Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
A new bill is aimed at reducing long waits for federal assistance and increasing “self-sufficiency.”
A new bill backed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development aims to raise rents for families who receive housing aid and set the foundation for work requirements. The proposed rent reforms will affect millions of families, setting new boundaries on aid and limits for the families who need help to pay their rent.
The Making Affordable Housing Work Act of 2018, a standalone bill that HUD introduced on Wednesday, would amend the Housing Act of 1937 to introduce new rent reforms and standards. Among other provisions, the bill raises the rent for families who receive assistance from 30 percent to 35 percent of their monthly income.
But the biggest sting will be felt among extremely vulnerable families living on frozen budgets far below the poverty line. Changes in the bill could mean enormous new burdens or evictions for the very poorest people in America.
In a call with reporters on Wednesday, HUD Secretary Ben Carson spoke about the long waiting lists for housing aid that greet applicants in every state. He mentioned the fact that just one in four households eligible for assistance actually get help, and noted that the budget barely covers rising costs for existing families.
“The current system isn’t working very well,” Carson said. “Doing nothing is not an option.”
His complaints echo those from housing advocates who have called on the Trump administration to increase spending on rental aid. Yet the solutions proffered by the administration—namely new eligibility standards and higher costs for families—have drawn sharp criticism from low-income housing advocates.
“Despite claims that these harmful proposals will increase ‘self-sufficiency,’ rent hikes, de facto time limits, and arbitrary work requirements will only leave more people without stable housing, making it harder for them to climb the economic ladder,” said Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, in an email.
The MAHWA bill mirrors the draft reforms from HUD first reported by CityLab in February. President Donald Trump signed an executive order in April mandating work requirements for benefits across the administration, paving the way for welfare reforms affecting housing, food, and healthcare.
The bill establishes a new formula for calculating rent: Families must pay 35 percent of their gross monthly income or 35 percent of what an individual would earn working 15 hours a week for four weeks at minimum wage (whichever is higher). That minimum works out to $150, three times more than what families pay under the current dispensation.
The bill also establishes a new minimum rent for households who are exempt from paying 30 percent now, namely the elderly and disabled. If the bill passes, these recipients will need to pay at least a minimum of $50—a new floor that will introduce a cost burden for the most vulnerable aid recipients. For some households, especially those who earn less than $2,000 per year, it will mean a powerful shock.
As was widely anticipated, the new HUD legislation enables public-housing authorities and landlords who accept vouchers to set work requirements for people who receive aid. This bill does not specify the minimum or maximum hours that a housing authority could set, or address the nature of work involved with work requirements, but gives the secretary the power to set those terms through regulation.
New reforms under MAHWA include “alternative” rent structures, such as tiered rents, stepped rents, and timed escrows that public housing authorities can choose to adopt. These standards, to be established through future regulations, would serve as time limits for households receiving housing aid. Carson said the goal for these new reforms was to relieve lengthy waitlists.
“Oftentimes these waiting lists mean families must wait for years,” he said. “It’s clear for a budget perspective, and from a human point of view, [they are] unsustainable.”
Carson’s consistent theme in discussions about aid has been self-sufficiency, and the goal of these reforms, according to the secretary, is to boost incentives that put people into more financially stable situations. But as the country faces a broad dearth of affordable housing, limiting options—especially for families at or below the poverty level—has alarmed many housing experts.
And while training programs or other forms of work requirements may help some aid recipients find jobs, most of the people who receive housing aid and can work already do. Work requirements also present a burden to employed people with irregular schedules—a long-running refrain of liberal critics of conservative welfare reforms. This is especially true in certain regions, where unemployment is at record lows.
The bill has not yet been introduced by a member of Congress. If and when it is, it is likely to receive some of the same criticism that has met the farm bill, which imposes new work requirements for people who rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
“It isn’t clear that there’s any policy rationale behind this,” said Will Fischer, a senior policy analyst for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, referring to the reforms when HUD first floated them in February. “If you work, they raise your rent. If you don’t work, they raise your rent. If you’re elderly, they raise your rent.”