The Housing Choice Voucher Program is a good way to help low-income people get the housing they need. (Courtesy photo)

Increase funding for housing choice voucher program to help end homelessness

An open letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Dianne Feinstein

By Bob Ryan

Dear Speaker Pelosi and Senator Feinstein:

As my representatives in Congress, I urge you to use your immense federal budgeting powers to help end the shame of homelessness in our city, state and country. Homeless mothers, children, veterans, elderly and disabled people — fully more than 500,000 homeless people nationwide — are depending on you to act.

Specifically, I ask you to take a firm stand in the federal budget appropriations process by insisting on a significant increase in funding for the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Housing Choice Voucher Program for low-income people nationwide.

This rental assistance program is currently the best way to ensure adequate housing for low-income people in need. In fact, according to a recent post of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the housing voucher program provides rental assistance to 5.3 million low-income households. But because the program is severely underfunded, another 15.8 million low-income households that qualify for housing vouchers do not receive them. Simply put, three out of four low-income households that qualify for housing vouchers do not receive them for lack of federal funding.

The Housing Choice Voucher Program is hardly a radical idea. As you know, vouchers serve as rental assistance for low-income people to use in the private housing market after they pay the first 30 percent of their rent. Because an increasing percentage of renters’ income is spent on rising housing costs, a significant increase in funding for the program would not only provide adequate housing for far more low-income people than today, but it would also act as a local economic stimulus. That’s because these renters would have more money to spend on food, medicine and other necessities, which would in turn help local economies.

History tells us that Washington can and must act to end homelessness. From the 1930s into the 1970s, the federal government intervened in the private housing market to help provide adequate housing for millions of people. In fact, in the 1949 Housing Act, the federal government made a commitment to ensure “a decent home and a suitable living condition for every American family.”

In the 1980s, however, President Reagan broke that commitment when he severely cut funding for low-income housing assistance programs, including public housing construction and rehabilitation. And as we know only too well in San Francisco and throughout California, state and local government have shown that they simply lack the resources to solve homelessness. It’s way past time to restore the federal government’s historic commitment to adequate housing for all.

Speaker Pelosi, you have the rare power to effectively instruct the House Appropriations Committee to significantly increase funding for the housing voucher program in the House appropriations bill. Senator Feinstein, as a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, you are in a strong position to insist on significantly increasing funding for this program in the Senate appropriations bill. In short, you both have the power and appropriations skills to begin the fight to end homelessness in our city, state and country.

In sum, I ask you to exercise your rare and immense power through the federal budget appropriations process to restore our nation’s commitment to ensuring adequate housing for all.

Bob Ryan lives in San Francisco. He worked for several years in the 1970s as a state senate legislative staffer in Sacramento. He is a member of the Washington and Pennsylvania Bars and practices law exclusively before the federal courts.

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