Universal Housing Vouchers

The case for Universal Housing Vouchers rhinoUP for 7/10/22

The easiest way to explain Universal Housing Vouchers (UHV) is to look at foodstamps. If you qualify for foodstamps based on your income, you get them. No lottery. No waiting list. No past record of eviction. No bad credit. Like foodstamps, the value of a housing voucher is based on the difference between household income and need. For housing vouchers, there's a fair market rent for your community that is recalculated to account for inflation. Just as foodstamps have some restrictions on what items can be purchased, housing vouchers could not be used in rental units that fail to meet basic standards. With foodstamps (now called SNAP), the family receives the benefit (not the food seller). In the same way, a UHV benefit would be paid to tenant, who then makes a single rent payment to the landlord.

Best of all, UHVs could be managed by local public housing authorities (PHAs). No new bureaucracy to be created. Simplification means savings.

There will be three big issues that need to be addressed when UHVs replace the existing Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program.

  1. Under HCV, landlords can refuse to accept an HCV voucher. Source of income (SOI) protections will assure that UHV are truly "universal." SOI will suppress discrimination against families with children and minority households. Most important, SOI protections will tamp down rent inflation that could be caused by too many vouchers chasing too few available units.

  2. "Just Cause" protections means that a landlord can't refuse to renew a rental agreement without proving that the tenant has not complied with their duties under the lease. This protection is already available to Federally assisted tenants in public housing, private subsidized, and Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) properties.

  3. Rental unit inspections by PHAs are often slow and expensive. When creating UHVs, policy makers could look at two alternatives.

    1. Self certification by owners with a simple checklist of conditions at the time of move in. If tenants disagree with the landlord certification they can negotiate or seek redress through local courts or housing code complaints.

    2. In jurisdictions where local government requires an annual inspection of rental properties, a statutory inspection can replace a "special" inspection.

Beyond dramatically expanding housing opportunities, a UHV entitlement could reshape the Federal housing policy strategy by complementing existing housing programs. For example:

  • Owners of properties with project based rental assistance (PBRA) have the option to accept UHVs instead of PBRA. Tenants who are dissatisfied with housing conditions can move without losing their rental assistance.

  • Low Income Housing Tax Credit properties (LIHTC) is an IRS subsidy used by developers to create new or renovated "affordable housing." However, the subsidies rarely reach down to the lowest income tenants. UHVs would open up LIHTC housing to the lowest income households.

  • Programs like Rapid Rehousing, Shelter Plus Care, VASH vouchers, and Permanent Supportive Housing will be simplified by decoupling housing services from social support services.

  • Homeowner assistance. (HUD, VA, USDA and FHA programs) programs would benefit from UHVs. Freed from rent-burden (paying more than 30% of income for rent, households could save for down payments and establish credit worthiness. Homebuyer programs could focus on building families housing readiness using grants that match household savings.

  • In the next economic downturn, UHVs would be the housing safety net that didn't exist during the Pandemic Recession.

OK, so what are the next steps?

1. Tenants need to be introduced to the UHV concept. A housing entitlement is a whole new concept for folks who have grown up believing that housing is lottery.

2. Legislation needs to be introduced in Congress. You can't beat something with nothing. Once there's a cadre of activist leaders (step 1), they will have a cause to fight for.

3. Policy makers (advocates) will need to work with activists and organizers. Making change requires the energy of the grassroots and the expertise of their advocacy allies. Both are necessary, but neither is sufficient.