In Every State, Federal Rental Assistance Improves Lives

by Maya Brennan

Families and communities in every state have improved their economic well-being thanks to federal rental assistance support. Most of the households that get help with their rent are low-wage workers, elderly people, or people with disabilities. More than one in three is raising children, and research has shown how valuable this support is for children both immediately and over the long haul.

Growing up with federal housing assistance—regardless of type or neighborhood—has been connected with reduced rates of lead poisoning and increased earnings for children as they reach adulthood. Accessing a low-poverty neighborhood with a housing voucher has also been found to boost children’s earnings. Public housing located in lower-poverty communities has helped children narrow the achievement gap, and accessing a low-poverty neighborhood with a voucher has improved children’s health. In neighborhoods that present a bundle of advantages, public housing has also been shown to yield improved health outcomes for children and reduce exposure to neighborhood violence.

Housing vouchers, perhaps by reducing household stress, have also been found to improve parenting behaviors, adding structure and reducing harsh parent-child relationships. For families in the child welfare system, a special federal housing voucher helps to reunify families whose children were placed in foster care or other out-of-home settings.

It’s not just children who benefit when their families can afford the rent or access a supportive living environment. Receiving a housing voucher for use in a low-poverty area resulted in lower rates of diabetes and extreme obesity among women 10 to 15 years later. Work supports, whether through the multipronged effort of Jobs-Plus Community Revitalization Initiative for Public Housing Families or a financial coaching model of the Family Self-Sufficiency program, have helped working-age adults increase their earnings; in some cases these supports carry over to create a culture of work at developments even after the incentives have ended.  And for older adults, senior housing with services has increased access to health screenings and reduced hospital admissions.

Providing housing assistance for particularly high-need groups, such as the chronically homeless, generates sufficient cost savings in other program areas to be a net financial win for governments. The net cost of providing housing assistance to homeless families is quite low compared with the noneconomic benefits to children and families.

Rental assistance programs are also a form of economic stimulus, creating new jobs as developments rise or undergo rehab, and allowing more income—both from those workers and the assisted households—to flow out into goods and services in the community.

For all of these reasons, regardless of political leanings, the federal government has long recognized a need for housing assistance programs. Program rules, structure, and reliance on direct federal appropriations have varied over time, but private-sector partnerships have become an important part of the federal rental picture. Vouchers pay a portion of the rent for regular apartments in towns and cities across the United States. The Rental Assistance Demonstration relies on the private sector to help fill the need for rehab and maintenance on aging public housing. Project-based rental assistance also supports more than one million households in privately owned developments.

Finally, a crucial resource for adding modest-rent apartments comes from a private-sector investment vehicle—the low income housing tax credit. The credit, which was signed into law by President Reagan and has enjoyed widespread support over the years, engages private investors to turn a multiyear tax benefit into up-front development cash. Through this program, communities get a job boost from the development activity, households can afford a modest but decent apartment, and investors can contribute to a national need while also earning financial returns.

As a recent Urban Institute study of Community Development Block Grants has shown, there is much more work to be done in improving federal housing and community development programs and achieving their intended outcomes. This is also true for vouchers, public housing, and the housing tax credit. But calls for change or for greater evaluation of benefits do not negate the existing widespread evidence that federal housing assistance benefits families, seniors, individuals, and communities.