Debates about the U.S. housing crisis feel like they happened years ago; the housing plans of the Democratic presidential candidates are now artifacts from another era. The coronavirus pandemic has dramatically upended the status of millions of Americans, who may not have a plan for paying the rent in April or going forward. But those campaign schemes, full of what were once thought experiments about boosting aid for struggling households, could be roadmaps that help current leaders find the way out of this new catastrophe.
Some of those campaign ideas came from Julián Castro, whose safety net–focused presidential bid ended in January. Castro, the ex-secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama and former mayor of San Antonio, proposed a number of ideas to improve the security for America’s most vulnerable households. Most notably, he suggested expanding the Housing Choice Voucher program, which provides rental aid to low-income households, as a fully funded federal entitlement for every eligible adult in America.
The vouchers program (better known as Section 8) is now under tremendous strain, even as the pandemic compounds the housing crunch for low-income renters. HUD and other federal agencies are taking steps to provide relief to renters and homeowners, but other tools at the federal government’s disposal, including the Disaster Housing Assistance Program, are still pending a major disaster declaration from the White House and coordination with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
CityLab spoke with Castro about what to do to make sure that the most vulnerable families are able to keep their homes as the U.S. tries to weather the pandemic by sheltering in place.
As you’ve seen in Texas and around the country, the pandemic has had an incredible, devastating impact on the service industry and other sectors. This is making people very fearful about how they’re going to survive, and how they’re going to pay the rent. How do you see this pandemic response shaping a housing dynamic that was already an affordability crisis?
What’s been revealed here in a very poignant and powerful way are the gaps that exist for so many Americans out there. How close so many people are to falling into poverty, and for those who are in poverty, how vulnerable they are to a shift in their circumstances like this. One of the things we proposed was to make the Housing Choice Voucher program an entitlement program. We also called for, and I know [New Jersey Senator Cory Booker] and [California Senator Kamala Harris] called for, a refundable renters’ tax credit as well. That could be distributed on a monthly basis for renters, so that it could help them as the rents go up in communities across the country — or in situations like this, where you have unforeseen circumstances that are stressful for the tenant and the landlord.
I was pleased to see what HUD did the other day in terms of its announcement on evictions and so forth, but they’re going to end up having to go further than that. In the long term, we’re going to need to invest in a Housing Choice Voucher system that is much more robust. We need to invest in more public housing. We scaled back our commitment from public housing many years ago. I thought before this, and I said this when I was HUD secretary, that we need to be moving in the opposite direction. Having a strong, widespread supply of well-placed public housing not only allows for more stability every day in American communities, but also better response in moments like this.
What are some of the ways HUD could go further to meet this crisis?
It’s going to need to go further in terms of the timeline. It’s clear that the time horizon we’re looking at will be longer than [through the end of April]. Schools are looking at being closed longer than that. We’re seeing unemployment claims skyrocket. I don’t think this challenge is going to be done by the end of April. I also think they need to do everything they can to provide more direct relief to renters. And also to landlords participating in the Housing Choice Voucher program.
Frankly, there are advantages, but there are weaknesses to relying on the private sector to provide what is essentially subsidized housing. You’re going to get a lot of these landlords who, when that tenant may not be able to produce the other part of the rent, they’re going to look at evicting them. Now, when HUD comes down on them, you can’t evict them, you’re going to see a lot of people saying, “Well then, you know what, I’m out of the program.” That’s a weakness of the program. They’re going to need to figure out a way both to support those renters and also keep the number of landlords participating in the program as high as they possibly can. There’s going to be stress on both parts.
I also believe that HUD needs to work to make sure that residents, particularly in Section 202 and Section 811 housing, are as safe as possible. [Section 202 provides supportive low-income housing for the elderly; Section 811 serves people with disabilities.] You have a tremendous number of vulnerable communities out there — residents who are older, residents who are disabled — in public housing complexes. I haven’t seen a comprehensive plan on how they’re dealing with that. We have something like 3,300 housing authorities across the United States. I don’t believe that we can leave it up to 3,300 housing authorities to make sure these residents are as safe as possible. We need a strong federal government response directing that.
Could you briefly describe the dynamic with Housing Choice Vouchers? What happens to voucher holders when their income falls?
The Housing Choice Voucher program includes a requirement that the voucher holder pay a certain amount of their income in rent. They’re a participant in paying the rent. The question is, what will happen when they don’t have that income to pay along with their voucher? [HUD] can restrict evictions, whether in public housing or in Housing Choice Voucher housing, but you’re going to get a lot of landlords eventually resisting that and seeking to evict tenants who don’t have the full amount of rent. That’s a problem.
