At City Observatory:
We could extend housing vouchers to every very-low-income household—and expand housing support to the middle class, too—if we were willing to take away just one of the big housing subsidies to people making over $100,000 a year.
But let’s back up.
Previously, we’ve made the case that the SNAP program, or food stamps, is a pretty good template for thinking about how to reform the way we do housing assistance. SNAP is available to everyone below a certain income threshold; if you apply and you qualify, you get money to buy food.
Housing is very different. There are a million different housing assistance programs, but all of them are quite limited in scope: if you apply and you qualify, you are simply one of many such people fighting over a much smaller number of vouchers or set-aside affordable units. In some cases, this makes housing assistance more like a lottery game than a social service, as when nearly 2,600 people applied for just 18 homes in San Francisco, 58,000 people applied for 105 homes in New York, or nearly 300,000 people were placed on the waitlist for a Chicago Housing Authority unit. Nationwide, about 20 million people qualify for housing assistance but don’t receive it.
But how much would food-stampifying housing policy cost? Surely an unreasonable, pie-in-the-sky amount, right?
Well, fortunately for us, the Congressional Budget Office has already done the legwork to figure it out. In a study published in September, the CBO gamed out a large number of possible directions to take housing policy: bigger, smaller, budget-neutral tweaks, transfers from one program to another, and so on.
One of the options it analyzed was expanding the Housing Choice Voucher (also known as Section 8) program to everyone who qualifies—which, at the moment, is anyone whose income is below 50 percent of “AMI,” or the median income in their area. (In most metro areas, that puts the upper limit for a family of four at between $25,000 and $35,000). The CBO estimated such a policy would cost about $41 billion a year over the next ten years. A more modest approach, targeted to only the extremely low-income—those making less than 30 percent of their area’s median income—would cost about $29 billion a year.
But despite these shortcomings, it’s hard to overstate just what a revolution in housing policy entitlement vouchers would be. Affordable housing is a national challenge, but in recent years, it has largely been up to local governments to tinker around the edges of overwhelming need—and even the most ambitious local governments simply don’t have the resources to do much more than tinker around the edges. San Francisco’s massive Proposition A, which voters approved in November, will bond $310 million for affordable housing—its own proponents decided their initial goal, $500 million, would strain the ability of the city to service the debt—which will likely result in less than a thousand net new units of affordable housing. In Chicago, the signature affordable housing policy of the last few years is supposed to create just 1,000 units of affordable housing, even as 300,000 people are on the waitlist for a public unit. In Austin, a community land trust was able to make national news while creating three affordable homes, with 25 more in the pipeline.
Local efforts to to provide housing relief to those who need it are necessary and important. But only the federal government has the resources to address the full scale of the issue. In fact, there is already at least one federal housing program that could be scaled up to take a massive bite out of the housing problem, relieving one of the most terrifying and dangerous consequences of poverty. We could pay for it simply by deciding that households that make more than $100,000, people whose income is above 80 percent of the country’s, don’t need housing subsidies. What kind of government turns down that deal?