Today, the way the federal government helps millions of Americans pay their rent is broken, and fixing it requires structural reform. The decades-old system the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development uses to calculate tenants' rent payments is unfair, intrusive, confusing and costly.
Every year, HUD provides housing assistance to 4.7 million low-income families through several housing programs. But every year, it takes more money — millions more — to serve the same number of households.
Today, the average HUD-assisted family living in Florida earning $13,139 a year might pay hundreds of dollars per month in rent or nothing at all, depending on a number of factors. Calculating that family's subsidy is not easy. The form public housing authorities use to make this calculation is 14 pages long, resulting in far too many mistakes, including charging similar households wildly different rents. A recent HUD study found that each year approximately 25 percent of rents charged to HUD-assisted families are miscalculated, causing nearly $750 million in improper rent payments.
The current system is not only unfair and confusing, it is also getting more expensive every year.
There are better, simpler, and less intrusive ways to determine a family's subsidy rather than one that requires residents to undergo invasive annual audits and effectively discourages work by increasing rents when residents find new job opportunities or earn promotions or raises.
Last month, I proposed the Making Affordable Housing Work Act to launch a conversation about how we can fix the way we deliver rental assistance. It is a bold proposal to create a new simplified structure of "core rents" and "choice rents" that offers a more transparent and predictable rent calculation that is easier to operate and easier for both landlords and tenants to understand. It would also put HUD's rental assistance programs on a more fiscally sustainable path.
Under the core rent proposal, housing authorities and owners would only be required to verify household income every three years rather than annually. This would encourage residents to increase their earned income without any negative impact on their rent for up to three years. This proposal would ease the administrative burden on public-housing authorities, owners and residents, while simultaneously reducing the potential for errors in what families are charged for rent.
We are also proposing to create a menu of "choice rents" that housing authorities and owners may implement to promote greater flexibility in determining rent for non-elderly/non-disabled households. These "choice rents" would offer localities more options that make sense in their local areas, including creating escrow accounts for residents to help them to become less reliant upon housing assistance.
For every family we can help to become self-sufficient, we can assist another family who may have been waiting for years for housing assistance. It is necessary to point out that the rent reforms we are proposing will not increase rents for the elderly and disabled households we currently serve. As a compassionate society, we have a responsibility to take care of the most vulnerable among us.
This is the beginning of a necessary conversation. Congress, our stakeholders and HUD-assisted families will be involved in this conversation every step of the way. But there is one inescapable imperative driving this reform effort — doing nothing is not an option.
Ben Carson is the secretary for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.