Under one roof — Reforming America’s federal housing programs

Pandemic has exposed failures in our housing system, and new report from Senate Budget Committee offers a way forward

The federal government’s current approach to housing assistance is failing the neediest Americans, Enzi writes.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The federal government’s current approach to housing assistance is failing the neediest Americans, Enzi writes. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted October 22, 2020 at 5:00am

The economic damage wrought by the pandemic has revealed many things, and one glaring issue is the importance of an effective federal housing assistance system.

Unfortunately, as millions of Americans are learning firsthand, we don’t have that. The Senate Budget Committee, which I chair, just released what we hope is a meaningful report showing how the federal government’s current approach to housing assistance is failing the neediest Americans. Moreover, it demonstrates that if we started from scratch, few, if any, would design the system we currently have.

It is a shocking failure that last year Washington spent over $50 billion on housing, guaranteed about $2 trillion in home loans and provided billions more through the tax code, yet more than half a million people in this country were homeless on a single night in 2019. Housing assistance is scattered across 20 different federal entities that administer 160 housing assistance programs and activities, creating confusion and significant headaches for those seeking help. This dysfunctional housing system does not effectively serve those in need. Congress can and must do better. This sprawling, fractured system is the result of more than 80 years of federal efforts to address shifting housing goals. These changing priorities and goals, unfortunately, have resulted in a system that fails in achieving its goals, while creating duplication and waste.

It is time to examine these programs closely with an eye toward streamlining some duplicative programs under one roof. That way, the millions of Americans who need these services can find and actually use them. 

Streamlined programs and fewer bureaucrats would mean more direct assistance to those in need and could lead to lower administrative costs, including expensive government salaries. It would also take an important first step toward fixing or consolidating underperforming programs. The savings realized from simplifying programs could then go toward helping families obtain the housing they so desperately need.

The Senate Budget Committee recently held a roundtable discussion to examine how housing assistance is delivered and, more importantly, how we can reform it. The roundtable revealed bipartisan consensus that the system needs improving. There was also agreement around the concept of giving greater control to tenants. Most notably, a consensus emerged that housing vouchers were a particularly effective affordable housing tool. Our new report, built upon that bipartisan discussion, is designed to jump-start a conversation about reforming federal housing assistance programs. 

This report shines a light on the redundancies in the government’s major rental assistance programs and shows how similarities between certain programs suggest opportunities for streamlining. The report also raises significant concerns about the need for transparency, and congressional oversight regarding the administrative costs of these programs and the number of employees administering them. As Congress considers additional measures to address housing needs in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, this report makes clear that it is time for lawmakers to review the current state of federal housing programs and assess what works and what doesn’t so we can best target assistance in the future. 

Unfortunately, federal housing bureaucracies have grown so large that they are now failing those they should be serving. Most Americans don’t even know the full extent of the programs available or where they can go for help. Studies have shown that public housing and project-based programs can trap families in high poverty neighborhoods, with significant long-term consequences for their health and well-being. It is my hope that this report and the work we have engaged in preparing it starts a serious, bipartisan review to improve our housing assistance programs.

Sen. Michael B. Enzi is a Republican representing the state of Wyoming. He chairs the Senate Budget Committee.