Opinion: California housing insecurity could be addressed by Congress with rent assistance vouchers

Castro Ramirez is secretary of the California Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency. She lives in Sacramento.

As more Californians get vaccinated and our state reopens, things are finally starting to feel a little more normal. But getting back to normal is not enough, as too many people in our state continue to struggle with the economic fallout from the pandemic and cases of the delta variant are on the rise. A significant number of people have been unable to pay their rent or mortgage payments due to layoffs and loss of income, putting them at risk of eviction or loss of their homes.

Fortunately, a few weeks ago, Gov. Gavin Newsom and state lawmakers extended the moratorium on evictions in California until the end of September and pledged to help eligible low-income tenants and landlords by increasing rent assistance payments to 100 percent of unpaid rent; and paying 100 percent of contingent rent and charges.

These expanded protections are essential to keeping families housed, but Californians also need Congress to invest in bold, long-term solutions to ensure a fair and equitable recovery. This should include expanding and improving the Housing Choice Voucher program. It would be nothing short of transformational for Californians and people across the country.

Even before the pandemic, housing instability was a significant problem. For too long, rent and house prices have far exceeded wages in communities across our state, disproportionately affecting communities of color and low-income households. In addition, the supply of housing does not keep up with demand, especially for poorer households, resulting in a shortage of affordable housing.

Over 4 million people in our state pay more than half of their income to cover housing costs. This number includes more than one million children and hundreds of thousands of the elderly and disabled.

These challenges have been further compounded by the uneven health and economic impacts of the pandemic.

While the House of Representatives and Senate have made significant investments to keep individuals housed through the American Rescue Plan Act, they now have the opportunity, in salvage legislation, to bring significant relief to Californians.

Nationally, housing vouchers and rent assistance have helped lift millions of working families, the elderly, children and veterans out of poverty. But at the moment, the program has only enough funding to help 1 in 4 eligible households.

Housing vouchers have widespread and proven results. In addition to reducing housing instability and homelessness, vouchers create opportunities for families and individuals to access quality schools and services. Most importantly, they help counter the pervasive and enduring effects of discrimination that continue to reduce economic and housing opportunities for communities of color in our state and across the country. Housing vouchers have been shown to reduce family separation, school absences for children and intimate partner violence.

Making more vouchers available would have real impacts on individuals and families in our state. By reducing the burden of housing costs, housing vouchers help families afford food, medicine and other necessities. When families can afford to provide a stable, safe, and nurturing environment, children perform better in health, education, and social life. These benefits extend throughout their lives with higher education and income as adults.

The expansion of federal housing bonds will also help close the gap between rent and what residents are able to afford and increase support for ongoing community housing programs.

By stabilizing individuals and families, housing helps entire communities thrive. The expansion of housing vouchers is crucial to keeping Californians in their homes and out of homelessness and in building a brighter, fairer future for our state.

As we emerge from the pandemic, we must commit to a shared recovery as well – and that starts with ensuring access to stable and secure housing for every Californian.

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