Anxiety is rising for millions of renters on government assisted housing

Anxiety is rising for millions of renters on government assisted housing
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Somewhere in the U.S., there's a single mother who works two jobs to provide for her young child. She works hard — really hard, but it’s still not enough.

She doesn’t earn a salary to keep up with the high rents in her city, so a portion of her rent is subsidized with a federally funded voucher. It’s a lifeline. Every month, it keeps her motivated to keep going so she can better her financially fragile situation. She rests at night with hope that tomorrow will provide more certainly. She hopes her child won’t feel her burden and anxiety.

That was then. Today, her anxiety is rising, and she is not be alone. In fact, nearly 5 million others are now learning that their housing vouchers in the coming months are hanging in the balance, caught-up in the longest government shutdown in U.S history. Funding for Housing Choice Vouchers (formerly known as Section 8) is good through Feb. 28. Beyond that, Congress will need to pass a bill, with a two thirds majority to overcome a potential Presidential veto, to fund the vouchers.

Housing authorities, the local agencies that administer these vouchers, have been down this road before. In the last 43 years, there have been 21 shutdowns (including the current one), according to the New York Times. Government shutdowns have averaged seven days. People were hurt then, and there may be no shortage of victims this time around too. Truth is, a government shutdown hurts low-income and poor families the most. They rely on government subsidies for housing and services.

Contingency plans are in place, locally and nationally. HUD’s plan funds Housing Choice vouchers for about two months. What happens after that? It’s unclear. We have entered uncharted territory; contingency plans don’t reach this far, yet Congressional powers do.

Around the country, housing authorities are responding on all fronts. There’s no doubt that communication with tenants is a critical component in that response. Operators at call centers must be informed to communicate up-to-date information without causing further panic. Property managers should also share in the collective effort for transparency. They too need to have the answers to tenants’ anxious questions. Our tenants rely on us, now more than ever. We can’t fail them. We can’t fail each other. We are all in this together.

Housing authorities must become the voice for the millions of tenants who are affected by this historic government shutdown. Smaller housing authorities may start to feel the impacts first. Their budgets can only stretch so far. Larger Housing Authorities have a bit more to work with, but even large reserves can be gobbled-up quickly. We must unite in the way we did when natural disasters hit our communities. During Hurricane Harvey, our good neighbors at the Oklahoma Housing Authority were there for us. They provided housing vouchers for nearly 100 families impacted by the hurricane to relocate. It was a godsend. During this shutdown, we can also find ways to collaborate again.

We see there’s a cliff in the distance. Each day, we are getting closer to it. As we do we can see, with more clarity, the horizon and the darkness underneath. Millions of Americans will fall off that cliff, if congress doesn’t act soon. Together, we must build a safety net. It must be strong and wide. But most importantly, it must be woven with the fibers of hope.

Perhaps we now find ourselves like that single mother. She’s hopeful her employer will make payroll so she can afford her rent each month. Even though we don’t know exactly when the next round of federal funding will trickle down to pay for vouchers starting in March, we have to be like her. We work hard each day to find solutions and weave our safety net. We remain hopeful we won’t have to use.

LaRence Snowden is the board Chairman of the Houston Housing Authority. He has been serving on the board of commissioners at HHA since 2012. Snowden is also the assistant vice president of research for Texas Southern University.