Outdated inspections are eroding the Housing Choice Voucher program


The Housing Choice Voucher program is the nation’s most important housing assistance program, helping more than 2.3 million low-income families afford to rent homes in the private market, but fewer landlords are participating in it because they face outdated regulatory burdens that are costing them real money. 

Under the program, landlords are subject to an inspection and enforcement regime designed to ensure their properties meet national housing quality standards that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development issued in 1995 — even though the Department of Housing and Urban Development replaced those very standards last year. In other words, HUD retained the inspection regime for a housing quality system that no longer exists. 

Making matters worse, that inspection regime can add several weeks to the leasing process, causing significant income losses for landlords. Not surprisingly, more than 5,000 landlords left the Housing Choice Voucher program every year between 2010 and 2020, more than 70 percent of landlords in some cities refuse to rent to voucher holders and about 40 percent of voucher holders across the country now can’t find an eligible unit with a willing landlord. 

Consequently, policymakers should overhaul the current inspection process, helping to encourage more landlords to participate in the Housing Choice Voucher program and enabling it to reach its full potential as a platform for upward mobility. 

In a sense, the current inspection regime is now a solution in search of a problem. Earlier tenant-based rental assistance programs were designed to help low-income families obtain higher-quality rental housing. HUD’s national housing quality standards and inspection regime reflect its focus on housing quality.  

But, today, rent burdens are a much more pressing problem for low-income households than housing quality. 

That’s because the condition of America’s rental housing stock has improved significantly over the last three-quarters of a century. The 1950 Census of Housing reported that 38 percent of the nation’s rental stock was dilapidated or lacked complete plumbing or bathing facilities. By 2019, Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies reported that just 2 percent of the rental stock was “severely inadequate,” with “large holes and leaks” or no “plumbing, electricity, water or heat” — and another 5 percent was “moderately inadequate.” 

HUD defines households with “worst case housing needs” as very low-income renter households who do not get rental assistance and pay more than half of their income for rent, those living in severely inadequate conditions, or both. 

In 2021, less than 3 percent of households with worst-case housing needs across the country — and an even lower percentage in higher-opportunity neighborhoods — met that definition because the quality of their housing was inadequate. Most households who met that definition did so because of severe rent burdens. 

The current inspection regime requires a local public housing authority to inspect every Housing Choice Voucher program unit before approving a lease and before voucher payments flow from the housing authority to the landlord. Considering how much better the quality of rental housing has become over the years, and how many fewer renters now live in either moderately or severely inadequate units, that approach to inspections is akin to using a bazooka to kill a gnat. 

What should policymakers do? 

At a minimum, Congress should allow HUD to consider adopting different regimes of initial and recurring inspections for different types of markets, depending on the quality of the rental housing stock in those markets.  

More broadly, HUD should consider replacing the current inspection regime with landlord and tenant self-certifications and checklists affirming that units meet HUD’s updated housing quality standards, perhaps backed up by a stronger audit program of unannounced local public housing authority inspections. 

Some housing authorities participating in HUD’s Moving to Work demonstration program are using its flexibilities to streamline and otherwise optimize inspections. They’re expediting the leasing process by letting owners self-certify that they have addressed minor, non-life-threatening problems that left them short of meeting current housing quality standards. 

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Policymakers should draw lessons from these experiments and, as appropriate, apply them to the Housing Choice Voucher program.  

All in all, policymakers must reform the current inspection regime if they want to see the Housing Choice Voucher program drive upward mobility as much as possible. We should no longer accept a situation where thousands of families struggling under crushing rent burdens who have waited months, if not years, to receive a voucher find themselves unable to use them because of unnecessary and outdated regulatory requirements.   

Michael Stegman, a nonresident fellow at the Urban Institute, served as a senior housing official under Presidents Carter, Clinton, and Obama. Dennis Shea, executive director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s J. Ronald Terwilliger Center for Housing Policy, was a senior housing official under President George W. Bush. 

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