The Senate Appropriations Committee has now passed its version of a spending bill for Fiscal Year (FY) 2018. Some things to note regarding programs that focus on Americans with the lowest incomes:
This bill, like the House bill, is based on spending caps that return to very low “sequestration” levels. The Budget Control Act from 2011 set overall spending caps for each year for a range of federal programs, referred to as “sequestration” caps. For the last four years the caps have been raised, two years at a time, by bipartisan, short-term budget deals. The last short-term deal has expired, leaving the Appropriations Committee with less than last year for non-defense agencies. In a context of rapidly increasing costs in a number of areas, including rising rents for HUD’s rental assistance programs, these cuts represent an even steeper budget shortfall.
The Senate Appropriators have prioritized HUD programs, particularly those for people with the lowest incomes. In light of the tight caps, the amounts made available for HUD programs are as good as could be hoped for, particularly for Homeless Assistance and Section 8 vouchers. To the extent the proposed amounts fall short of what is needed, it is because the caps overall are too tight, not because the bill’s authors failed to set the right priorities.
Proposed spending for homeless assistance increased by $73 million, with the increase targeted to two initiatives. Homeless Assistance would be funded at $2.456 billion. This allows programs to maintain current capacity and adds new funding for two modest initiatives: $55 million for additional homeless youth demonstrations, and $25 million for rapid re-housing and other assistance for people escaping domestic violence.
The increase in Homeless Assistance is not enough to deal with the rising need driven by housing market conditions. While these initiatives would increase capacity, the amount is not enough to keep up with increasing need for the programs. All additional funds would be needed to maintain existing program funding levels and fair market rent increases. Unfortunately, the number of people who become homeless each year has been going up by about 40,000, so this funding would mean more people who are homeless and can’t get help. Keeping up with need would require $2.6 billion.
Nominal increases for Section 8 increase capacity for HUD-VASH and FUP vouchers, but don’t appear to keep up with rent increases. The amount the Senate bill includes for vouchers in the Tenant Based Rental Assistance account is an increase over FY 2017, and includes incremental vouchers in these important programs. The increase, however, appears to be too small to keep up with rising rents. Preliminary estimates from outside groups indicate that on net, tens of thousands fewer households will receive assistance.
Public housing continues to be funded below maintenance level. One national organization of public housing officials estimates that 10,000 units of public housing are going offline each year because of underfunding of maintenance, repairs and upgrades. The Senate bill keeps public housing funding at its current level.
The bill is exhibit two (exhibit one is the House bill, which is worse) in showing the need for a new, bipartisan budget deal to raise spending caps. As usual, the Appropriations Committee has worked hard to balance the need and desire for spending in various HUD programs, while staying under the caps prescribed for their bill. Ultimately, they face an impossible task. As happened two years ago and four years ago, Congress needs to make a bipartisan deal to raise spending caps, in order to take necessary steps toward improving housing conditions, and give communities the tools they need to more quickly move people out of homelessness and in to housing.