Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
The deepening affordability crisis is hitting the most vulnerable the hardest: very poor families with children.
The plight of families is deepening with the affordability crisis. For the most vulnerable families in the U.S., however, help is getting even harder to find. The past decade has seen federal support for very low-income families with children slide, even as their ranks have skyrocketed.
A new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities finds that housing aid for families with children is at its lowest point in a decade. Even as the number of families with children with worst-case housing needs—meaning families living in substandard housing conditions or paying more than half their household income toward rent—grew sharply over the Great Recession, the federal rental assistance these families received stayed flat.
And while the number of families with children facing worst-case housing needs has fallen slightly, to a total of about 3 million very low-income families in 2013, the federal rental assistance they receive has fallen, too. All in all, what little gains households are making in the U.S. in terms of federal rental aid are going to homeless veterans, people with disabilities, and the elderly. Families with children are meanwhile falling behind.
From 2004 to 2015, the share of federal housing assistance going to families with children declined. While 58 percent of households receiving aid were families with children in 2004, this share had fallen to 46 percent by 2015. According to the report, this shift primarily reflects changes in the way that Housing Choice Vouchers are distributed.
Over roughly the same span, overall spending on housing assistance has evaporated. The federal government spent $2.9 billion less in 2015 than in 2004, meaning 350,000 fewer vouchers for families. Between 2003 and 2013, the number of very low-income families with children grew by 53 percent.
Those families are falling through the cracks. Data from the U.S. Department of Education show that nearly 1.4 million school-aged children are homeless. The plight of very low-income families with children is extreme. From the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report:
For the 20 percent of renters with annual incomes below $15,000, rents must be under $400/month to be affordable. Yet between 2003 and 2013, the number of such low-cost units rose by just 10 percent, while the number of such households rose by 40 percent. In addition, the net gain in moderately priced units, with rents of $400-$799/month, was less than half the growth in renter households that could afford these units. This indicates that while building more housing would take some pressure off rents in most markets, private market units generally will remain too costly for families with low incomes.
The private market is completely incapable of providing for very low-income families with children. A report for the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University on the implosion of homeownership and explosion in the rental market finds that filtering was responsible for most of the growth in the supply of truly affordable rental housing over the last decade. (Filtering describes the process by which the rents fall for higher-cost units, yielding lower-cost units). Between 2003 and 2013, the number of units renting for less than $400 grew by 11 percent as a result of filtering. Other factors adding to the supply of affordable units include new construction (5 percent) and conversions (about 2 percent).
Yet nearly as many truly affordable units added over the past decade were permanently lost (-11 percent). The supply of truly affordable units ($400 or less) added between 2003 and 2013, then, was just 10 percent—even as need has skyrocketed.
The market will not take care of these families and their children. Neither will the federal government. Even President Barack Obama’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2017, which would dedicate $11 billion over 10 years toward 160,000 housing vouchers, would not approach 2004 levels for rental housing assistance. And that budget has a snowball’s chance of passing. The most vulnerable families in America are simply on their own.