|On August 1, Keith Kinard, CLPHA Board Member and Executive Director of the Newark Housing Authority (NHA), testified on CLPHA’s behalf before the Senate Banking Subcommittee on Housing, Transportation and Community Development. Subcommittee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ) convened the hearing on the importance of “Streamlining and Strengthening HUD’s Rental Housing Assistance Programs”. The hearing reflected growing consensus over the past several years on many rental assistance reform provisions, and sends a strong signal to the House on Senate interest to move forward with Section 8 reform.|
In his opening remarks, Sen. Menendez recognized the clear strain on Section 8 and public housing programs while acknowledging that they have performed to high standards over the past few years under dire funding constraints. He noted there is bipartisan support for many of the “common sense” provisions that have appeared fairly consistently in proposals over the past decade, and he highlighted those that would: (1) reduce the frequency of rechecking the incomes of families on fixed incomes, (2) make families with high net assets ineligible for housing assistance, (3) streamline housing inspections and relieve housing authorities of the burden of inspecting units that have already passed under another state or federal program, and (4)make housing authorities pay higher subsidies for families with disabilities when higher rent is needed for an accessible home. Sen. Menendez expressed his desire to increase the efficiency and stability of rental assistance programs, and he welcomed “testimony on changes that would move us towards this goal by improving outcomes for residents, reducing program costs, and streamlining the requirements for housing authorities.”
Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) focused his opening comments on the enhancement of the Family Self-Sufficiency (FSS) program and praised the tools that it uses to help residents with employment and savings. He announced that he would be introducing legislation to enhance and expand the program by broadening the supportive services provided and extending the program to residents receiving project-based assistance. (The Family Self-Sufficiency Act, S.3513, was introduced and referred to committee on August 2.) He stressed the importance of not only providing basic shelter but also giving people the ability to move up and move forward, and he championed supportive services as an effective means of doing this while achieving long-term savings. He also voiced his support for the National Housing Trust Fund.
Mr. Kinard, the first witness to testify, began by thanking Senator Menendez for recognizing the need to revise the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program. He spoke of several specific reforms included in legislation to date and of the impact that they would have in Newark. For example, 40 percent of NHA residents are on fixed incomes and would benefit from less frequent recertifications, which would also free up staff time for other functions. He also spoke of the need to curb interim recertifications, 2,500 of which are performed annually at NHA, and spoke in support of allowing biennial inspections. Noting that it is included in the current version of the Affordable Housing and Self-Sufficiency Improvement Act (AHSSIA), Mr. Kinard identified the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD), allowing conversion of subsidies for the purposes of preservation, as “a step in the right direction” toward addressing the tremendous capital backlog in public housing. He expressed CLPHA’s strong support for the provision in AHSSIA not only because it clarifies the conversion process, but because it authorizes appropriations to support the demonstration, while also noting that CLPHA urges HUD to use its waiver authority to the maximum extent possible to address issues in the implementation. Finally, he stated CLPHA’s support for permanent expansion of the Moving to Work (MTW) program, which has raised the standards of housing services provided by housing authorities. He noted some of the major community benefits that have been borne of the program. Comparing his experience in Pittsburgh, an MTW agency, and in Newark, he lamented the extent to which following HUD reporting protocols at NHA diverts attention from families and improving outcomes. He contrasted this with his experience thinking outside of the box about how to meet community needs in Pittsburgh. Read Mr. Kinard’s testimony here.
Dianne Hovdestad, Deputy Director of the Sioux Falls Housing and Redevelopment Commission, testified on NAHRO’s behalf. Ms. Hovdestad characterized the HCV program as difficult both in administration and in participation, for both landlords and tenants, because of its very complex regulations. While directing attention to her written testimony for legislative recommendations, she focused her oral testimony on three key points: (1) the need for adequate funding for administration of the program; (2) the need for rent simplification, which would provide immediate relief to staff time; and (3) the need for broader regulatory relief, urging the Committee to bring its influence to bear on the urgent need for quick action. Read Ms. Hovdestad’s testimony here.
Howard Husock, Vice President for Policy Research at the Manhattan Institute, focused his testimony on the HCV and MTW programs. He noted that the HCV program has roughly doubled in size since 1998, with spending for low-income families exceeding even the cash benefits of TANF. This makes the program not only a means to deliver housing but also a key social policy. He spoke of the importance of providing incentives to move towards economic self-sufficiency and stated that our goals for strengthening and streamlining must go beyond administrative efficiencies. In this context, he argued, it makes sense to give housing authorities flexibility based on the model of MTW, “which should be made permanent and expanded to include as many agencies as possible.” He cited examples of significant social improvements achieved through MTW efforts such as Atlanta’s work requirement and rent reform efforts across the country that remove disincentives to increase income, thereby encouraging work and savings. Flexibility should be guided by clear goals shaped by Congress and overseen by HUD, Husock stated, but should not be limited to so few of the nation’s housing authorities. Finally, he spoke of his concerns about RAD being so broad as to be dangerous, whereas there may be higher and better use for public housing sites than a singular focus on preservation would allow. Read Mr. Husock’s testimony here.
