Proposes Spending $13 Billion To End Homelessness

CREDIT: Flickr/born1945

A homeless man under a bridge in Portland, OR

With homelessness surging and rent prices skyrocketing nationwide, one congresswoman is urging her colleagues to rapidly increase federal funding for affordable housing in hopes of stemming the tide.

Congress would add about $13 billion to the fight against homelessness and housing insecurity over the next five years under the Ending Homelessness Act of 2016, proposed last week by Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA).

That’s about three times as ambitious as President Obama’s last budget request for combatting homelessness and promoting affordable housing. The bill would be a dramatic increase over the $4 billion or so the government currently spends on these programs each year. But even that jump in resources would not be enough to cure homelessness.

The bill would inject badly-needed funding toward housing and homelessness in three primary ways.

First, it would add $5 billion over the next five years to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) budget for funding local homelessness work. That program, known as McKinney-Vento, is the primary source of money to shelter and serve the chronically homeless. HUD’s funding decisions shape national homelessness policy down at the root, and giving the agency more horsepower for McKinney-Vento would make it easier for HUD to promote ideas that work and discourage ones that don’t.

The new McKinney-Vento money would build 85,000 new units of permanent supportive housing, among other things. It would also put more force behind HUD’s subtle crackdown on towns that criminalize homelessness.

Second, Waters’ bill would direct just over $5 billion to the National Housing Trust Fund, America’s primary conduit for building new rental housing at below-market rents. Over five years, the money would generate 25,000 new units to rent at rates that for tenants who earn less than 30 percent of the median income for their area.

Finding housing is nearly impossible for those tenants, known as “extremely low-income” or ELI renters. In America as a whole, there are only 28 units of affordable housing available for every 100 ELI households. And that ugly headline figure isn’t papering over pockets of success: Zero counties in America have enough affordable housing for their ELI populations, Urban Institute researchers noted in 2015.

Waters’ legislation also calls for $2.5 billion for the Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers (HCV) program. That’s enough to subsidize rent on another 300,000 housing units nationwide over the next half-decade, Waters’ office says.

The bill doesn’t invite any sort of revolution in the U.S. approach to homelessness, unless actually delivering on the promises past generations of American political leaders made is revolutionary.

“There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s as it should be,” National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty founder and executive director Maria Foscarinis said in an interview. “This is really focused on additional resources for strategies that we know work.”

McKinney-Vento, Section 8, and the Housing Trust Fund are three of the most longstanding ideas in combatting homelessness and housing insecurity. The programs have been vastly underfunded for decades. Congress cut funding for housing assistance by 75 percent from the late 70s to the late 90s, and kept it very low until the closing years of the Bush administration. Funding has bounced back to those historic levels since, but that can’t make up for the damage of decades of neglect and the worst economic collapse in eight decades.

Waters essentially proposes to have the country start putting money where its mouth is again on housing. It’s a welcome step, but would still fall miles short of what it would take to make sure there’s an affordable unit of housing for every American.

In January 2015, HUD counted over 96,000 chronically homeless people nationwide. Creating 85,000 new units of supportive housing targeted to that population over 5 years would take a large bite out of the problem, but wouldn’t be enough to zero it out.

Similarly, building 25,000 new units of ELI housing over five years would put a dent in the problem. But 10,000 such units disappear each year, to redevelopment or blight.

And there are 7.2 million ELI tenants who don’t have anywhere to live that they can afford already.