The feds want to study giving cash to renters. Will Californians be included?

Guaranteed income has become a buzzword in California, as the state struggles to stop people from getting priced out of their homes and landing on the streets.

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 Photo by Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA via Reuters

The latest entity pushing to give cash directly to people in need isn’t a nonprofit or an uber-progressive politician — it’s a massive federal agency not typically known for its innovation.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is encouraging local housing authorities to experiment with giving cash directly to renters in pilot programs it wants to follow. It wants to know if this simplified method, which cuts down on red tape and puts more power in tenants’ hands, works better than its decades-old approach: a voucher system where money flows from the federal government, to the local housing authority, to the landlord’s pocket. 

If the tests succeed, they could inspire national change.

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“This could be a significant seachange in how HUD implements subsidies,” said Jimar Wilson, vice president of the Southern California market for national housing nonprofit Enterprise Community Partners, which is considering getting involved in the test program. 

Advocates say the pilots could help more people find housing by making landlords less likely to discriminate against renters who get federal aid. At least one California housing authority — in Silicon Valley — is very interested in participating. 

But nobody knows what these programs would look like, and, most importantly, how they would be funded. Despite advocating for guaranteed income pilot programs, HUD says it can’t use federal money, placing the idea in limbo until funding sources come forward. Santa Clara County’s housing authority has pushed back on HUD’s claim that it can’t use federal money for this purpose.

“HUD doing this and being willing to look at the role of cash aid or direct cash assistance or subsidies in this way is moving in the right direction,” said Jennifer Loving, CEO of Santa Clara County-based nonprofit Destination: Home. “What would make it incredibly perfect is if they were championing new funding for this.”

HUD published an online article in September calling for nonprofits to partner with it on cash-aid pilots, convened an in-person event in November to discuss cash aid, and has been hosting monthly virtual meetings on the topic attended by nonprofits and housing authorities around the country. 

HUD offered CalMatters an interview with one of the September article’s co-authors — then rescinded the offer two days later. Instead, a HUD spokesperson sent an emailed statement that referenced the article, November event and monthly meetings, but failed to address several of CalMatters’ questions.

“The Biden-Harris Administration has made strides to expand, streamline, and strengthen the (Housing Choice Voucher) program including continuing to explore a broad range of actions to improve and expand rental assistance for low-income households,” spokesperson Andra Higgs wrote. 

Why give people cash?

The idea of giving cash directly to people in need, known as guaranteed income, is swiftly gaining traction in California. Nonprofits, cities and counties throughout the state have launched dozens of local programs. Even Gov. Gavin Newsom recently set aside $35 million to fund a handful of programs testing the idea. Early results suggest this model has helped people become more financially stable. 

Philadelphia already is testing giving 300 renters cash instead of housing vouchers — a program HUD is keeping a close eye on

So far, cash aid programs have been limited to scattered, small-scale, temporary pilots that lack the resources to scale up. HUD jumping into the ring marks the first time a federal agency is taking a cohesive look at the model and potentially creating a path for it to influence national policy.

“That’s what’s exciting about this, the fact that the initial call has come from HUD,” said Alexa Rosenberg, who co-leads Enterprise’s economic mobility initiatives. 

HUD operates the country’s Housing Choice Voucher program (also known as Section 8), which doles out vouchers to low-income tenants who can’t afford market-rate rent. The program started in the 1970s as an alternative to place-based subsidized housing. Instead of having to rent an apartment in a building specifically designated as affordable housing, the tenant can use the voucher to pay a portion of the rent at any market-rate property. Payments under the voucher system go directly to the landlord, who first has to pass a housing inspection. Tenants pay 30% of their income toward rent, and the voucher covers the rest.  

That system, which is a cornerstone of America’s subsidized housing program, has a number of problems. People languish for years on waitlists before they get a voucher, and many never get one at all. Only about one in four households eligible for rental assistance receives it, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

For those tenants lucky enough to score a voucher, about 40% can’t use it: They either can’t find an apartment that meets HUD’s requirements or a landlord willing to accept the voucher, according to HUD data. Though California prohibits landlords from discriminating against a potential tenant based on their source of income, many still refuse to rent to voucher-holders.