Will Fischer, Senior Policy Analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, noted that it has been 14 years since there has been authorizing legislation on the HCV and public housing programs and that there are now opportunities to improve those programs based on lessons learned and changed circumstances. He stated that there are a set of core reforms, previously included in the Section Eight Voucher Reform Act (SEVRA) and now a part of AHSSIA, which would strengthen and update the programs, as well as provide significant savings to the federal government. He cited triennial recertfications for tenants on fixed incomes as one example of common-sense, good government reforms that have been in recent bills, reforms that HUD supports but which need statutory changes to be implemented. He urged the Committee to be cautious about more controversial provisions, such as expansion of MTW, that could undermine broad support for reform legislation. He concluded by noting that the savings inherent in reform provisions could allow housing authorities to serve more families or at least avoid painful cuts in assistance, in times of serious budget constraints, in addition to improving the programs and their administration. Read Mr. Fischer’s testimony here.
Linda Couch, Senior Vice President for Policy and Research at the National Low Income Housing Coalition, began her testimony by noting the severe shortage of affordable and available units for extremely low income households and stating that “[i]deally, housing reform legislation would result in both more affordable housing and more efficient use of government resources.” Recent reform bills include tremendous savings from mostly uncontroversial provisions, but Ms. Couch suggested that a balance needs to be struck in any reform bill between new program flexibilities and the need for accountability. While emphasizing the Coalition’s strong support for maintaining Brooke rents, dependent on tenant income, she spoke positively about several provisions that would simplify rent setting and encourage increased earned income. She stated that the nation would benefit from improvements to the project-based voucher program and recalled that the need for clear direction with regard to the allocation of renewal funds was a primary reason for the development of the reform legislation of the past years. She suggested that any reform legislation should improve voucher portability and guard against excessive rent burdens, while noting her shock that this Administration has proposed increasing minimum rents. Other reforms she acknowledged that were beyond the scope of current legislation included regionalization of housing assistance, Federal source of income protection, enactment of small area Fair Market Rents nationwide, and ultimately, making HCV assistance an entitlement. Noting that disagreement over MTW has stalled reform legislation for years, Ms. Couch stated that the Coalition supports the stakeholder compromise on MTW. Finally, she urged the members of the Committee to support capitalization of the National Housing Trust Fund, which “could end homelessness in the United States.” Read Ms. Couch’s testimony here.
Question and Answer Session
At the conclusion of witness testimony, Sen. Menendez noted the urgent need for Section 8 reform and asked the panel to discuss the impact over time if Congress fails to act soon. “The consequences really are devastating,” affirmed Mr. Kinard, who spoke of financial and regulatory burdens that escalate each year. Both he and Ms. Hovdestad provided further “on the ground” examples of how current policies have lead to loss of units and underutilization of vouchers.
In further discussion of expanding the FSS program, Mr. Husock reiterated Ms. Couch’s call for a fixed rent structure that doesn’t penalize people for increased income. Stating that this needn’t be an “either or” dichotomy between fixed rate or not, Sen. Reed suggested that a shared appreciation structure might be more appropriate while still encouraging residents “to move up.” Sen. Reed also returned to the topic of the National Housing Trust Fund, adding that it would create jobs as well as reduce homelessness.
Expanding on his testimony regarding predictability of voucher renewal funding and stability of reserve funds, Mr. Fischer argued for the ability of housing authorities to go above their authorized voucher numbers without being penalized so that they could allocate unused funding and have further incentive to reduce the cost per voucher to stretch funds further.
Sen. Menendez voiced his concern that a lack of funding for RAD might prevent housing authorities with the greatest capital needs from participating. Mr. Kinard reiterated CLPHA’s position that the current no-cost model is an important step forward that will enable some on-the-fence housing authorities to participate, especially if HUD exercises its waiver authority, and demonstrate the need for greater funding to enable even broader future participation.
The hearing concluded with extended discussion of the MTW demonstration. Noting that this program has been a sticking point for moving forward with other reforms, Sen. Menendez is encouraged that stakeholders have come together around a compromise, and he asked for further perspectives from housing officials and advocates. Mr. Kinard described how participation affects the very work culture of a housing authority, empowering MTW agencies to look at funding as an opportunity for addressing challenges through innovative solutions rather than focusing on achieving high PHAS and SEMAP scores and submitting forms. When queried by Chairman Menendez about his good and bad experiences with MTW in Pittsburgh and in Newark, Mr. Kinard responded, “The good was Pittsburgh with Moving to Work. The bad is Newark without Moving to Work.”
Ms. Couch emphasized that after many years of opposition to MTW, the Coalition came to the table to work out the current agreement which incorporates strict reporting and evaluation requirements to mitigate the advocates’ concerns over work requirements, time limits, and rent policy shifts. Mr. Husock suggested that the factors concerning the Coalition are the very aspects that address the apprehension others have about the open-ended nature of housing assistance, which is what makes this agreement an attractive compromise.
Mr. Fischer raised the Center’s concern that funding MTW as a block grant may make it vulnerable to erosion, though he noted that provisions in the proposed bill incorporate some safeguards to reduce these risks. Ms. Hovdestad added that NAHRO supports MTW expansion that does not hinder current MTW agencies and that moves forward as soon as possible, though she suggested that this need not be part of the current bill.
The hearing is an initial and positive step in the Senate towards achieving the Section 8 reforms that CLPHA has long advocated, and we will continue to pursue this critical issue in both the House and Senate. For questions or additional information, please contact CLPHA Legislative Director Gerard Holder.