Housing Subsidies Reduce Family Homelessness and Improve Outcomes

Housing Subsidies Reduce Family Homelessness and Improve Outcomes
Daniel Gubits, Marybeth Shinn, Michelle Wood, Stephen Bell, Samuel Dastrup, Claudia D. Solari, Scott R. Brown, Debi McInnis, Tom McCall, Utsav Kattel
US Department of Housing and Urban Development: Office of Policy Development and Research
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The US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD’s) Family Options Study is a multisite randomized controlled trial of interventions for homeless families. The study enrolled 2,282 families from emergency shelters who were randomly assigned to one of four groups: usual care, long-term housing subsidies, community-based rapid rehousing assistance, or project-based transitional housing assistance. The families included more than 5,000 children. In the groups other than usual care, families received priority access to an assistance program, but needed to complete the usual screening and application process. Families who found and preferred other housing options were permitted to use them. Over three years, researchers tracked outcomes for housing stability, family preservation, adult well-being, child well-being, and self-sufficiency. Examples of outcomes included nights stayed in a shelter, separation from children or partner, alcoholism and drug use, absenteeism in school, and food security.

An earlier report documenting the short-term impacts found that after a median of 20 months, rapid rehousing achieved similar results as usual care but at a lower cost, while the outcomes were best for families who received a long-term subsidy. HUD has now released the long-term impacts report, which provides findings for the full three years after families were enrolled. During this period, the temporary assistance provided through rapid rehousing and transitional housing programs will have ended. During the study, more than one-third of participants spanning all four intervention groups obtained access to a long-term housing subsidy. However, priority access got more families this assistance and did so more quickly.

Key findings:

Cost comparison

  • The average per-family monthly cost of housing and supportive services was highest for emergency shelters ($4,819), followed by transitional housing programs ($2,706). Long-term housing subsidies cost an average of $1,172 a family each month. Rapid rehousing was the least expensive at an average of $880 a family each month.
  • The study calculated the average total cost (over three years) of the housing programs that families used—whether or not it was the one they were initially assigned to—and compared this with the average cost for similar families in usual care.
  • The average three-year cost of serving families assigned to long-term subsidy was $45,902—higher than the three-year costs for similar households in usual care ($42,134), but yielding significantly improved outcomes.
  • The average cost of housing programs used by the rapid rehousing group over three years was $38,144—lower than the three-year costs for similar households in usual care ($42,167), while yielding similar outcomes.
  • Housing programs used by families assigned to transitional housing cost an average of $40,130 over three years—higher than the $38,722 average costs for similar households in usual care, for a modest reduction in shelter stays during months 21 through 32, but no discernible impacts in any other measure of housing stability.

Long-term housing subsidies

  • Families who were offered a long-term housing subsidy—typically as a Housing Choice Voucher—saw significant decreases in shelter usage, homelessness, and doubling up, compared with usual care.
  • Homelessness and doubling up among families in the long-term subsidy group were half as likely as among families who received usual care (16 percent compared with 34 percent).
  • Five percent of families assigned to the subsidy group stayed in a shelter between months 21 and 32, compared with 19 percent of the usual care group.
  • At both 20 months and three years, families who were offered long-term subsidies experienced a decrease in other negative outcomes, such as psychological distress to the head of household, economic distress, intimate partner violence, and food insecurity, as well as a reduction in the number of different schools children attended and child behavior problems.
  • At 20 months, the long-term subsidy group saw a reduction in separation from children, drug and alcohol use, and student absenteeism.
  • One-third of all families in the study found their way to long-term subsidies at some point during the three years, but families prioritized in the beginning of the study accessed this assistance sooner and more often.

Community-based rapid rehousing assistance

  • Families prioritized for rapid rehousing versus usual care saw no decrease in use of shelters or families’ likelihood of experiencing homelessness.
  • The chief advantages of rapid rehousing were a lower cost compared with usual care and modest improvements in self-sufficiency and child well-being indicators in the short-term. For example, after 20 months, families assigned to rapid rehousing had better food security and higher income than families assigned to usual care, but these advantages were no longer evident at the three-year mark.
  • After 20 months, parents in the rapid rehousing group reported less school absenteeism for their children, and at 37 months, children had fewer behavior problems, compared with usual care.

Project-based transitional housing assistance

  • Despite the emphasis on supportive services, assignment to transitional housing had little impact on adult or child well-being, self-sufficiency, or family preservation.
  • Compared with families assigned to usual care, families assigned to transitional housing were less likely to stay at an emergency shelter between months 21 and 32. While 15 percent of the usual care group reported at least one night in a shelter between months 21 and 32, 9 percent of families assigned to the transitional housing group experienced at least one night in shelter during these months.