Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
A Trump administration regulation targeting undocumented immigrants seeks to boot families if even one person is not eligible to receive public housing aid.
On Friday, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) proposed a new rule in the Federal Register seeking to prevent undocumented immigrants from receiving federal housing assistance. The ostensible motivation behind the proposal, which has been pushed by Trump policy advisor Stephen Miller, is to reduce wait times for housing aid around the country. “We are putting America’s most vulnerable first,” Secretary Ben Carson said when news of the proposal surfaced in April.
But the effect of the rule, according to HUD’s own analysis, would be to evict more than 55,000 children, even if many of them are in the country legally..
Currently, housing aid is prorated only for eligible members of a family. That means the household receives subsidies only for members who have proved their eligibility; those who declare they are ineligible are excluded from receiving benefits, but can live with the rest of the family in subsidized housing. The new regulation would disqualify the entire family—even those who are U.S. citizens—if one member is ineligible. The goal appears to be designed to weed out undocumented people, who the agency believes “indirectly receive assistance through the household’s income,” per HUD’s impact analysis.
Housing advocates, immigrants’ rights groups, social policy think tanks, and public housing management organizations have united in opposition of the rule, arguing that it would cause undue hardship to working families around the country. “The cruelty of Secretary Carson’s proposal is breathtaking, and the harm it would inflict on children, families and communities is severe,” said Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), in a statement. “Tens of thousands of deeply poor kids, mostly U.S. citizens, could be evicted and made homeless by this proposal, and—by HUD’s own admission—there would be zero benefit to families on waiting lists.”
HUD claims that there are currently 25,000 households with at least one ineligible member, most in California, Texas, and New York. Of the 108,000 total individuals in these 25,000 households, 71 percent (or approximately 76,000) are eligible for choice vouchers, project-based multifamily housing, and other types of housing assistance. About 55,000 members of this group are children, who will be at risk of losing their homes and becoming homeless if the rule passes as is. (Note: people can be ineligible even if they are in the U.S. legally, as in the case of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) beneficiaries; some groups of legally present non-citizens, such as certain victims of domestic violence, are also eligible for housing assistance.)
HUD’s analysis itself suggests that the likely impact of the rule would be a mass exodus of mixed-status families from public and subsidized housing. “Even if a parent is willing to sacrifice him- or herself for the sake of the household’s continuing receipt of housing assistance; a household would probably suffer a worse outcome by trying to adapt to the new rules than by leaving together,” the HUD analysis reads. “HUD expects that fear of the family being separated would lead to prompt evacuation by most mixed households, whether that fear is justified.”
The rule “will cruelly force them to make an impossible choice: stay in their home or stay together as a family,” said Heidi Schultheis, a senior policy analyst for the Center for American Progress.
The rule has to go through the obligatory 60-day notice-and-comment process, but if this version goes through, HUD would also initiate eviction proceedings against families who do readily leave within 18 months. HUD would assume the costs that come with eviction proceedings, which it estimates could go up to $4.4 million.
For cities with large immigrant populations, such a wave of evictions could represent dual threats—a potential spike in homelessness, and fuel for local housing shortages. “It will exacerbate both the eviction crisis and the housing affordability crisis because it will force people out of their homes without creating a single new affordable home,” said Schultheis.
Other foes of the rule change say it could endanger housing assistance for eligible citizens and non-U.S. citizens, too. Public housing authorities around the country would be burdened with collecting more documents proving citizenship for all members of beneficiary households (even though eligible applicants already submit such paperwork in the application process). “Any policy that makes it harder for public housing authorities to serve their communities is antithetical to the mission of the federal public housing program,” said Sunia Zaterman, executive director of the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities (CLPHA).
That higher burden of proof could be onerous for U.S. citizens of color and the elderly, much as voter ID laws are: If they fail to produce these documents within the designated time frame, eligible residents may find themselves without a roof over their heads.
HUD’s analysis also revealed a math problem: If the rule passes, current mixed-eligibility families would be replaced by completely eligible households, which means that HUD will then pay out a higher per-family amount in subsidies. Depending on the proportion of 108,000 individuals replaced, that could result in an increased annual burden of $193 to $227 million. That extra money could come from the Congressional appropriations process, but the “likelier scenario would be for HUD to serve these costlier households without additional resources,” HUD concludes, resulting in a reduction of the “quantity and quality of assisted housing in response to higher costs.”
In other words, with fewer housing choice vouchers and worse quality public housing units, the rule could end up achieving an outcome contrary to its professed goal.
“To add insult to injury, HUD's analysis says this action would increase costs to taxpayers, and likely not alleviate pressure on local waiting lists, as it previously suggested,” said Adrianne Todman, CEO of National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials (NAHRO). “Evicting families, raising program costs, and unfunded mandates on local communities: This is a hot mess.”
On Friday, Representative Nydia Velázquez of New York and several members of the New York delegation sent a letter to HUD asking for the agency to withdraw the rule. “[T]he underlying premise of the rule is deeply flawed, and therefore, is unlikely to solve many of the problems our nation’s affordable housing programs face, as the Department and the Trump administration purport to claim.”
The Trump administration has often sought to make access to housing and other safety-net benefits harder. It is also in the process of putting in place multiple rules barring people from obtaining, and retaining, citizenship benefits if they’re deemed likely to become “public charges.” The nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute has determined that fear of losing immigration status may keep millions of eligible people, including eligible citizens and legally present immigrants, from seeking housing and other government assistance. And the Department of Homeland Security has itself noted the “downstream and upstream impacts” of such rules “on state and local economies, large and small businesses, and individuals.” HUD’s new proposed regulation is the latest step in that broader effort, immigration advocates say.
“Through this housing regulation, Trump is building yet another invisible wall to keep everyone but the white and the wealthy out, and he is separating families in the process,” said Jackie Vimo, the economic justice policy analyst at the National Immigration Law Center. “This rule is designed to send immigrant families one message: You have no home here.”