My first reaction to a proposal from Democrat Chris Coons of Delaware, and Republican Kevin Cramer of North Dakota was skepticism. What's the catch I wondered? The proposal is keyed on incentives rather than mandates forcing housing providers to take vouchers. But the proposal is actually based on an important study completed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Here's what I said in a post at Forbes last week.
The legislation seems to have taken seriously a 2018 study of the problems with vouchers expressed by housing providers. Unlike other well intended legislation, this proposal won’t make things worse; but the question is, “Will it make things better?”
A contact in the Senate told me that the bill is unlikely to go anywhere anytime soon. There's far too many things going on with the infrastructure proposal and the budget. But the ideas in the bill – like a signing bonus for housing providers who take vouchers – might surface again.
I made the point to one Senator's office that while the notion of incentives is exactly the right way to improve the voucher program, there are still far too many disincentives for housing providers to jump into the program. The chief of these is the inspection requirement that forces a housing provider to pass a local inspection before they can accept vouchers. Why is this a problem?
The study by HUD found that, "few landlords would voluntarily submit to an inspection regimen if one was not required but most were committed, at least in theory, to the idea that their properties should be up to code, free from hazards, and so forth. What frustrated them, however, is that they believe that the inspection program is not administered consistently and predictably"
But worse than this, people who have vouchers already have a place they are living, a residence presumably without any extraordinary inspection regime. Imaging waiting for a voucher, and then having to pay rent in your existing apartment waiting for an inspected and approved unit somewhere else to become available. In a review I did last year, I found that in Washington state's largest county, people with vouchers spent as long as 240 days trying to find a unit. That's 8 months. So a person with a cost burden (rent above 30 percent of gross monthly income) of $300 would end up paying $2400 dollars they wouldn't have to pay if they could apply the voucher immediately where they currently live.
We'll keep making this point. If Coons and Cramer understand the burden then maybe by the time a bill does come to the floor or becomes part of a larger housing measure, we could see a pilot program treating vouchers a lot more like cash.