Expanding the Housing Choice Voucher Program Could Bolster Renter Stability in the Face of a Worsening Affordability Crisis

The economic and health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic hit renters disproportionately hard. And though pandemic-era relief helped them stay afloat—and even improved financial well-being for some, the preexisting rental affordability crisis remains. Once COVID-19 supports expire and we return to the status quo, families, particularly renters with low incomes and those of color, will once again face the overwhelming threat of cost burden and eviction.

For decades, the Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) Program has been a critical support for the more than 20 million renters who were cost burdened, even before the pandemic. Because systemic racism and discrimination purposefully excluded people of color from homeownership, wealth-building, and economic opportunities, renters of color are significantly more likely to have extremely low incomes and be cost burdened than white households.Therefore, the HCV Program disproportionately serves households of color.

Funding additional vouchers to reach more families could help maintain rental stability and reduce racial poverty and wealth gaps that have persisted for generations, which will be even more important if the housing affordability crisis worsens.

Vouchers promote stability, even during crises

Research shows vouchers effectively reduce housing insecurity and homelessness, lift millions out of poverty, and reduce racial inequities. The program also has the added benefit of providing families with choice and allowing them to move to lower-poverty neighborhoods.

Vouchers were critical to stabilizing renters during the pandemic. Renters were twice as likely as homeowners to be unemployed, millions of renters continue to fear eviction, and, at one point, cumulative rental debt is estimated to have been as high as $52.6 billion. These effects were even more severe for renters of color, who were more likely to be behind on their rent during the pandemic.

Despite these dire circumstances, voucher holders owe significantly less back rent than those who don’t use vouchers. This is especially significant because emergency rental assistance rollout has been slow, and landlords continued to evict tenants throughout the pandemic (PDF), despite the federal moratorium. Renters are still at risk as the national eviction protections have ended, and more than 2 million renters who anticipated being evicted live in a jurisdiction without an eviction protection.

Although the HCV Program has many well-documented effects, only one in four renters who qualify for this program receive assistance because of funding constraints. This has led many, including President Biden and Democrat and Republican lawmakers, to call for expansion or reform of the program.

The potential impact of voucher expansion

President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda would provide $26 billion to fund incremental HCVs, which is estimated to fund 300,000 new vouchers once the expansion is fully phased in over the next five years. These new vouchers would help support roughly 700,000 people, 70 percent of whom would be people of color. A full program expansion to all who are eligible could cover an additional 19.7 million people (PDF), reducing the number of people in poverty by 9.3 million (PDF) and slashing poverty rates for households of color.

The legislation also includes $300 million for mobility services and $230 million for landlord incentives, which could help address some of the barriers to expansion. Though voucher holders have the option to move to new neighborhoods, many remain concentrated in impoverished and racially segregated neighborhoods with low opportunity in part because of barriers to locating qualifying units with participating landlords. This is especially true for Black and Latinx households, who are more likely than white recipients to remain in these neighborhoods.

Evidence suggests expanding mobility services to 25 percent of families with vouchers in high-poverty neighborhoods could increase the lifetime earnings of their children by as much as $8.63 billion. Incentives for property owners are also critical because a study of the program found that landlords in places without source of income antidiscrimination laws protecting voucher holders rejected them the majority of the time.

Supporting renter stability beyond the pandemic

The need for rental assistance will persist long beyond the pandemic, and any gains in renter stability could be lost without addressing the conditions that originally put renters at risk. A full or partial expansion of the HCV Program, coupled with funding for mobility services, could lift millions of families out of poverty, reduce persistent racial wealth gaps, and help families of color access low-poverty neighborhoods. 

In the face of uncertain federal expansion, localities can also aid renters by considering voucher uptake or funding additional assistance. Communities can engage with landlords or provide incentives to promote program participation or pass source of income protections to prevent denials. And local governments can use potential rental assistance funding surpluses (PDF), State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds, or other budgetary excess to fund program expansions or program navigation services.