Project-Based Vouchers Can Help End Homelessness: Our Work in Houston
In November, the Houston Housing Authority (HHA) announced along with Mayor Annise Parker and Congresswoman Shelia Jackson Lee that we would dedicate 1,000 units of project-based vouchers to helping end homelessness here in Houston.
Project-based vouchers are a powerful tool that can be used to create and sustain a homeless response system in any community. Housing Authorities are allowed to convert up to 20 percent of their Housing Choice budget authority into vouchers that are attached to a project. By attaching the voucher to the project, developers can depend on a steady stream of operating subsidy at market rate rents – while serving households who typically have extremely low incomes. This level of subsidy serves as a real incentive for developers to create permanent supportive housing. HUD has given Housing Authorities quite a bit of flexibility in designing local criteria for the award of project-based vouchers. In Houston’s case, we have determined that project-based vouchers are a powerful tool that can be used in the fight to end homelessness. We are leveraging this tool by creating a preference for developers who are serving those experiencing homelessness and providing permanent supportive housing so tenants can be successful in their transition from living on the streets or in their cars to living in a home of their own.
There is a concern that the tenant may have better opportunities with a mobile tenant-based voucher. We believe that it is important to offer a range of configurations available to meet the diverse needs and preferences of tenants. Project-based units are important to the range of options because they offer the benefit of having supportive services in arms reach—which is essential to promoting success for some families in transition. Additionally, after one year in a project-based unit with supportive services, the tenant has the opportunity to receive a mobile voucher, while the property continues to retain the project-based voucher. This “alternate entry” into the tenant-based voucher program is one reason that some Housing Authorities are reluctant to take full advantage of the project-based program. I see the transition to a tenant-based voucher and reuse of the project-based voucher and permanent supportive housing as solving another problem. The average length of stay in permanent supportive housing is less than five years; during that time the clients have often reduced their need for the supportive services but still need subsidized housing. By allowing them to move with a voucher they are not only retaining access to affordable housing and preventing a return to homelessness but also freeing up a unit with the intensive supports for use by another homeless household.
Another reason that Housing Authorities don’t use project-based vouchers more is that we don’t receive any additional administrative fees to operate a vastly more complicated program. In these times of sequestration and shrinking funds, it can be cost-prohibitive to undertake additional work without additional compensation. However, I believe strongly that the value to the community that is created by new permanent supportive housing units and a safety net system to prevent a return to homelessness vastly outweighs our additional costs. This is why even in these difficult financial times HHA will still commit 1,000 project-based vouchers for permanent supportive housing for individuals and families experiencing homelessness.
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