Eyes Rent-Voucher Expansion
President Joseph Biden’s administration has begun developing a housing-policy agenda intended to address both the unique circumstances of the COVID-19 emergency and already entrenched social inequalities.
So far, the administration has extended the federal eviction moratorium, implemented last year under the auspices of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), to March 31, and proposing to extend it until September. This moratorium also compels agencies such as the Federal Housing Finance Authority, the Federal Housing Authority, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to halt all eviction and foreclosure
proceedings that they preside over.
The extension of the CDC moratorium is a welcome development, but many people have argued that it is inadequate, as it has overly restrictive requirements that exclude many tenants — so stronger state-level
eviction protections remain essential.
The Biden administration has also proposed expanding the federal Housing Choice Vouchers program, which helps some 5 million Americans pay their rent. Administered by HUD and often referred to as Section 8, the program provides vouchers for rent supplements to very-low-income families, elderly, and disabled people living in privately owned buildings, enabling them to afford housing that they ordinarily could not. The funds are distributed to local public housing authorities, which determine eligibility and handle applications.
The White House has also proposed several measures to address homelessness. It wants to increase funding for the Emergency Solutions Grant program by $3 billion, to help individuals and families quickly recover from sudden homelessness or other housing emergencies and regain their footing in permanent housing. It has also called for an injection of $44 billion into the Housing Trust Fund, another HUD program that helps people who have experienced homelessness and are currently living in motels or hotels find more stable housing.
Those measures are largely intended to address the immediate housing crisis that has been exacerbated by COVID-19. But Biden and his team have proposed additional initiatives intended to address longer-term, structural problems with the country’s housing market. A central element of this effort is to expand the supply of housing, hoping that it would lower prices by reducing the imbalance between supply and demand. The government would accomplish this through investment in public housing and expanding the Housing Trust Fund.
Another proposal would extend Housing Choice Vouchers to everyone who qualifies. The program currently has a set pool of money, so it can only distribute a limited number of vouchers, regardless of how many people meet eligibility criteria. That means that millions of people a year are denied support despite qualifying. Converting the program to “universal” would mean it would operate like Medicare and Social Security, in which everyone who meets the income and other requirements gets those services, regardless of the total cost.
The administration has also proposed creating a permanent National Housing Stabilization Fund that could help tenants who find themselves temporarily unable to afford rent, but it has not provided many details. Finally, Biden’s team has advanced the idea of a national right-to-counsel rule that would ensure that everyone facing eviction would have access to a lawyer; just-cause eviction protections, which would require that landlords provide a legal rationale for why they would not offer to renew a tenant’s lease; and expansion and more rigorous enforcement of the Fair Housing Act against racial and other discrimination.
It remains to be seen how much the Biden administration will follow through on these proposals, or whether they can be enacted in a bitterly divided Congress. While these measures would not be sufficient to address the country’s overall housing crisis, where housing costs continue to rise much faster than wages, they could provide meaningful relief to millions of people suffering from housing stresses and instability.