Monday, July 29, 2013

Helping Families Afford a Decent Place to Live

Housing insecurity can have serious negative impacts on the health of young children. Research shows that when a child’s home is overcrowded or their family has to move multiple times due to financial pressures, children are at risk of poor mental health, have difficulty coping with stress, difficulty with social relationships and suffer from poor-quality sleep. Research on housing insecurity states that:

·         Housing insecurity increases the risk for childhood injuries, elevated blood pressure, respiratory conditions, and exposure to infectious disease

·         A history of multiple moves is associated with an increased risk of substance abuse, behavior problems, poor school performance and teen pregnancy for older children and adolescents

·         Adolescents who experience school moves are 50% more likely not to graduate from high school

·         Multiple moves in childhood are associated with lower overall health in adulthood

·         In some cases inadequate housing is a contributing factor in an increased risk of children being removed from their homes by child welfare services 

In light of the negative impacts of housing insecurity on the health, well-being and life outcomes of children, effective housing policy is crucial to keeping children safe, healthy and well. This includes both policies to help homeless families find proper housing and policies to prevent families from losing their housing in the first place. However, budget cuts at the federal, state and local level mean that many local housing agencies are unable to meet rising demand for housing assistance.  Federal funding cuts to the Housing Choice Voucher Program (formerly known as Section 8) due to sequestration means that thousands of eligible people including very low-income families, the elderly and people with disabilities are unable to get the assistance they need to afford the rent on a decent place to live.

Housing vouchers are a critical support for many working, poor families who live in areas where rents are high and affordable housing is in short supply. Under the program, families pay 30-40% of their income on rent and the voucher covers the remainder. As funding for the program has fallen, many housing authorities have closed waiting lists (which already number in the tens of thousands in many states) and have stopped issuing new vouchers. Some have laid-off staff to avoid cutting off assistance to families who currently have housing vouchers and might become homeless without them. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimated earlier this year that 125,000 households will lose their housing assistance due to sequestration.

People who have been on the waiting list for years and finally reached the top  are being told that they won’t be getting help after all; for instance, the New York City Housing Authority is no longer accepting new applications or processing new vouchers, and says that “[f]or Section 8 voucher holders who have identified an apartment and not yet scheduled an appointment to have the housing unit inspected and for those voucher holders who are still searching for an apartment, the vouchers will be terminated immediately.”  The Housing Authority of New Orleans had to recall housing vouchers recently issued to 700 families who had spent years on the waiting list and who now will have to find some other way to avoid homelessness. In Hartford, Connecticut 20 families have had their vouchers rescinded, as have 42 families in Fairfax County, Virginia. In El Paso, Texas, 100 families currently receiving assistance were told in March that their vouchers were being taken away and they would have to either leave their homes and move into public housing or figure out another way to keep a roof over their heads. In Washington DC, the United States Senate is currently considering the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development (THUD) Appropriations bill, which would provide funding for housing choice vouchers and other housing and homelessness measures; however, at the moment local housing authorities do not know if next year they will face further cuts or be able to issue vouchers again.

Receiving a Housing Choice Voucher for a family whose housing is insecure is an invaluable support.  However, even if a family is one of the lucky few who receive a voucher, in most states landlords can legally refuse to rent to potential tenants simply because they are receiving rental assistance. Due to the widespread discrimination against tenants receiving housing vouchers, in recent years some state and local policymakers have acted to reduce the obstacles preventing low-income families from finding a place to live. Earlier this month, Oregon passed a new law prohibiting discrimination against tenants who pay part of their rent with a housing voucher. Chicago has a long-standing city ordinance prohibiting such discrimination, and in May an amendment to Cook County’s Human Rights Ordinance extended these rights countywide. States such as Minnesota, Vermont and Massachusetts have similar tenant protections, as do some other municipalities including New York City.

Legal protections and housing assistance programs help to reduce barriers to housing security, but ensuring that affordable housing is available in communities is critical to the success of such measures. A number of states have created innovative policy approaches in recent years in an attempt to increase the availability of affordable housing so that families are not priced out of the market in their area. The Illinois Affordable Housing Planning and Appeal Act requires that at least 10% of housing in each community have affordable rents or mortgages. Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island have similar statutes. Such policies help to encourage the expansion of affordable housing so that families are not forced to repeatedly move due to rising rents or remain in areas of concentrated poverty because no other affordable housing is available.

State policymakers should consider new approaches to increasing the availability of affordable housing – to ensure that working families aren’t “priced out” of the market. They can also increase the legal protections that prevent landlords from discriminating against families who use housing assistance to make ends meet. Approaches to ensuring safe, stable and affordable housing options for families not only provides a critical concrete support now – but leads to better health, education and other well-being outcomes for children in the future.  
For policy strategies that promote affordable housing, please visit

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