“That’s what’s exciting about this, the fact that the initial call has come from HUD.”ALEXA ROSENBERG, SENIOR DIRECTOR OF PROGRAMS, ENTERPRISE COMMUNITY PARTNERS

The direct cash program could eliminate some of those issues. The housing department  envisions allowing the tenant to inspect their own unit, rather than having to wait for an official inspection from their local housing authority. And the landlord would not have to sign a contract with the housing authority. Instead, the renter would pay the landlord directly, just like any other renter. Advocates say that could help prevent discrimination. 

Santa Clara County’s housing authority is “very interested” in participating, said deputy executive director Angie Garcia-Nguyen. Her team has been attending monthly virtual meetings hosted by HUD. 

“We thought this would be a good opportunity to learn where we have been a barrier in folks achieving housing,” she said. 

Margarita Lares, chief programs officer for the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles, is less convinced. She worries that without oversight, renters will spend the cash they get from this program on things other than rent — leaving their landlords in the lurch. 

Not everyone within HUD is convinced cash is necessarily the answer, either. The current voucher system is working, said Richard Monocchio, principal deputy assistant secretary of HUD’s Office of Public and Indian Housing. He called it “the best homelessness prevention program of all time.” While he said he has nothing against testing cash aid, he doesn’t think it will prevent discrimination, and he’s focused instead on increasing resources for the existing program. 

“I don’t want to do anything to diminish this program,” he said. “I mean, it’s the largest rental assistance program in history, and it works.” 

So, who’s paying for this?

Santa Clara County’s main hang-up when it comes to a cash-aid pilot? A lack of money. 

HUD says it doesn’t have the authority to use federal funds to pay for this experiment. Garcia-Nguyen disagrees. She says Santa Clara County, as part of HUD’s Moving to Work program — which is supposed to fund innovation — should be allowed to use federal dollars.

Without federal money, Garcia-Nguyen doesn’t see a way forward. Their average housing voucher payment is $2,200 per month. HUD envisions these pilots lasting up to four years, and experts say each one likely would need a few hundred people in order to demonstrate convincing results. 

“We’re going to need a lot of money,” Garcia-Nguyen said. 

HUD has indicated it will reconsider its position on Moving to Work funds, Garcia-Nguyen said, and now they’re waiting for the agency’s final determination. 

HUD declined to comment to CalMatters on the funding question.

“We thought this would be a good opportunity to learn where we have been a barrier in folks achieving housing.”ANGIE GARCIA-NGUYEN, DEPUTY EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, SANTA CLARA COUNTY HOUSING AUTHORITY

In the meantime, HUD expects nonprofits to pay for this effort. But so far, none has committed.

“We haven’t seen our members jumping at this,” said Amanda Misiko Andere, CEO of Funders Together to End Homelessness, an organization made up of homelessness nonprofits.

Housing organizations generally support the concept of cash aid, but are reluctant to be the first one to throw their hat in the ring, said Jeanne Fekade-Sellassie, executive director of Funders for Housing and Opportunity. Before they commit, they want more details about what the programs will look like. 

So far, HUD’s best bet is likely Enterprise. The national housing nonprofit could act as an umbrella agency that helps coordinate the pilots — making sure they operate with similar guidelines, setting evaluation metrics and bringing together funders, said Rosenberg. 

Enterprise wants a year to plan its approach, pick locations for pilots and identify resources. Just to fund that year of planning, Enterprise will need about $850,000, Roseberg said. After that, she estimates it would cost between $4.7 million and $7.7 million to fund each pilot for between three and five years, plus an additional $2 or $3 million in infrastructure costs. She hopes they launch at least five pilots.

But Enterprise isn’t committing to anything until it has funding in hand.

Click here to read the full article in CalMatters


  1. Donald J. says

    The Federal Cabal does not make a single cent to give away unless it takes it from someone productive. Think about that for awhile.

  2. JOHN S MANZANO says

    It’s always the hardworking people that get screwed!

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