‘What low-income renters and homeless New Yorkers really need is Section 8 for all: housing assistance offered as an entitlement for everyone who qualifies.’
The pandemic has laid bare the economic and health-related vulnerabilities facing so many New Yorkers and highlighted the urgent need to provide everyone with access to both affordable housing and quality health care. Indeed, one of the most salient lessons of this crisis is that housing is health care. The past year has been so devastating because it exacerbated underlying inequities and exposed pernicious holes in the social safety net, including the disastrous inadequacy of our housing infrastructure.
Tens of thousands of homeless New Yorkers have been enduring a major public health crisis without the fundamental safety and security of their own homes, and countless others have fallen behind on rent and may experience homelessness once stopgap measures like the eviction moratoria end. The risk is greatest for Black and Latinx New Yorkers: Systemic racism limits their access to housing and places many in economic jeopardy. New York City has been left scrambling to help homeless people stay safe and to prevent a catastrophic surge in homelessness.
It doesn’t have to be this way. For decades, research has shown that the Federal Housing Choice Voucher program, also known as Section 8, is an effective way to reduce homelessness and help low-income people keep their homes. Individuals and families with Section 8 vouchers pay approximately 30 percent of their income toward rent, with the government paying the remainder directly to the landlord. This allows them to afford the stability of permanent housing and can offer low-income families more choice in where they live.
The program has been shown to reduce overcrowding by half, homelessness by 75 percent, and repeated moves within five years by one-third in a study comparing low-income families with and without vouchers. Vouchers also often enable Black families to move to low-poverty neighborhoods and help military veterans, people with disabilities, and seniors to escape homelessness and poverty.
However, the government has rationed this vital housing assistance by refusing to fund a sufficient number of vouchers for all who need them: Only one out of every four eligible households receives this critical rental assistance. Waiting lists for Section 8 vouchers are often years long, and sometimes closed entirely by the agencies that distribute them, so that new applications are only rarely accepted.
Rationing housing vouchers leaves local governments on the hook for costly emergency interventions like shelters, hospitals, and jails when the lowest-income people remain priced out of the stable housing they need to thrive.
Other components of the social safety net, such as SNAP, are structured as entitlements–meaning they are provided to all who are eligible and can nimbly respond to sudden economic downturns, thereby protecting people from abject poverty and hunger.
Fortunately, we are now at a crossroads: The Federal American Rescue Plan includes about 70,000 new one-time Housing Choice Vouchers, of which more than 7,700 will go to New York City tenants. While this is a promising development that will help thousands of New Yorkers, it pales in comparison to the need: There are hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who simply cannot afford the high rents in our city and are teetering on the verge of homelessness. Even prior to the pandemic, statewide, 973,000 low-income households paid more than half of their incomes for rent and more than 90,000 people were homeless on a single night.
What low-income renters and homeless New Yorkers really need is Section 8 for all: housing assistance offered as an entitlement for everyone who qualifies. President Joe Biden pledged to fight for universal rental assistance on the campaign trail, and the forthcoming infrastructure package and budget negotiation provides a perfect opportunity for him and the United States Congress to deliver on this transformative proposal.
Providing Section 8 vouchers to all eligible households would dramatically reduce homelessness and the widespread displacement and trauma that arise from evictions and economic crises. The pandemic has demonstrated with indisputable clarity that the status quo tolerance of mass homelessness and pervasive housing instability places lives at risk and must be rectified. As we move forward as a nation, we must seize this potent opportunity to finally restore the federal role in providing housing assistance, not just for some, but for all who need it.
Jacquelyn Simone is a senior policy analyst at Coalition for the Homeless.