The shutdown failed America’s most vulnerable—and it cannot happen again
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Although the shutdown of the federal government came to a temporary close last week, millions of American families still do not have the housing security that they deserve.

That’s because during shutdowns, the government is unable to uphold its commitment to pay its share of rent for households reliant on federal subsidies, and the prospect of another closure in three weeks means there is still a great deal of uncertainty for these families. That looming insecurity, coupled with the damage to the subsidy system already exacted by the longest shutdown in American history, illustrates that the time is now to finally outlaw future shutdowns.


This is not just an issue of policy preference. It is a moral imperative.

More than 5 million Americans benefit from federal housing subsidies—which include popular programs like Section 8 Assistance, Section 202 Housing for the elderly and Section 811 Housing for those living with disabilities. The vast majority (close to 90 percent) of those households contain at least one child, elderly person or resident with a disability. Over two-thirds are considered “extremely low-income”, meaning that those families earned no more than $29,550 in 2017. Those families deserve to know that their government will stand by them.

These vulnerable Americans did nothing to cause this recent shutdown, or those that preceded it. Should the government fail to remain open beyond the current three-week deadline, their homes will be at risk.

Federal shutdowns are particularly damaging to the subsidy system because private landlords directly contract with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The government generally covers 70 percent of the base rent and tenants pay the remaining 30 percent. Often this is the only way families can make ends meet: when the government does not uphold its end of the bargain, there are both short- and long-term negative consequences.

Participating property owners have been forced to dip into reserve funds to pay for basic maintenance, necessary repairs or vital social services geared for children, the sick and the elderly during government shutdowns. These funds are not inexhaustible. Subsequent government shutdowns may mean that property owners will stop making repairs, shutter social services or attempt to evict residents who cannot make full payment.

The shutdown also had another, more pernicious long-term impact: the erosion of trust in an already delicate system. Property owners are notoriously skeptical of voucher programs, and those that do opt-in tend to cite the reliability of rent payments as the primary reason for participating. Continued federal undependability may mean fewer landlords willing to participate, exacerbating the severity of a housing emergency already impacting millions of Americans.

The impacts of the recent shutdown may be felt sooner rather than later. More than 1,150 Section 8 contracts expired during the shutdown and HUD was unable to negotiate new terms with these landlords. Five hundred more contracts will expire in February. There is no guarantee that these landlords will renew those contracts and the government’s primary negotiating leverage—promise of consistent payment—has been severely weakened.

Subsidized renters here in New York and across the country do not deserve to suffer as a result of political maneuvering in Washington. It is time to say enough is enough and ban future shutdowns—and unless Washington finally takes this important step, millions of our most vulnerable families may be left out in the cold.

Jolie Milstein is the President and CEO of the New York State Association for Affordable Housing (NYSAFAH).