Vogel: Housing Assistance

May 12, 2016

I wonder why we don’t treat housing vouchers like food stamps. Families who fall on hard times can get food stamps right away. But it can take years and even decades to get a housing voucher.

According to the Vermont State Housing Authority which administers the Federal Section 8 voucher program, to get a housing voucher, you need to apply to get on a waiting list, and today you can’t even get on the Vermont State Housing Authority waiting list because it’s full.

And Vermont isn’t unique. A recent Harvard study shows that rationing housing vouchers is so pervasive nationally, that only 1 in 4 very low income households gets any housing assistance at all.

Some will argue that we can’t afford to house all the very low income people in this country. And, indeed, it would be expensive. According to Keith Romer from NPR’s Planet Money, extending vouchers to every low income person who qualified, would cost about $40 billion a year.

On the other hand, rationing housing assistance may cost even more. Colorado did a study and found that the average homeless person - that's just one person - cost the state forty-three thousand dollars a year for emergency room visits, periods in homeless shelters and time in jail. And the real cost comes in the form of human suffering. The impact of being without a home can be devastating, especially to the 2.5 million children who are homeless.

The section 8 voucher program, which is the primary housing assistance program in the United States, has been around for more than 40 years. It serves people with disabilities and very low income households who make less than 50% of the median income. And even with a voucher, families still have to pay 30% of their income toward housing.

The section 8 program is far from perfect and people with vouchers sometimes have trouble securing decent housing, just as people on food stamps often have trouble affording healthy, nutritious meals.

On the other hand, a greater number of vouchers would almost certainly lead to more new housing, which would benefit everyone through increased economic activity and social stability.

Food, housing and medical care are all basic human needs. All of which leads me back to wonder again, why we can’t administer housing vouchers the way we administer food stamps.