Trump’s housing budget is a mass eviction notice for the poor

Millions of tenants already can’t get help with their rent. This makes it worse.

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson. CREDIT: AP Photo/Susan Walsh
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson. CREDIT: AP Photo/Susan Walsh

America’s systems for helping vulnerable families keep a roof overhead are already woefully underfunded, leaving about 15 million deserving households to fend for themselves when the rent is due.

President Donald Trump’s budget chooses to make that problem worse. If cuts proposed in his Housing and Urban Development budget become law, he will put hundreds of thousands of families currently receiving rent support on the road to eviction, experts told ThinkProgress.

“We don’t want our grandparents in their golden years figuring out which bridge to sleep under,” Center for Community Change Housing Trust Fund project director Michael Anderson said. “Think about this as the destruction of a compact created with the American people years ago, informed by the Great Depression but now seemingly forgotten.”

A conscious choice to do harm

While Carson’s team claims it can serve the exact same number of people even after shifting huge costs onto families who cannot afford to bear them, the budget justification admits that Trump’s plans “may ultimately prove to be unsustainable in a fiscally constrained environment.”

“There are places in the justifications where they basically admit that there’s a housing crisis and they’re making it worse,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities housing expert Barbara Sard said. “They’re saying, ‘This is all we can afford.’ Which is obviously crap. It’s what they’ve chosen to do.”

Sard’s team is still crunching numbers, but she said early estimates indicate a quarter-million fewer housing vouchers will be available under the budget — and likely hundreds of thousands more families will end up losing their apartments thanks to other cuts and policy changes.

“They’re saying, ‘This is all we can afford.’ Which is obviously crap.”

HUD claims none of this is true. The budget will “begin reforms now to address [rising] costs while still supporting currently assisted families,” staff wrote.

But that is a lie — and one supported by disingenuous math in the documents Carson’s team released when the budget dropped Tuesday. The agency claims it is only cutting Section 8 vouchers by about $300 million, for example.

The real cut is more like eight times what Carson claims, Sard said. HUD claims otherwise because it compares Trump’s budget to 2016 funding levels — ignoring both a $600 million increase Congress passed for the current fiscal year and the fundamental reality that rents keep rising at a blistering pace all around the country.

“What really matters in the real world is, what’s the amount needed to sustain assistance to the same number of families? Our estimate is this would in fact be $2.3 billion below what’s needed,” Sard said.

On top of that $2.3 billion cut to voucher assistance for people who rent from privately-owned options, HUD would slash another $2 billion-plus from public housing.

Trump and Carson’s sleight of hand amounts to a proposal to evict a huge group of people from their homes.

Mass evictions and con-man math

Both HUD and the White House insist that nobody will lose housing due to the budget cuts because people will just go out and get jobs. But that claim is based on a dangerous misunderstanding of who is actually served by these programs — and flies in the face of all evidence about the economic prospects of this population.

“People are spending every penny they have,” Sard said. “They make it sound like everyone in assisted housing could just go get a job and earn enough to make it up. But the majority of householders are elderly or disabled, and most of the others are working. There’s no evidence they have any actual ability to increase their income.”

The population served by HUD’s various tenant support systems is so marginalized already, so poor and so far removed from any way of increasing their incomes, that they have nowhere to go if HUD gives up on them in the ways this budget proposes. This budget would increase homelessness and privation dramatically, policy experts said.

“You need to protect these folks. Where else are they supposed to go?” said Andrew Jakabovics of Enterprise Community Partners. “For these families, it’s all or nothing. In most cases the alternative is either totally unsuitable, unsafe housing, or no housing at all.”

Low-income tenants receiving rent vouchers or other forms of rental assistance would suddenly be asked to pay a much larger share of their rent than they already do. Voucher families currently pay 30 percent of their net income in rent.

Carson proposes to charge them 35 percent of their gross income — meaning that tenants with large medical expenses or many children would lose important deductions to how their income is calculated, then also be asked to pay a higher percentage of that income in rent. The budget effectively punishes people for having poor health or large families — not unlike the Trump budget’s proposal to revive so-called “family caps” for other safety net programs.

Carson also would end HUD’s reimbursements for tenants who pay their utilities separately from their rent and set a minimum monthly rent of $50 — even for people who make so little that $50 would be more than 35 percent of their gross income.

That is a very complicated and polite way of saying that people would get kicked out of their homes, Jakabovics said.

“You’re going to have folks who were stably housed with vouchers seeing evictions,” he said. “They say that’s potentially a big cost savings to the taxpayer, but it radically increases the likelihood that tenants are going to miss payments and get their utilities shut off.”

False economy

Indeed, the deeper premise throughout Trump’s budget is that it’s time America started worrying more about taxpayers than about the quality and extent of the safety net their dollars provide. Budget director Mick Mulvaney is fond of saying the plan redefines the meaning of compassion.

But it is a fiction to say these housing cuts would actually save national resources. They will put more people on the street — where they become much more expensive for society as a whole, as the destabilizing impact of losing a stable home shoots its tentacles through every aspect of their lives.

“To cut people off at this foundational level will reverberate for decades to come: In terms of the cost to those individual people, and to the communities they live in, and then to the government institutions that will have to intervene,” Anderson said.

“You can have as simple and controllable a disorder as diabetes. If you’re homeless or you’re moving around and getting evicted and moving again, that disease all of a sudden becomes a life and death challenge,” he said. “Now expand that across the panoply of vulnerabilities that certain people experience, that are in part or in full addressed when they have access to a stable, safe place to call home.”

Trump’s HUD budget also destroys the Housing Trust Fund and eliminates two dollars out of every three ticketed for the construction of additional or improved low-income housing units.

The White House plan also lets Carson overrule local decisionmakers from afar. “This administration, which says the agencies closest to the community should be setting policies, is now saying Washington knows best,” Sard said.

For decades, even diehard partisans generally agreed that Washington shouldn’t actively, intentionally harm poor renters just to balance the budget.

“Historically, even when budgets have been tight, the guiding mantra was always to do no harm,” Jakabovics said. “That’s clearly not the case here.”