Now and Then: Rent Control, Rental Assistance, and Universal Vouchers

In the second installment of updates to Shelterforce articles of old, we check in on how well some of the recommendations, predictions, and worries about rent control, rental assistance, and universal vouchers have aged.

Close-up of the back of a T-shirt that says "Because the rent won't wait." Ways to help with the high cost of rent include rent control, rental assistance, and universal vouchers.
Photo by Kendra Sundvall

Housing choice vouchers (formerly known as Section 8 vouchers) have been a major part of housing assistance in the United States for decades. But it’s effectively a lottery. Woefully underfunded, the program only gives a voucher to 1 out of 4 households that qualify. Ending that situation has been a regular theme at Shelterforce—whether in Peter Dreier’s comprehensive proposal for presidential candidates in 2007, Erika Poethig’s description (with video) of America’s “Affordable Housing Lottery” in 2014, or Ellen Lurie Hoffman’s argument in 2016 that universal rental assistance (which just means rental assistance for all who currently qualify, instead of one-quarter of those who qualify) is both a matter of racial justice and possible to achieve.

What has changed since we published those pieces?

Not a lot, except that the pandemic has made the need even more stark, and—crucially—the idea of universal vouchers made it into the Biden housing plan, meaning that it’s time to start discussing how exactly it might work.

One of the things that will be necessary to make universal vouchers work is protection against source-of-income discrimination. We discussed both the problem and the evidence that source-of-income protection policies help in 2018.

That evidence has continued to mount. The Urban Institute released a report in October 2020 on protection against source-of-income discrimination that found that between 1971 and 2019, 12 states and 87 cities had passed legislation barring landlords from discriminating against tenants using housing choice vouchers, and this trend is accelerating. Half of all voucher holders now live in areas covered by some type of legal protection for voucher holders, and these protections have only grown stronger over the last three decades. The study identified several characteristics that likely affected the effectiveness of the protection: explicitness (specifically naming voucher holders as protected), enforcement, exemptions (or particularly not too many or too broad), and incentives.

If universal vouchers get any traction in this administration, then consistent, strong, nationwide source-of-income protection will be necessary to ensure that all those new voucher holders can find places to use them.

Housing justice organizers say they’ll be fighting for a National Tenant Bill of Rights (page 11 at the link) to accompany any voucher expansion, as well as a longer-term vision that rests on a massive investment in social- and community-controlled housing that’s outside of the speculative market, rather than vouchers.

Strategy and Possibility

Back in 1994, in one of the first series we published online, John Atlas, author of Seeds of Change and then president of our board, argued that getting widespread attention to affordable housing issues would require creating a populist movement for universal housing programs that encompassed the middle class. Larry Yates, a community organizer, disagreed, saying we needed a justice-led movement with what today would be called “frontline communities”—especially low-income Black women—in the lead.

The tension between whether we should target limited assistance narrowly to those most in need or promote universal programs that draw political will from their mass appeal has of course resurfaced multiple times in recent years, including in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries and in the question of whether to approach the pandemic-related economic and housing emergency via targeted rent relief or broad rent cancellation. Though interestingly, it is the frontline-community-led movements calling for the broader programs, rather than narrow means testing. Meanwhile, the housing movement has ended up with more support from the middle class, not because widely available social housing was put in the mix, but because even pre-pandemic, rapidly escalating costs, stagnant wages, and the 2008 financial crisis meant that housing instability and unaffordability have come to touch a lot more people.

Rent Control Is Not Dead

One broadly applicable policy on which the sense of possibility has changed substantially is rent control. In 1995, reeling from the statewide repeal of rent control in Massachusetts and the election of anti-tenant Gov. George Pataki in New York state, Shelterforce asked if rent regulation was heading for extinction. It was only left in parts of New York, New Jersey, California, and Washington, D.C., and was under siege in all of those places. A 2001 article on rent control organizing noted that some of those challenges had been held off, but advocacy on the topic was still largely defensive in posture. Today, the landscape looks quite a bit different. Oregon has effectively passed statewide rent control, and California has a “rent cap” and an active, though so far unsuccessful, movement to repeal some of the measures that limit expansion of current rent control measures. In 2019, New York, after years on the defensive, significantly strengthened its rent control laws and expanded the opportunity for municipalities outside of New York City to pass their own. Though it’s far from a universal protection, and arguments about its effectiveness still rage, “realists” can no longer shake their heads and predict rent regulation’s inevitable demise.

That doesn’t mean that dealing with rent has become easy. Rent forgiveness in the face of a pandemic has been so far elusive. Rep. Ilhan Omar’s Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act unsurprisingly never got out of committee last year, but she has just reintroduced it with 20 co-sponsors. At the local level, in June 2020, Ithaca was in national headlines for voting to give its mayor the power to cancel rent, but there has been little progress in seeing this become a reality. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo had issued an executive order that required local governments to get approval from the New York Department of Health before implementing any type of pandemic relief efforts. The city’s proposal has been officially “under review” by the Department of Health since June 17, 2020.

Remember the Tea Party?

What is possible has a lot to do with the political climate, something we’ve periodically acknowledged. In early 2011, we published Joe Kriesberg’s thoughts about how to stay positive after the Tea Party wins in the 2010 mid-term elections. In “Five Hidden Opportunities in the 2010 Election Results,” Kriesberg, director of the Massachusetts Association of CDCs, suggested that the community development field position itself as a component of a climate change strategy, as a vehicle for better health, and as a way to elevate local decision-making over remote federal strategies. He also suggested that the field both take advantage of renewed interest in rental housing and elevate stories of successful low-income homeownership to counter the narratives about the cause of the foreclosure and financial crises. Of these, the housing and health connection has perhaps most clearly taken off over the past 10 years, with the support of new players bolstering community development work in many places just as Kriesberg suggested. Bipartisan support for CDFIs, if not as much the rest of the field, remained relatively strong through our political roller coaster since 2010, though they still needed to fight to participate in the Paycheck Protection Program. And sadly the false idea that the foreclosure crisis was caused by extending too much credit to low-income people is still widespread.

Although the backdrop of a crisis that requires major federal intervention and economic stimulus is similar to that of 2011, the political landscape is clearly very different right now. The dominant conversation is not about how to eke out positive interest in our work along the margins, and convince Republicans to consider housing, but how to make the most of the opportunity of a country ready to talk about housing and with an appetite for bold proposals that actually make meaningful differences in people’s lives. Here’s hoping we learn from the past and write a new story as we do so.

Additional reporting by Brandon Duong.


This article is part of our latest series —Whatever Happened To …

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Miriam Axel-Lute is CEO/editor-in-chief of Shelterforce. She lives in Albany, New York, and is a proud small-city aficionado.

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