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The federal government spent $51 billion on housing assistance in 2019, and more than 80 percent of that spending was for three programs in the Department of Housing and Urban Development that provide rental assistance to low-income households. At a total cost of $41 billion, those three programs represent a relatively small portion of total federal spending — slightly less than 1 percent — but provide assistance to 4.4 million households. Here are some details on those three programs and the individuals that are served by them.
The three largest rental assistance programs operated by the federal government are:
Aside from the three programs above, the federal government spent an additional $9 billion on smaller housing assistance programs in 2019. Those programs include Supportive Housing for the Elderly, Supportive Housing for Persons with Disabilities, and Rural Rental Assistance.
Households must have incomes below certain levels — 50 percent of the local median income for tenant-based assistance and 80 percent of the local median income for project-based assistance and public housing. Under all three programs, a certain amount of support is reserved for extremely low-income households, which are defined as those earning less than 30 percent of the local median income. However, rental assistance is not an entitlement program, meaning that meeting the eligibility requirements does not guarantee that a household will receive benefits.
A total of 4.4 million households were served by the three main rental assistance programs in 2019. Tenant-based assistance served 2.3 million households, project-based assistance served 1.2 million, and 930,000 households were in public housing.
The demographic profile of those households differs from that of the U.S. population as a whole. For example, while two-thirds of U.S. households are categorized as “White, not Hispanic”, only one-third of rental assistance households fall into that category. In addition, while only 10 percent of U.S. households are composed of a single father or mother, one-third of rental assistance households have only one adult living with children.
The rental assistance programs provide much-needed benefits to low-income families. For example, the average household that receives tenant-based assistance in New York City pays $500 per month toward a total rent of $1,600. However, that assistance does not necessarily solve housing-related difficulties. The total income for those families is $1,600 per month, on average, which means that they are paying 30 percent of their incomes toward rent. Moreover, those households spent an average of nearly four years on a waiting list before receiving any benefits and often live in a housing unit with no bedrooms or one bedroom.
The three largest rental assistance programs help to ensure that 4.4 million households can afford adequate housing rather than face homelessness due to the prospect of paying rent that exceeds their income. Unlike other parts of the safety net, funding for those housing programs is not set in permanent law and is therefore subject to the annual appropriation process. That fact requires lawmakers to make a continual commitment in order to preserve benefits for the vulnerable population served — weighing the merits of the programs against other budgetary priorities, as well as our growing national debt.
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