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Housing and Homelessness

What Federal Programs Address Housing and Homelessness?

The accumulation of home equity is one of the factors that distinguishes middle-class families from low- income families. One way to assist low-income families to get a foothold on the economic ladder is to provide opportunities to build assets. See our Asset Building background page for more on particular programs, such as Individual Development Accounts (IDAs).

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has responsibility for federal housing programs. The largest federal program to assist low-income families in meeting their need for housing is the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program. Low-income families use vouchers to help pay for housing that they find in the private market. Three-quarters of vouchers must go to "extremely low-income" households, or those below 30 percent of area median income. Vouchers can lift families out of homelessness or prevent them from becoming homeless in the first place. The Housing Choice Voucher Program provides roughly two million low-income households with vouchers they can use to rent housing in the private market. Vouchers help make housing affordable for these families, and research suggests that vouchers can have positive effects on employment, earnings, education, and children’s health and well-being.  Bills to streamline the Section 8 housing voucher program have been proposed in recent years in both House and Senate. See the analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) for more information.

Unfortunately, the across-the-board budget cuts known as "sequestration" resulted in a loss of approximately 70,000 vouchers nationwide in 2013.  While FY 2014 funding partially restored some of these losses, the proposed appropriations bills for Transportation-HUD for FY 2015 would likely lock in the loss of those 70,000 vouchers.  

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, reauthorized in 2009 by the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing (HEARTH) Act, is the primary piece of federal legislation that directly assists people who are homeless.  It includes funds for emergency shelters, permanent housing, supportive services, and funds for education in public schools for children and youth experiencing homelessness.  See a Snapshot of Homelessness from the National Alliance to End Homelessness and the National Coalition on the Homeless fact sheets for more information. 

How Many People Are Homeless?

In 2013, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) issued a report to Congress with the official estimate that on a single night, over 610,000 people are homeless nationwide, with nearly one-quarter being children.  This point-in-time estimate was based on a count conducted in a single night in January 2013.  More than one-third of these people were living in unsheltered locations such as under bridges, in cars, or in abandoned buildings.  

Because people cycle in and out of homelessness, the number of people homeless at some time during the year is much higher than the number found in the “snapshot” survey.  HUD told Congress that only 18 percent of the people counted are chronically homeless. A better indication of the number homeless is a count of people living in homeless shelters at some time during the year. HUD found approximately 1.48 million people to fall into this category in 2012.  Estimate of homelessness between different agencies tend to vary widely due to differences in methodology and in the definitions of homelessness.  For instance, the HUD definition does not include families who are living "doubled-up" with relatives or friends or those who are couch-surfing.  Therefore, estimates of homeless children and families using data from school districts are generally higher than the HUD numbers.  As the National Coalition for the Homeless puts it:

“By its very nature, homelessness is impossible to measure with 100 percent accuracy. More important than knowing the precise number of people who experience homelessness is our progress in ending it. Recent studies suggest that the United States generates homelessness at a much higher rate than previously thought. Our task in ending homelessness is thus more important now than ever.”

The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)

The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) is a federally funded block grant program to help eligible low-income homeowners and renters meet their home heating and/or cooling needs, particularly those who pay a high percentage of their incomes for energy. The law authorizing LIHEAP provides that an eligible household’s income must not exceed the greater of 150 percent of the poverty level or 60 percent of the state median income. Grantees may not set income eligibility standards below 110 percent of the poverty level, but they may give priority to those households with the highest home energy costs or needs in relation to income.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) note that more people die each year from hypothermia (cold) and hyperthermia (heat) than from all the hurricanes and other disasters that get the headlines. About 700 people die from exposure to extreme heat and 1,300 from extreme cold each year. Recent increases in energy prices have made home heating and cooling unaffordable for more people.

LIHEAP is not administered by HUD, but by the Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Youth and Families. See the LIHEAP website.

National Housing Trust Fund 

RESULTS supported efforts spearheaded by the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) to establish a National Housing Trust Fund (NHTF) to provide communities with funds to build, rehabilitate, and preserve 1.5 million affordable homes by the end of the decade. RESULTS supports establishment of NHTF. The House passed H.R.2895, to create a National Housing Trust Fund, in October 2007. This legislation would establish dedicated sources of funding for the production, preservation, and rehabilitation of 1.5 million affordable homes in 10 years. At least 75 percent of the funds will be for housing for households that are extremely low income, earning less than 30 percent of an area’s median income. The vote was 264-148.

On May 20, 2008, the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee approved The Federal Housing Finance Regulatory Reform Act of 2008, which includes authorization of the NHTF. The NHTF was rolled into the larger Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 (H.R. 3221), which was passed by Congress and signed into law by the president on July 30, 2008. For more, see NHILC's National Housing Trust Fund page.

Advocates were elated when NHTF was authorized, but have so far been disappointed that no funds have been appropriated. Two bills introduced in the 111th Congress would have provided funding. H.R.3766, the "Main Street TARP Act," by Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA-4). would transfer $1 billion to NHTF from funds not yet tapped in the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). S.1731, the Preserving Homes and Communities Act, by Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), would transfer $1 billion to NHTF from sale of warrants required by the TARP Act.  More recently, Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) proposed the "Housing Finance Reformm and Taxpayer Protection Act of 2013" (S.1217), which would create a fee on federally guaranteed securities that would be used to fund the NHTF.  Additionally, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA-43) released draft legislation entitled "Housing Opportunities Move the Economy Forward" that would provide finding for the NHTF.  A New York Times editorial on the NHTF stated, "Washington should do more to help struggling families find decent, affordable places to live. Investing in the National Housing Trust Fund is an important step."

Foreclosures Trigger Financial Crisis

In 2008, the median price of a home fell and many homeowners found they owed more on their mortagages than their houses were worth. Many mortgages had been granted to people with poor credit in what is called the subprime mortgage market. By mid-2008, the collapse of the housing "bubble" was putting a strain on banks and other lenders. In September of 2008, one of the nation’s largest banks, Washington Mutual, had to be taken over by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and its deposits sold to another institution.

In late July, Congress passed and the president signed the Federal Housing Finance Regulatory Reform Act of 2008 (H.R.3221). This massive bill provides resources for community development, affordable housing, and foreclosure prevention. The bill increases access to capital for Community Development Financial Institutions through access to Federal Home Loan Bank (FHLBank) advances and access to 35 percent of the new Housing Trust Fund resources. The Act also gives access to federal funds to the two big semi-private institutions, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, that buy mortgages from issuers.

By October 2008, the federal government had taken over Fannie and Freddy. The government also took an equity position in the troubled insurance company AIG. In October, Congress passed and the president signed a $700 billion rescue package that empowers the Treasury Department to buy mortgage-backed securities.

Common Cause issued a report (PDF) that looks at how campaign contributions and lobbying by the mortgage finance industry have played a major role in blocking measures that would have addressed the financial crisis in a timely manner and helped American families instead of Wall Street. It spotlights the lobbying and campaign activities of Freddie and Fannie, the nation’s two largest housing lenders, and how the government bailout contrasts with how legislators approached the crisis for average people.

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