Yes, President Trump, we do have a homelessness crisis and you’re making it harder for us to address
Over the last several months, in reprehensible tweets about American cities as rat infested and dirty, in callous press interviews about the impact of homeless people on foreign real estate investors, and in tone deaf responses to state and local leaders offering rational solutions to homelessness, President Trump has actually shone a spotlight on a wide-reaching epidemic enveloping hundreds of thousands of Americans who have no place to live, and the communities who lack the funds, but have the will, to house them.
In addition to the clear human consequences of homelessness–the lack of stable housing disrupts healthy individual and family functioning, causes trauma for parents and children, and interferes with employment and educational prospects–it is also expensive. The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness estimates that a chronically homeless individual costs taxpayers as much as $30,000 to $50,000 per year in public expenses such as emergency room visits and inpatient beds, and data from a U.S. Department of Housing of Development (HUD) sponsored study show that program costs for family emergency shelters are $4,819 per family per month.
The same study, a randomized research trial of different treatments for family homelessness, showed that housing vouchers, which are administered by public housing authorities (PHAs) at an average cost of $1,172 per family per month, provide access to conventional private housing through long-term rent subsidies that help families overcome the economic drivers of homelessness.
While a recent report on homelessness from the White House Council of Economic Advisors failed to mention public housing even once, PHAs are essential partners in local efforts to house unsheltered families, veterans, people with disabilities, youth aging out of foster care, victims of domestic violence, returning citizens, and others who are particularly vulnerable to housing insecurity.
PHAs partner with their local Continuums of Care to provide short-term rental assistance, transitional housing, permanent supportive housing, and vouchers to households exiting homelessness. They also coordinate with a variety of local service providers to offer supportive services to ensure housing stability, and work with health and education partners to promote access to services that are essential for family well-being and self-sufficiency.
In Minneapolis, a partnership called Stable Homes Stable Schools between the city, county, school district, and the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority provides rent assistance and wrap-around services to families of elementary school students who are experiencing, and at risk of, homelessness.
As part of its efforts to house people exiting homelessness, the Oakland Housing Authority operates Building Bridges, which provides three types of service enriched housing for former foster youth, veterans, and families exiting homelessness. Program participants work with partnering social service agencies to ensure stabilization and work towards self-sufficiency goals.
Many housing authorities with flexibilities granted through the Moving to Work program have modified the eligibility criteria for certain program sites so that chronically homeless people are more likely to qualify; others are able to offer creative programs for special needs populations exiting homelessness including veterans, ex-offenders, youth aging out of foster care, and people with disabilities. PHAs can most effectively serve these populations when they have more opportunities to develop unique programs in response to local needs.
The White House asserts in its CEA report, and through HUD Secretary Ben Carson’s most recent letter to California lawmakers, that reducing building and zoning regulations will increase affordable housing supply and reduce homelessness. They are not wrong that some regulatory restrictions have an impact on housing production, but deregulation alone will not spur development of enough new affordable units to meet the demand.
A September report from Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies shows that the loss of nearly 4.0 million low-cost rental units in the United States between 1990-2017 correlates to rising housing cost burdens for low-income households. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s 2019 GAP report, 71 percent of extremely low-income households spend more than half their incomes on housing. Meanwhile, three out of four low-income households who would be eligible for federal housing assistance do not receive it because of lack of funding.
There are, at our fingertips, targeted solutions that can be implemented immediately by PHAs to create more opportunities for housing stability. With additional funding for federal housing assistance, particularly public housing and the Housing Choice Voucher program, PHAs can shelter and support low-income people at a scale that meets the true demand for housing that is safe, decent, and affordable.
Yet, the president’s FY2020 budget proposal slashes funding for HUD by more than 16 percent, including a $4.6 billion cut to the public housing operating and capital funds, making it harder for PHAs to address the housing needs of low-income people and those vulnerable to homelessness.
Fortunately, House and Senate appropriators have each delivered a strong rebuke to HUD’s deficient budget request with funding bills that support critically important housing and community development programs the administration has proposed rescinding, cutting, or eliminating, including the Public Housing Capital Fund.
Under the strong leadership of House Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman David Price (D-N.C.) and Ranking Member Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), and Senate Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Chairwoman Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Ranking Member Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the two spending bills modestly increase funds for public and affordable housing over FY19 enacted levels.
But, it will take more than level funding to make up for the decades of chronic disinvestment that has depleted the public housing stock by 10,000 units per year and made it harder for PHAs to meet the growing, and urgent demand, for housing that is safe and affordable.
President Trump’s scrutiny of housing insecurity in our country is misplaced. However, his attention to the 500,000 or more people who are sleeping on the streets, in their cars, emergency shelters or cousin’s couch, is something we should welcome. We can address the crisis of homelessness in America, and public housing authorities are prepared to help solve it with appropriate resources.
Sunia Zaterman is executive director of the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities, a non-profit organization representing 70 of the largest public housing authorities in the U.S.
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