Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
A draft budget document obtained by CityLab would also raise rents for millions of people who receive housing aid, including the country’s most vulnerable residents.
The Trump administration may introduce minimum work requirements for some recipients of housing aid, while raising rents for others, according to a document obtained by CityLab.
The document, labeled as draft rent reforms with input from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and agency lawyers, would be part of the government’s effort to bring a new conservative ethos to federal assistance.
HUD would not confirm or deny the draft amendment, and referred inquiries to the Office of Management and Budget, which has not responded to a request for comment. The document sets forth line-by-line text changes to the U.S. Housing Act of 1937, the law that first established federal housing aid, plus adjustments to subsequent acts in 1959 and 1990.
The new rules under consideration would be the latest in a sweeping effort by the federal government to transform the social safety net. In January, the Trump administration said that it would allow states to establish work requirements for Medicaid. The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced in December that it would let states set new work requirements for people who receive food aid.
Advocates argue that the results would mean impossibly tight margins for the country’s most vulnerable families.
“It’s framed as a rent reform proposal, but this isn’t really about reform when you look at the specific proposals,” says Will Fischer, a senior policy analyst for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “It isn’t clear that there’s any policy rationale behind this. If you work, they raise your rent. If you don’t work, they raise your rent. If you’re elderly, they raise your rent.”
At a time when homelessness is surging in some regions and cities are coming up short on affordable housing, assistance for low-income renters is under the gun. The tax bill passed by Congress in December undercut the value of tax credits that are key to building new affordable housing. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has proposed some $6 billion in budget cuts at HUD.
The work requirements are one of a number of amendments the draft proposes—including significantly higher rents for some 4 million households who receive assistance.
The proposed changes to longstanding federal law on rental assistance would allow public housing agencies to introduce minimum employment requirements for eligibility for families, according to the draft rent reforms. In order to qualify for public housing or maintain their residence, beneficiaries may be asked to demonstrate proof of employment.
Work requirements, which vary by program, can pose a substantial burden for low-income households. Some adults may need to care for children or disabled relatives. Some adults simply may not be able to find jobs—then what? Losing their housing won't make that search any easier.
However, minimum work requirements may be hard to meet even for those with jobs. Minimum-wage employees might be available to work shifts all week, but in jobs with flexible scheduling, they may not get the necessary hours. An interruption at work, or a failure to file all the necessary paperwork, could cost a person his or her home.
By some measures, work requirements for welfare are broadly popular. A recent poll conducted by the conservative Foundation for Government Accountability finds overwhelming support among likely voters for setting minimum work requirements for aid for food, housing, and healthcare—even among Democrats.
But work requirements are also easily misunderstood. The poll, for example, asked participants whether they support “requiring able-bodied adults to work, train, or volunteer at least part-time in order to receive welfare.” (Some 85 percent of suburban women, a category highlighted by the survey, said that they do.) Volunteering would not count toward the minimum work requirements being mulled by HUD, though, and neither would part-time work. And according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, just 6 percent of households that receive housing aid are considered “work-able” but not employed.
“Work requirements do not create the jobs and opportunities needed to lift people out of poverty, but instead could cut struggling families off from the very housing stability and services that make it possible for them to find and maintain jobs,” says Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
Notably, the language includes no exemption for parents caring for children—meaning it would be up to public housing agencies to determine whether single mothers could afford to stay.
“For children, [this proposal] has really dire consequences,” Fischer says. “Being pulled out of their school or childcare situation. There are cases where kids get placed into foster care for no other reason than their family can’t afford suitable housing.”
The new draft language caps the work requirement at 32 hours per week on average per adult, excluding elderly or disabled families. Both active employment and vocational training would qualify. The new legislation would give states the option to make these work requirements mandatory, introducing administrative burdens such as monitoring and enforcement for agencies that might not set such requirements on their own.
Other long-anticipated changes from HUD would raise costs for households that are already struggling, including families who receive housing choice vouchers (formerly known as Section 8 vouchers).
Most notably, the amended law would alter the formula for determining the rent that residents of federally subsidized housing should pay. Under the new dispensation, with some exceptions, a family would need to pay 35 percent of its gross income, up from 30 percent. Or a family might pay 35 percent of the amount earned by working 15 hours a week at federal minimum wage.
This provision works out to an effective minimum rent of $152.25 for low-income residents—a figure that would represent a cost burden for households led by underemployed minimum-wage workers.
HUD has introduced pilot programs that do allow landlords to raise rents for low income families. Under a pilot program called Moving To Work, which is currently still in trial, some housing agencies can set guidelines that gradually raise rents for families who receive assistance. However, when Moving To Work agencies increase rents, the extra income goes back into the program, which is meant to help families achieve self-sufficiency. The new draft reform would allow owners and landlords to pocket the difference.
Smaller modifications are also present in the new amendment, which Congress could add to the next budget bill. It determines rent by gross income, not net income, meaning it eliminates any deductions for expenses; so high costs related to healthcare or childcare would no longer count as factors. The HUD proposal also requires all households to pay, at minimum, $50 toward the rent—including the elderly and disabled, and no matter what fraction of their income this payment would mean. Currently, some of the most destitute households, with adjusted earnings of less than $2,000 per year, don’t pay any rent.
“The vast majority of voucher holders and public housing residents are either elderly, disabled, or include someone who works low wage jobs,” Yentel says. “Of the remaining households, almost half include a preschool child or an older child or adult with a disability who needs the supervision of a caregiver.”
The proposal would seem to bypass new standards enacted by recent legislation. In 2016, Congress passed the Housing Opportunity Through Modernization Act, which streamlines the formulas for calculating rents, deductions, and other factors for housing aid. “What HUD is proposing, even before they’ve implemented that law, is to go in a really different direction,” says Fischer, who coauthored an analysis of some of the Trump administration’s housing proposals last July.
The draft amendment, dated January 17, suggests that the department is moving ahead with stricter standards. That is in keeping with the Republican agenda. During a retreat in West Virginia this week, House Speaker Paul Ryan urged Republican members of Congress to embrace entitlement reform, including work requirements for welfare recipients, Politico reports.
“HUD’s proposals would increase rent burdens for millions of the lowest income and most vulnerable families, seniors, and people with disabilities,” Yentel says. “HUD may try to portray it as increasing ‘self-sufficiency,’ but these proposals are more about punishing low income people than helping them.”