What Congress Can Do This Year: Part I, Homelessness and Housing Funding

The 116th Congress has been in session for just over five months, and there are already multiple signs of progress on issues related to homelessness.

There’s a reason Congress is motivated: the increases in unsheltered homelessness are startling. Many communities that are not normally thought of as having difficult housing markets are now struggling with rising rents. Combined with strong public opinion that the federal government needs to address these problems, Members of Congress from both parties are finally talking about affordable housing and homelessness.

In this three-part series, Alliance Vice President for Programs and Policy Steve Berg will analyze updates on homelessness and housing funding, active legislation to address homelessness, and current threats to our efforts to end homelessness.  This is the first post in the series.

Part 1: Homelessness and Housing Funding

Federal funding is the major way that the government can improve its response to homelessness and housing. There are two basic categories for this investment: through a sustained commitment to homeless assistance funding, and through greater funding of housing.

Homeless Assistance funding.

Congress is currently in the appropriations process, designating funding for FY2020. The Alliance is particularly focused on ensuring that McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grants and programs (i.e. Continuum of Care, Emergency Solutions Grants) are fully funded; however, the rising numbers of unsheltered homelessness and the rising costs of homelessness programs indicate that much more funding is needed.

The Alliance is making the case to bring the spending account up to $3 billion. Not only will this increase fund necessary programs, but it will step up to the challenge of more people becoming homeless as a result of rising events and evictions.

There has been significant Congressional support for the increase. Numerous senators and representatives wrote “Dear Colleague” letters calling for $3 billion, including 171 representatives and 39 senators.

In the past month, House Committee passed its initial funding bill, and it may be going to the House floor for a vote soon. The bill includes a healthy increase of $164 million for HUD’s Homeless Assistance Grants, bringing the totalup to  $2.8 billion.

This would mark the largest increase for these accounts in the past seven years, and the Alliance is extremely grateful for the support. Nevertheless, we will continue to advocate for more. Because we need more outreach, more shelter, and more work to get people quickly back into housing, and we need it at a scale that makes at least $3 billion the appropriate amount.

Larger housing funding.

There is a definite need for increased funding for homeless assistance programs, but additional federal funds must be dedicated to rental assistance, as well.

Rents are rapidly rising in much of the United States: people with the lowest incomes are suffering, with homelessness only one of many ill effects. Funding existing HUD housing assistance programs at higher level is an essential step to putting a stopgap on these emerging crises.

The public is demanding solutions: recent polling commissioned by the Opportunity Starts at Home campaign shows large majorities of people — including majorities of Democrats, Independents, and Republicans — agreeing that both the president and Congress should “take major action” to make housing more affordable for low-income households.

But what would that action look like? Congress has some ideas. The Senate “Dear Colleague” letter on this issue called not only for $3 billion in Homeless Assistance funding, but also for a $1.4 billion increase for the Tenant Based Rental Assistant account: creating a total of $24 billion to fund the Housing Choice Voucher (“Section 8”) program.

The House bill includes close to this mark, funding the account at $23.8 billion.

Increasing both the homelessness assistance and rental assistance programs under HUD funding is critical to ensuring that more people can be housed. With additional funds, these systems will allow more people access to life-saving services, shelter, and housing.