So what the federal government is going to need to do is robustly address and help everyday Americans who are tenants — but also find a way to buck up the landlords, so they don’t flee the program, either immediately or on June 1 or on July 15. Let’s say that we get past this crisis. What you may have are a lot of landlords who say, “You know what, I’m not going to go through that again. I’m out of the program.” There’s a danger there, not only during this crisis, but over the next year or so, of landlords leaving the program.
Somebody might argue that for landlords, it actually is better because the federal government right now, in what could become a shaky housing market, is actually the most reliable renter, so to speak. Part of that is true. But that’s not the entire story.
So in order to just maintain the status quo for current voucher holders, to say nothing of the millions of people who are eligible for vouchers but don’t receive them, the federal government is going to have to boost the value of vouchers?
They’re going to have to ensure that renters are taken care of in terms of being able to fully pay the rent. Of course that voucher amount that is already paid to landlords is an important component of that. The ability of those renters to pay their portion is also an important part. You could control that with a rule on no evictions, for a while. But what happens when a landlord says, “Well, then I don’t want to participate in the program?” What HUD needs to do is address the short-term and the long-term consequences of this tremendous uncertainty.
In order to make landlords whole, to make renters able to pay their rent — what’s the best way for the federal government to do this? Is it sending checks? Could the vouchers themselves be expanded to help struggling renters?
They have it within their power [at HUD] to address these issues. What it takes is the resources and a strong coordinated administrative effort. In some ways, the Housing Choice Voucher program is a very easy program to address this kind of emergency situation. You already have the administrative relationship with those landlords. You already have the administrative relationship with those tenants. What the system is going to require is more investment during this crisis, and then also a management of those relationships between landlords and tenants after the crisis, so you don’t have a bunch of landlords exiting the program. I absolutely believe that, in terms of managing the status quo, it’s utilizing the existing administrative relationships and putting more resources into them.
And then, for the future, as soon as the federal government can, they should do something like an entitlement program based off the Housing Choice Voucher program as well as use our tax code for a refundable renters’ tax credit. That would help people who are not in the system, everyday renters, who have a hard time as rents skyrocket across the country.
Do you think those approaches — expanding housing vouchers and launching a monthly renters tax credit — could be easier or more effective than introducing a basic income? The proposal for direct cash payments might miss households who are extremely low income and don’t file federal income taxes, for example.
It’s going to take a combination of those things. They’re not mutually exclusive. This is absolutely unprecedented in America’s history. We’ve certainly had times of crisis. And sacrifice. World War II comes to mind. We’ve had natural disasters and other types of emergencies. But I don’t believe we’ve seen something this widespread that’s going to have potentially the health impact and certainly the economic impact that coronavirus is going to have. It requires creativity. It requires going beyond the bounds of what we normally do.
This idea goes beyond the bounds of what we normally do: A lot of people ask, why can’t we just suspend rent? And suspend mortgage payments, too? A rent jubilee or holiday, when those payments aren’t due — is that a good idea?
Of course it may become necessary during an absolute crisis as this thing develops. We’re in uncharted waters right now. Would I keep that on the table? Yeah. We have to address that just as we make sure that everyone has a safe decent place to live. The government has to step in and make sure that’s possible. Is it possible to halt all mortgages, all evictions? I believe that’s possible, but it would require a tremendous amount of backing and investment by the federal government, too.
What concerns me is that for the last 40 years, more or less, this notion that smaller government is better has progressed in our society. We’re seeing some real concrete downsides of that during this crisis.
What next steps do you hope to see from government at the local, state, and federal level?
Locally, it’s about making sure that the basic needs of people are being met. For instance, for public utilities, putting a moratorium on disconnections. Making sure the housing authority at the local level is doing its part to stop eviction. It’s all about the basic needs. They are the frontline providers for so many basic needs. I told the mayor in San Antonio the other day, I think you should get together the public utilities and have a press conference and address what each is doing to take care of people at this time.
As you go up to the state level, then you get to a more global response. I think a lot of things they’re doing in California will work for other states. States have a greater role on issues like affordable housing, paid sick leave, and small business grants.
On the federal level, I completely disagree with Trump and this statement he made, that the federal government is “not a shipping clerk.” The federal government has the greatest resources and the ability to marshal expertise from around the world and deploy those ideas to generate economic stimulus and deliver health resources. We need a sober and methodical approach that’s lacking.