Policy Perspective: Do Work Requirements for Housing Help or Harm?

Low-income households face many barriers to economic progress. More than 27 percent of adults living below the federal poverty line have not received a high school diploma or equivalency by age 25, according to data from the American Community Survey. For public housing residents, low rates of high school graduation and inconsistent work histories may make it difficult to find a job, and high rates of single parenthood alongside the high cost of child care can make working an economically infeasible proposition. Yet, without work, any hope of economic progress is lost.

Targeted studies have found that several public housing interventions that combine voluntary employment services and work incentives are somewhat effective at getting more residents working and boosting their earnings. Now, new research from the University of North Carolina’s Center for Urban and Regional Studies has found preliminary evidence that a controversial approach borrowed from the welfare field may be another model to follow.

Tested at five of the 15 developments run by the Charlotte Housing Authority, the program requires heads of household to work—or take part in “work-related” activities such as community service, education, or training—15 hours a week. If residents fail to meet the requirement, they face sanctions, including the gradual loss of rent subsidies and, in the worst-case scenario, eviction.

To help residents meet the work requirement and avoid sanctions, on-site case managers provide services such as referrals to job placement programs and assistance with transportation and child care.

“Staff had compliance rather than eviction in mind,” William Rohe, Director of the Center for Urban and Regional Studies, says. “They bent over backward to help people find jobs.”

The major findings of Rohe and his colleagues include the following:

  • Case management coupled with a work requirement increased employment from 51 to 88 percent. Case management alone, however, did not lead to statistically significant increases in employment.
  • Average hours worked did not increase, remaining between 25 and 30 hours per week, despite the spike in employment, which leads Rohe to believe that new jobs were likely to be part-time.
  • The program did not significantly increase negative move-outs or evictions. Only one family was evicted during the course of the study.

James Riccio of the nonprofit social policy research organization MDRC says the results are suggestive. But Riccio, an expert on policies affecting low-wage workers and communities, says the study’s methodology leaves questions about “whether the positive effects are due just to work requirements, or just to the services, or a combination [thereof].”

In the absence of strong evidence, advocates and experts continue to debate whether public housing authorities should require residents to work.

Housing as a Platform

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), about 55 percent of public housing residents are wage earners. Proponents of work requirements, as well as voluntary employment programs, for public housing residents argue that because public housing rent is generally calculated as a percentage of residents’ earnings, people may be discouraged from working, which would lead to paying more rent. Promoting work, they say, may free up space for new tenants by enabling residents to move out of public housing and by helping housing authorities to rely less on HUD’s portion of the rent payments.

“If we can support families in increasing their income and increasing their ability to be in the private market, that makes the unit available for someone standing behind them,” says Sunia Zaterman, executive director of the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities.

Zaterman says her organization promotes strong collaboration among housing, welfare, and labor departments.

“Housing is a platform for improving life outcomes,” she says. “But we’re also seeing it’s not in and of itself sufficient for many households. They need other services. . . . It takes the range of support to assist families.”

Housing as a Human Right

Opponents of work requirements counter that housing is a human right, and shifting dollars away from housing assistance is not in the best interest of people who need it.

“The Charlotte Housing Authority is there to be the housing safety net,” says Linda Couch, senior vice president for policy at the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “If people are evicted because of noncompliance with something that’s not housing related, where does that family go?”

Barbara Sard, vice president for housing policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, says that nearly three quarters of nonelderly, nondisabled tenants already have some connection to the world of work or are likely subject to work requirements through the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Though that connection may be unstable, she says, employment programs may not be the answer: they have not consistently been shown to increase residents’ earnings significantly enough over time to move a large number of families out.

And social services, though vital, she says, should not be provided at the expense of housing.

“I could find no evidence that there was an intervention to support work—voluntary or required—in the housing programs that paid for itself,” Sard says, referring to a report she wrote in 2013.

Her conclusion highlights a major point of agreement in the debate over public housing work requirements: the need for more, and more rigorous, research.