July 10, 2020


Joe Biden's surprisingly visionary housing plan, explained: Cut child poverty by a third, break down racial segregation, and stabilize the economy. (Matthew Yglesias, Jul 9, 2020, Vox)

The idea of funding the program at the full level to meet family needs has existed for decades. But multiple DC-based housing policy wonks tell me it was Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond's Pulitzer Prize-winning book about housing instability in Milwaukee, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, that helped put it on more people's radars.

It's a heartbreaking book, and the epilogue speaks about vouchers in a way that stretches beyond the arcana of federal budge policy: "A universal housing voucher program would carve a middle path between the landlord's desire to make a living and the tenant's desire, simply, to live."

Stephanie Collyer and Chris Wimer of Columbia University's Center on Poverty and Social Policy helped me quantify the impact more precisely with a mathematical model. Looking at detailed data from the 2019 Annual Social and Economic Supplement to the Current Population Survey, they identified currently eligible households that are not receiving assistance. They then modeled the impact of getting assistance on household budgets. One nuance here is that the official poverty measure somewhat perversely fails to count the receipt of rental assistance as a form of income, thus saying that unassisted families are by definition no poorer than assisted families. But the census also publishes a supplemental poverty measure that corrects for this and other flaws.

They find that the properly measured poverty rate falls by 22 percent under this proposal, while child poverty falls by 34 percent. Not bad for a policy that would cost just a fraction of Trump's tax cuts.

One nuance is that the underfunding of the program mitigates the landlord discrimination problem somewhat, because under the current system, if one family can't use a voucher, that frees up money for someone else.

Will Fischer, the senior director for housing policy and research at CBPP, cautions that in the real world, "we can't flip a switch and get a voucher to everyone who's eligible overnight." He says it's a critical goal, but to achieve it takes not only money for vouchers but also investments. "At the same time we're expanding the voucher program, we should be building our capacity to help families with vouchers rent in a wide range of neighborhoods, and we should be taking steps to increase the supply of housing, especially in the tightest markets."

One model is a Seattle program Dylan Matthews profiled for Vox last year that involved a partnership between the city housing authority and the housing authority for the surrounding suburbs in King County. The idea was to give families a bit of extra money as well as hire navigators who would help families understand the value of relocating to "high opportunity" neighborhoods, away from concentrated poverty and blight.

Raj Chetty, an economist with the Opportunity Insights team that helped evaluate the project, called it "the largest effect I've ever seen in a social science intervention."

One simple change vastly improves the idea: use the vouchers to purchase the property, so that rather than just helping recipients you are building wealth for them..  

Posted by at July 10, 2020 7:07 AM


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