Progress Illinois takes a look at the growing demand for federal rental assistance and why many housing advocates are opposing a controversial appropriations bill approved by the U.S. House last week.
Federal rental aid helped some 220,000 low-income Illinois families afford housing in 2014, but many other eligible households in Illinois and across the country went unassisted due to limited funding, a recent analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) shows.
Going forward, households in need might not see much additional help in terms of rental assistance depending on how negotiations shake out over the federal budget for fiscal year 2016.
Despite a presidential veto threat, the GOP-controlled House passed a controversial transportation, housing and urban development appropriations bill last Tuesday by a mostly party line vote of 216-210. House lawmakers approved the federal funding measure, H.R. 2577, over the objections of housing advocates, who say the appropriations bill severely undermines crucial housing programs. The Senate has not yet considered a 2016 housing appropriations bill.
Among other controversial aspects of the House funding bill, the measure seeks to cut the public housing capital fund by nearly $200 million and fails to restore 67,000 rental housing vouchers that were lost due to the 2013 sequestration cuts. Under the House-approved measure, 100,000 fewer housing vouchers would be funded compared to what the Obama administration's budget proposal outlines.
The proposed housing cuts contained in the House budget bill come "at a time when rental housing costs are really continuing to increase," stressed Bob Palmer with Housing Action Illinois. "There's a huge shortage of affordable rental housing that's only getting worse."
Last year, more than 5 million U.S. households received federal rental assistance through programs such as Housing Choice Vouchers, Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance and public housing.
But as CPBB's research shows, only a quarter of low-income families eligible for federal rental assistance are actually receiving it. Federal rental assistance simply hasn't kept up with the growing number of families struggling to afford rent since the Great Recession.
Nationwide, more than 10 million low-income families paid more than half of their income on rent in 2013, up from about 8 million households in 2007 before the recession, according to CPBB's findings. Between 2007 and 2013, the number of low-income Illinois households paying more than half of their income on rent increased by more than 50,000 to over 386,300.
While the number of families struggling to afford rent has ticked up, fewer households have had access to rental housing vouchers.
As a result of sequestration cuts implemented in 2013, 85,000 fewer U.S. families received rental housing vouchers in December 2014 compared to two years earlier, according to CBPP's analysis. In Illinois, 54 housing agencies provided housing vouchers to 2,294 fewer families in December 2014 compared to December 2012 due to the sequestration.
"It was our hope that the federal budget for next year would restore at least some of those vouchers" lost to sequestration, said Palmer.
As the budget process moves forward, Palmer said Housing Action Illinois and allied groups will be pushing for the sequester spending caps to be lifted so that housing programs are adequately funded.
"Congress is limited [when it comes to funding levels], because they agreed to spending caps in previous years," Palmer said. "So we hope that the Obama administration will work with Congress to lift the spending caps, especially because the federal budget deficit is significantly reduced compared to what it was just a few years ago."
Housing Choice Vouchers are the most common form of federal rental aid nationwide. In Illinois, nearly 79,000 families used such assistance last year, CBPP's analysis showed.
As for other forms of federal rental aid, more than 61,000 low-income Illinois families took advantage of Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance last year. The program provides payments to property owners who rent units at an affordable price for low-income families.
Another 54,000 low-income families received federal rental assistance through public housing programs.
Seventy percent of the Illinois households that received federal rental assistance last year were extremely low-income, meaning their earnings were at or below 30 percent of the area median income.
Efforts to boost the availability of affordable rental housing housing to extremely low-income Americans would take a big hit if the House-passed federal housing budget is enacted.
For one, the appropriations bill would essentially gut the National Housing Trust Fund (NHTF), a new federal program designed to increase affordable rental housing options for extremely low-income households. The program is scheduled for implementation in summer 2016.
The appropriations measure seeks to move money intended for the NHTF to another housing initiative, the Home Invest Partnerships (HOME) Program. In addition, Congress would be blocked from putting any other money toward NHTF.
Under the House appropriations measure, the HOME Program, which provides grants to local governments to expand affordable housing for low-income households, would still be reduced to $767 million from $900 million, even with the added money intended for NHTF.
Housing Action Illinois is calling on lawmakers to preserve and adequately fund both programs.
Other groups, meanwhile, are speaking out against legislative amendments to the House budget bill that attack fair housing initiatives.
One amendment, put forward by U.S. Rep. Paul Gosa (R-AZ,4), would prevent the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development from finalizing its proposed "Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing" (AFFH) rule aimed at increasing diversity in U.S. neighborhoods.
"This [appropriations] bill attempts to undermine all of our efforts to achieve justice for victims of discrimination and ensure that every neighborhood receives what it needs to thrive at a time when most Americans feel strongly that civil rights laws are critically important for our society," National Fair Housing Alliance President and CEO Shanna Smith said in a statement.
"The AFFH rule, which is now being finalized by HUD, will help jurisdictions that willingly accept federal funds comply with their long-standing obligation to promote strong neighborhoods, and work to reverse entrenched patterns of residential segregation and the structural inequalities that they produce," Smith continued.
Another appropriations amendment, spearheaded by Rep. Scott Garrett (R-NJ,5), would prevent enforcement of the Fair Housing Act's "disparate impact" regulation as it relates to fair housing cases. The federal government uses the "disparate impact" legal strategy to demonstrate that policies, which aren't proven to be intentionally discriminatory, can hurt minorities. The U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering a Texas housing discrimination case centered around the "disparate impact" theory.
Smith said the anti-fair housing provisions added to the appropriations bill represent "a cowardly attack on fair housing."
"This House has attempted to hide behind the thin veil of protecting 'state and local rights' and promoting a strong housing market, when in fact, their intent is to undo HUD's efforts to ensure that every neighborhood has what it needs to succeed and make it easier for big banks and landlords to discriminate against families," she stressed. "Our elected officials who voted in favor of these harmful provisions should be ashamed of themselves ... We urge the Senate and President Obama to stand united against these destructive anti-fair housing attacks and protect the right of every American to housing free from discrimination."