The Housing Choice Voucher and Public Housing programs are the largest sources of rental assistance for low-income households in the U.S. Unfortunately, these programs are not funded adequately to serve all, or even most, eligible applicants. As a result, families often spend years waiting to be offered assistance. New research provides a more detailed picture of who applies for and receives rental assistance, and their housing conditions while waiting to receive assistance.
A survey of nearly 1,000 non-elderly, non-disabled rental assistance applicants across 25 Public Housing Agencies found that, on average, applicants waited more than 2.5 years before being offered assistance. The survey highlighted the consequences of the lack of rental assistance as many applicants experienced homelessness, severe rent burden, overcrowding, and housing quality programs such as mold and lack of heat while waiting for assistance.
The survey also raises questions about whether PHAs are targeting assistance to applicants with the greatest needs. Aside from meeting certain income requirements, PHAs have broad discretion in determining how to prioritize applicants on their wait list for assistance. At the time that they were offered assistance, 43% of applicants surveyed were living with family or friends, 31% were renting a housing unit without a subsidy, 16% were renting a unit with a subsidy, and 10% were living in shelters, on the streets, or in other institutional settings. Applicants living with friends had the most housing instability and were the most likely to report having spent time living on the streets or in their cars or abandoned buildings. While applicants living with family had the greatest housing stability and were the least likely to live in housing that was unaffordable, overcrowded, or had housing quality problems. For many applicants living with their families, the primary benefit of rental assistance appeared to be household formation: the ability to live on their own. While household formation has many benefits, it has not generally been articulated as one of the primary policy objectives for rental assistance. We encourage communities to analyze the characteristics of their rental assistance applicants to determine if their rental assistance programs are meeting local needs.