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Moving Forward: Expanding our Understanding of the Housing Challenges Facing Low-Income Renters

by Jeffrey Lubell, Center for Housing Policy

As a field, we have become ever more adept at building, managing, and preserving quality rental housing developments that provide stable affordable housing to families in need and help to strengthen local communities. In addition, through the federal housing choice voucher program, we help two+ million renter households afford the costs of private-market housing of their choice.

These programs have been successful in providing quality affordable housing and merit increased funding. For at least the foreseeable future, however, it is unlikely that enough funding will be available to help everyone in need. Currently, only about one-fourth of the households in need of a housing subsidy receive one. (See page 16 of our recently released report, Housing an Aging Population, for one approach to calculating this statistic.)

In a world of constrained government resources, what steps can be taken to help the millions of households with serious housing needs that are not being aided through government rental assistance?

To answer this question, I believe we need to better understand the housing challenges facing unassisted renter households, with a particular focus on learning how to improve the stability and quality of their housing—two outcomes we know are important to ensuring healthy children and families. Most unassisted renters live in privately owned housing, but we know very little about their housing experiences over time. What causes their housing situations to be stable or unstable? How well do their support systems work during times of crisis? If we had a better understanding of these dynamics, we would be in a stronger position to identify strategic opportunities for intervention that might improve renters’ residential stability and housing quality.

Here are some of the research questions whose answers could help inform policy in this area:

  • What types of circumstances lead doubled-up families to experience events that undermine the residential stability of household members? What low-cost steps could be taken to reduce the likelihood of these conflicts, facilitate their resolution, or help to minimize the trauma of moves for families that are no longer able to stay in their doubled-up units?
  • What is the quality of housing units occupied by unassisted renters in different types of markets and are there low-cost strategies (e.g., code enforcement, landlord education, etc.) that could materially improve their housing quality?
  • How effective are programs that seek to promote residential stability by providing “back rent,” security deposit assistance, or ongoing rent subsidies that are smaller than standard federal rental assistance subsidies? Are some program designs more effective than others?
  • How effective are counseling initiatives aimed at helping renters to better understand their housing options, choose units of higher quality, resolve landlord disputes, etc.?

In extreme circumstances, residential instability can lead to homelessness, and it is in this context that these questions have received the most attention. Among other relevant research, a 2005 study by Martha R. Burt, Carol L. Pearson, and Ann Elizabeth Montgomery examined homelessness prevention strategies in six communities around the country. A new research effort by the Urban Institute evaluating the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program—a HUD-administered program funded as part of the Recovery Act that—should provide additional insight into the effectiveness of many of these strategies. And of course, the numerous programmatic efforts being funded through the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program will add to the base of experience that practitioners have developed addressing this important issue.

We can and should expand efforts to learn how best to prevent homelessness. At the same time, we need to extend the research to learn how to prevent the type of rapid churning from residence to residence that falls short of formal homelessness but nevertheless negatively impacts children’s educational progress and the ability of adults to achieve their personal goals.

The broader objective is to better understand how to improve the residential stability and housing quality of renter households. If we accomplished this goal and applied the lessons learned, we could not only help reduce homelessness but also help the millions of renter households that have serious housing needs but lack access to rental housing subsidies.

This challenge calls for a mix of different research methods, including ethnographic and other qualitative research methods, longitudinal studies, and experiments aimed at evaluating the success and cost-effectiveness of different strategies for strengthening residential stability and housing quality. We also need better data to help us measure the number of doubled-up households and track changes over time.

Given the complexity and multiple causes of residential instability, as well as regional variation, it is unlikely that a single large study will definitively answer all of the relevant questions. This provides important opportunities for researchers around the country to contribute to the field’s evolving understanding of this issue and help identify the most promising solutions.

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“Moving Forward” is a monthly column about ideas for the future of U.S. housing policy by Jeffrey Lubell, Executive Director of the Center for Housing Policy. The column offers perspectives on the government role in housing and on broader housing market trends likely to shape future housing policy.

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