Op-Ed: Lives in the Balance as Congress Underfunds Housing Vouchers

Staci Berger, Richard W. Brown | October 23, 2015 | Opinion
Budget limbo of sequestration puts squeeze on low-income New Jerseyans facing homelessness

Stacie Berger and Richard W. Brown
Lynne worked full time for 30 years, was married, and had her own home. But after a divorce, a job loss, and foreclosure, she was homeless for almost two years. With the help of a housing voucher and support services from Family Promise, she moved into her own apartment. In August, after six months of volunteer experience, she began working full time as an administrative coordinator for a nonprofit in Morris Plains. She drives to work every day in a car that was donated to her.

Lynne says that homelessness “can happen to anyone” and that she “would still be in the street if there were not programs in place.”

“Lawmakers need to know how important vouchers are,” says Lynne.

Instead of supporting proven programs like housing vouchers, Congress has done the opposite. From 2010-2014, New Jersey lost 1,900 federally funded Housing Choice Vouchers. All of New Jersey’s congressional representatives should work to raise the tight annual caps on appropriations under the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) and reverse the harmful automatic sequestration cuts that further reduced the caps and hurts people and places in our state. Congress must ensure that McKinney-Vento homeless-assistance funding gets the robust increase it needs to fund permanent supportive housing to end homelessness. The HOME program should be funded at President Obama’s recommended level of $1.060 billion.

Congress should take a balanced approach to reaching these goals, considering all parts of the federal budget, including housing programs and other nondefense discretionary and safety net programs, such as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP.)

We cannot replace existing cuts with additional cuts – those cuts would hurt New Jerseyans and our economy. We can end homelessness, and improve the economic standing of all of neighbors, by investing in programs that work.

When people spend most of their incomes on finding and keeping a home, they spend less on activities that stimulate the economy. They’re not eating out at restaurants, going to the movies, or visiting the small mom-and-pops that depend on local business. More money in wallets means more money to spend, which leads to jobs. That can’t happen unless Congress acts now to prevent cuts and raise spending caps.

The current federal budget “limbo” negatively affects New Jerseyans who have the greatest need. Many residents rely on critical federally funded housing programs such as the Housing Choice Voucher program to prevent potential homelessness. The federal budget and the lives of these individuals and families hang in the balance. Sequestration must end.

Members of Congress are calling on their leadership to do just that.

“Avoiding a shutdown is just the first step. Next, we need a budget deal to cancel sequester,” Senate Committee on Appropriations Vice Chair Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) stated recently. “I challenge (Senate) leadership to work with Speaker Boehner to enact a new topline budget deal by the end of October. We can’t let October brinksmanship become a Christmas crisis.”

We need our leaders to act. In September 2015, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released its preliminary Fair Market Rents for the next federal fiscal year, which starts in October. Fair Market Rent (FMR) is a statistic developed by HUD to set limits on Housing Choice Vouchers. In New Jersey, except for in the Camden area, 6 out of 10 rental apartments are more expensive than the FMR.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s 2015 Out of Reach Report, 26 percent of renter households in New Jersey have extremely low incomes. The housing wage to afford a two-bedroom apartment is $25.17/hour. There is a shortage of 210,481 of units that are affordable and available for extremely low-income renters.

NJCounts 2015, the statewide point-in-time count of the homeless, found 10,211 homeless men, women and children across New Jersey. This was a decrease of 1,645 persons (13.9 percent) from 2014. While this decrease indicates progress, the count still shows the critical need for voucher and homeless assistance funding.

Lynne’s successful journey from homelessness to self-sufficiency is just one of the countless examples that demonstrate how vouchers are ending homelessness in New Jersey.

Congress should do more, not less, to make sure Lynne, and our neighbors experiencing homelessness, can thrive. Everyone deserves an opportunity to live in a great community, in a place they can afford to call home.