Which of the recommendations in the BPC Housing Commission’s report should receive highest priority?
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Among the recommendations in the BPC Housing Commission’s report, the highest priority for immediate action should be to evaluate the performance of administrators of all federal rental assistance programs based on outcomes. Why highlight something so seemingly bureaucratic? Because a shift to outcome-based performance measurement — if accompanied by real consequences for poor performance — is the most potent tool to ratchet up the effectiveness of current programs that is relatively low cost and largely within HUD’s control.
Such a cultural transformation would benefit low-income families and help the programs in the “survival of the fittest” competition for funding that will result from the 2011 Budget Control Act’s (BCA) tight ten-year caps on discretionary funding.
To defend funding for rental assistance, we need readily available answers to such basic questions as how many families the programs serve (many programs report only units under contract, not occupancy); what share of income they pay for rent (rent burdens in the voucher program can exceed 30 percent of income, and often do); and whether families live in units and neighborhoods that meet quality standards. Policymakers also want to know whether the programs deliver additional value beyond solely the housing domain, such as reducing homelessness, improving health, helping children learn, and increasing self-sufficiency.
But HUD doesn’t gather much of the data necessary to answer these questions, and little of the information HUD does have is publicly available or considered in assessing program performance. We also need a robust discussion, which should include the broad range of stakeholders (not just program administrators), of what the key outcome measures should be. Making rental assistance more efficient and effective would be well worth the modest resources needed to develop the technology to monitor the key measures and the rules to implement them.
To be sure, adopting outcome-based performance measurement is hardly the recommendation from the Housing Commission that will generate the most enthusiasm. Its main rental housing recommendation, to expand federal rental assistance to all of the lowest-income households who need it, in order to end waiting lists for assistance for poor families and sharply reduce homelessness, should be a guidepost for the nation’s housing policy.
The BCA caps, however, make it unlikely that Congress will act in the near term on BPC’s specific proposal to expand rental assistance: a major increase in the number of Section 8 housing vouchers. As we’ve noted, the automatic budget cuts (“sequestration”) that took effect March 1 will likely mean a loss of more than 100,000 housing vouchers this year. Further reductions could occur in future years unless Congress agrees to reduce the deficit in ways other than continuing steep cuts in discretionary spending.
A new renters’ tax credit — which we’ve proposed and the BPC report highlights — would take an important step toward the commission’s goal and could be adopted if Congress enacts comprehensive tax reform. But achieving universal rental assistance for the neediest families is a longer-term project. Performance-based management is something HUD can do in the next few years.
Barbara Sard is vice president for housing policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
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