Rental housing subsidies and homelessness

Homelessness is fundamentally a housing affordability problem, and for most individuals and families the pathway out of homelessness is to return to the same type of housing other households occupy in the community. Even though they are not formally part of the homeless services system, “mainstream” assisted housing programs such as Housing Choice Vouchers, Section 8 housing developments, and public housing are vital to efforts to reduce, prevent and end homelessness.

Research has found a link between the availability of housing subsidies for poor renters and reductions in the overall rate of homelessness found in a community. Housing assistance also makes it much less likely that particular people who experience homelessness will become homeless again. This is the case both for people who can live in housing that has no special links to services and for people who need permanent supportive housing (PSH).

When appropriately targeted to people experiencing chronic homelessness, PSH can also help to reduce costs in other systems such as healthcare and emergency services. Despite long waiting lists and other priorities, many public housing authorities (PHAs) have been willing to create waiting list preferences or set-asides for people experiencing homelessness. Many state agencies that control the Low Income Housing Tax Credits have been willing to set aside some of those development subsidies for PSH.

What are the implications for policymakers and practitioners?

From what we already know about the relationship between rental housing subsidies and homelessness, some clear lessons emerge for policymakers and for service providers and system planners working to prevent and end homelessness in their communities.

Policymakers should consider:

  • Working at the federal level to support adequate funding for federal housing assistance programs and to maintain or even strengthen targeting to households with extremely low incomes, since virtually all households experiencing or at risk of homelessness have poverty-level incomes.
  • Encouraging HUD to provide additional guidance to PHAs on creating preferences and set-asides of Housing Choice Vouchers for people experiencing homelessness. This could include bonus allocations of HCV resources for PHAs that meet performance standards for serving people experiencing homelessness.
  • Working at the state level with the housing finance agency (or other allocator of LIHTC) to obtain set-asides for permanent supportive housing and the rental assistance needed to make PSH workable. For example, HOME and state trust funds or other funding for affordable housing can be used for the long-term rental assistance needed for PSH.
  • Working at the state level to obtain additional resources for both short and long-term rental subsidies to help people leave homelessness.

Service providers and system planners should consider:

  • Bringing the PHA into the CoC.
  • Working with both PHAs and owners of already developed privately owned assisted housing projects on targeting Housing Choice Vouchers and assisted housing units to the people they are helping to leave homelessness.
  • Targeting PSH to those who need it most—that is, to people with severe behavioral and mental health challenges—and using regular assisted housing units or vouchers for people experiencing homelessness who do not need intensive services linked to their housing.
  • Working with PHAs and other providers of rental subsidies to provide “move on” rental subsidies for PSH residents who no longer need service-linked housing, freeing up PSH slots to help additional people with high needs leave homelessness.

Read the full research brief to see the underlying research evidence.

Last updated December 2017