The federal government would largely abandon its longstanding commitments to keeping the poorest people in the country off the streets if President Donald Trump’s proposed budget for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) were adopted.
The plan unveiled Monday is less detailed than the equivalent proposals HUD has put out each of the past two years when the budget season wasn’t marred by a government shutdown, housing policy experts said. Closer analysis of how this year’s plan might differ from those precedents will have to wait until HUD releases full program-level specifics in the coming weeks.
But despite the fuzziness, the broad contours of the budget released Monday are consistent with longstanding Trump administration themes concerning the agency and its mission. It would impose rent hikes on the poorest tenants of publicly-subsidized rental housing, zero out all funding for the Community Development Block Grants program, and retreat from federal responsibilities on housing construction and maintenance in both urban and rural communities.
“They’re willing to pay for increases they want to the defense budget on the back of America’s poorest families,” Sarah Mickelson of the National Low Income Housing Coalition told ThinkProgress. “We’re in the midst of this housing crisis and Trump wants to walk away from America’s commitment to housing and increase rents on poor families.”
Though HUD portrays itself as seeking to increase funding for various programs, the spending it proposes would actually be 18 percent below what Congress gave the agency for 2019. The difference reflects how unpopular Trump and HUD Secretary Ben Carson’s proposals were with lawmakers. Even when fellow Republicans had more influence in the budget process, Mickelson said, the executive duo couldn’t sell ideas that appear again in this year’s budget, such as the cancellation of the Community Development Block Grant program, cuts to rental assistance, and a major retreat from public housing maintenance and other federal responsibilities.
The bulk of HUD’s housing assistance, development, and repair funding gets spent in high-density metropolitan environments. But the agency also operates programs specifically aimed at rural areas with more spread-out populations, where it is hard to attract development capital without federal incentives and where the housing needs of the working poor are much different from their city-dwelling counterparts.
But Trump’s new housing budget goes after rural residents as well, zeroing out funding for a trio of programs that subsidize mortgages for low-income homeowners, attract new home- and apartment-building activity to their regions, and fund housing repairs in far-flung locales.
“These are the programs directly helping the people we think of as Trump supporters,” Mickelson said. “Yet the administration is proposing to essentially eliminate those as well. It’s really unclear how this is serving his constituents.”
The new budget proposal also contains a substantial escalation to the administration’s wide-ranging quest to punish poor families who aren’t able to find sustainable jobs, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Doug Rice said. Last year’s proposal asked Congress to change the law so that any public housing authority that wanted to experiment with stringent new work-or-leave rules could do so, Rice said, but this year’s makes that untested conservative dogma a mandatory policy rather than an optional one.
“[HUD Secretary Ben] Carson spends a fair amount of time talking about helping families move toward self-sufficiency and that sort of thing. Which is certainly a goal we can all agree with,” Rice said. “[But] his view is that the best way to encourage people to go to work is to threaten to take away their safety net assistance if they don’t, despite the fact there’s no real research to show that works.”
One recycled idea in particular alarms housing affordability advocates. Though the new budget portrays its requested funding for Housing Choice Vouchers for low-income tenants as a substantial increase from last year’s ask, Rice said the figures are misleading and the new budget rehashes a proposal previously forecast to trigger hundreds of thousands of evictions around the country.
HUD’s budget seeks $22.2 billion in voucher money for fiscal year 2020, portraying the request as an increased investment in the program 2.2 million households rely upon. But the comparison HUD offers is misleading, Rice said, and the request would actually come in $354 million below the most recent full-year funding level.
If anything, that figure understates the harm the cut would impose. HUD must continually increase funding in order to keep pace with increases in the rents charged by landlords, if it wants to keep existing tenants housed. Though CBPP can’t yet calculate the exact number of voucher tenants who’d be jeopardized by the proposed cuts this year, Rice’s colleagues estimated that similar cuts proposed a year ago would have kicked 200,000 tenant families out of the program.
HUD’s budget doesn’t acknowledge any such mass-eviction plan in its budget documents. It asserts the shrunken funding levels would still let federal aid reach the same 2.2 million households. The difference is that HUD expects poor tenants to magically come up with money they don’t have.
Nevertheless, the agency’s summary calls these rent hikes “efforts to promote tenant self-sufficiency and reduce administrative burdens through proposed rent reforms.” But economists regard the proposal – which would as much as triple the amount of money the lowest-income voucher recipients are required to pony up out of pocket – as a fanciful quest to squeeze blood from a stone.
“[T]he very poorest of the poor, you’d be tripling rent on them,” Mickelson said. “These are some of the most vulnerable people in our country and they rely on housing [programs] to pay rent and make ends meet, to put groceries on the table, to pay for transportation, all the other things you need in life.”
“And at the same time of course you’re talking about the tax bill from 2017 that gave huge tax cuts to billionaires and corporations,” she said. “They’re still trying to pay for it on the backs of people most in need.”