Massachusetts’ rental voucher program is a lifeline to those who can access it.
But that program — the largest state-funded program of its kind in the country — falls well short of the need for rental aid, leaving roughly 335,000 households who meet the income parameters out in the cold, according to a new report from local housing and advocacy groups.
The report — issued Wednesday by Metro Housing Boston, the Citizens Housing and Planning Association, The Boston Foundation, and a number of other housing groups — calls for the state’s rental assistance efforts to be expanded into a “universal” program, which would dramatically increase the number of vouchers available so that any family earning less than 80 percent of the area median income in their respective community — $112,150 for a family of four in Boston — who lack significant savings could receive assistance.
“The current mix of systems falls far short of what is needed to make affordable housing available to all people in Massachusetts,” said Chris Norris, executive director of Metro Housing|Boston, in a statement. “But research and experience show that filling that gap and creating a more cohesive system would reduce poverty and homelessness, improve children’s health and education outcomes, and create needed stability in the housing market, with the greatest impact on those with the lowest incomes.”
Such a program, which the report estimated would cost around $3.2 billion a year, is likely a longshot on Beacon Hill, and similar in cost to other “transformative proposals” like universal preschool. But, the report’s authors argue, the number of families earning below 80 percent AMI who are not receiving state or federal rental aid shows how quickly the state’s housing crisis is outpacing the systems designed to ease it.
Universal rental assistance would help with some of the worst of those effects, the report said: homelessness, landlords who discriminate against tenants receiving state or federal help, racial and social disparities created by existing lottery and voucher systems, to name a few.
It could also significantly reduce the amount of money the state spends on homelessness assistance programs and emergency housing expansion, typically between $300 and $400 million per year.
And, the report said, it could help prod developers into producing more housing for the people who need it most, because state rental vouchers could act as a backstop that guarantees regular rent payments.
“To bring rents in newly developed buildings to levels that people with low incomes can afford, rental assistance is vital in bridging the gap,” said Rachel Heller, chief executive officer of CHAPA. “In the open market, rental assistance helps make more homes affordable too. It’s an economical and social imperative when housing costs far outpace wages and there’s an affordable housing shortage.”
There are drawbacks, the report acknowledges. A wave of vouchers could drive up demand, as well as housing prices, by bringing more families into the housing market. That could be avoided, the report said, by encouraging more housing construction across the state.
And the program would act as a direct competitor to Section 8 — a similar rental assistance voucher distributed to tens of thousands of Massachusetts households by the federal government — so certain stipulations would be needed to avoid making the state program more desirable than the federal subsidy.
“Part of the beauty of a voucher system is that it works with the changing contours of the housing market, providing a subsidy that flexes with rental costs and family need,” the report reads.