On Thursday, House Republicans passed a bill designed to help low-income people suffering from opioid addiction obtain affordable housing, but opponents of the measure contend that it only worsens the affordable housing crisis. Affordable housing advocates say that while the bill sets aside thousands of rental assistance vouchers for people with substance abuse disorders it will force many other economically vulnerable people — including seniors, veterans, families, homeless people, and victims of natural disasters and domestic violence — to wait longer for affordable housing.
There are currently long wait-lists for federal housing vouchers which provide rental assistance. Rather than create new vouchers, the bill would pull thousands from the existing stock and allocate them to substance abuse treatment centers so they can be distributed to people in those programs who are fighting addiction.
“We are concerned about taking away existing resources for specific populations and think that instead additional resources should be provided to support the needs of these individuals,” Jessica Cassella, a staff attorney with the National Housing Law Project told ThinkProgress.
Additionally, the bill would put more restrictions on those housing vouchers by allowing those treatment centers to limit the amount of time people can receive rental assistance vouchers to one or two years. It would also empower the Department of Housing and Urban Development to impose strict work requirements in order to receive them — a harsh practice the agency has already proposed.
“We oppose it because we don’t think this is the way the voucher program should be used and on top of that there should be additional dollars invested in housing,” said Peggy Bailey, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Health Integration Project director. “There shouldn’t be time limits on vouchers and it shouldn’t be contingent on engaging in services.”
The “Transitional Housing for Recovery in Viable Environments Demonstration Program Act (Thrive Act)” distributes a total of 10,000 rental assistance vouchers, called Section 8 vouchers, to nonprofit addiction clinics that provide its clients with a number of services including housing workforce development, job placement, financial literacy, and long-term addiction recovery support. The clinics would distribute the vouchers to clients that need long-term housing while they work on their addiction recovery, find a job, and learn to live independently.
The bill, which was introduced by Rep. Andy Barr (R- Ky), passed through the House by a 230 to 173 vote along party lines, with just 12 Democrats voting for it and seven Republicans against.
The Section 8 voucher program is chronically underfunded and only a fraction of the people that need it are able to receive assistance. Only 30 percent of extremely low-income families can find homes, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), and three-quarters of families are severely cost-burdened by housing — meaning they spend more than half of their income on rent and utilities. Nationwide, there are 11 million people classified as extremely low income renters in the country, but only four million available rental homes that are affordable for them, the coalition said.
Opponents of the bill also objected to the time limits that treatment centers could impose on these voucher recipients. During a June 12 Rules Committee hearing Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) pointed out that people battling substance abuse disorders often need more than two years to both recover from their addiction and find stable employment that pays well enough to cover the cost of market-rate rent.
“Terminating housing assistance before individuals can maintain stable housing on their own could very well contribute to relapses and be counterproductive to the very intent of the bill,” Waters said.
Imposing work requirements for Section 8 vouchers has been a priority for HUD under Secretary Ben Carson. In April, the agency backed a bill called “Making Affordable Housing Work Act of 2018”, which would both increase the cost of rent for people receiving federal rental assistance vouchers and allow public housing authorities and landlords of buildings that accept Section 8 vouchers to set minimum work requirements.
There are also doubts as to whether HUD would have the ability to vet and monitor the treatment programs that receive those Section 8 vouchers, making the process “extremely inefficient and prone to errors,” the NLIHC wrote to members of congress on April 17. The bill has since been amended to allow HUD to consult with the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Labor in making decisions about which entities should receive the vouchers.
But during the hearing, Waters raised further concerns about allowing Section 8 housing vouchers to be distributed by substance abuse treatment centers with no experience handling them. And overall, by prioritizing people receiving substance abuse treatment for those vouchers without setting aside any new rental assistance funding, opponents insist this would impose additional harm on the millions of low-income people that have been waiting years for the stable housing they desperately need.
The bill “would effectively tell millions of people who have been waiting in line for a housing voucher that they have to wait a little bit longer because Congress decided to let some people cut in front of them,” Waters said. “If we are going to agree that we need more housing assistance for people with substance abuse disorders, let’s agree to provide the funding necessary to create new vouchers instead of taking and redistributing vouchers from other families in need.”