Are time limits the answer to Chicago’s housing voucher waitlist?

There are 43,000 families waiting for a housing voucher from the Chicago Housing Authority; on average, they’ll wait about eight years to finally get help with their rent. As CTBA investigations have shown, up until recently the CHA exacerbated this problem by using much of its federal voucher subsidies to build up its own cash reserves, rather than giving them to families on the waitlist.

Credit: Chicago Housing Authority

But this week, the Chicago Housing Authority and Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a pilot program to address the long wait.

The plan won’t increase the number of vouchers, either through more funding or more efficient spending. Instead, the CHA plans to make room for people on the waitlist by taking away vouchers from low-income households who currently hold them.

Under the plan — which will begin with just 100 families, out of the roughly 46,000 voucher holding households across the city — low-income households will be cut off after eight years of receiving voucher assistance. The idea is to incentivize adults in these families to find work and make public assistance unnecessary.

But does this idea make sense? A quick look at who Chicago voucher holders actually are suggests the answer, in most cases, is no. To begin with, according to HUD, fully a third of voucher holders are already working, and earn the majority of their income through their jobs, not public assistance. Another 18 percent are elderly. And finally, 15 percent are of working age but disabled.

Together, that means that just a third of all CHA voucher families are led by able-bodied adults of working age without a job — the people this pilot is supposed to target. It’s not clear whether the time limits would also apply to other CHA voucher holders.

More broadly, the CHA does not have 43,000 families on its voucher waitlist because current voucher holders are failing to take available jobs with sufficient wages to rent at market rates, but because Chicago has a fundamental imbalance between housing costs and incomes. A typical lower-income Chicago renter household — one with less income than three-quarters of Chicagoans — makes about $14,800 a year. Using the rule of thumb that housing ought to cost about 30 percent of household income, that family could afford to spend about $370 a month on rent.

But a typical lower-cost Chicago apartment — one that’s cheaper than three-quarters of all apartments in the city — doesn’t cost $370 a month. It costs nearly twice that: $720.

In other words, throughout the lower end of the income spectrum in Chicago, wages simply don’t match rents, and even a modest increase in employment or earnings as a result of the CHA pilot will leave tenants radically worse off without their vouchers. Advocates may point to places like San Bernadino, where authorities imposed tenant time limits and saw an average increase in incomes of 12 percent. But a 12 percent increase in the example above would allow that lower-income family to afford just $414 in monthly rent — still more than $300 short of actual rental costs in their part of the market. (The median income of a CHA voucher family is actually somewhat less than the example: about $12,200 a year.)

In other words, for most CHA voucher households, trying to push them into work doesn’t make sense — either because they’re already working, or are retired or disabled — and is not a reason to create time limits. And for the third of CHA households led by an able-bodied adult who isn’t already working, the kinds of lower-wage jobs that are likely available to them pay far too little to afford even a low-cost market-rate apartment. The voucher waiting list is a serious problem — but it’s one that won’t be solved by taking assistance away from families that still need it.

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