Report Highlights Challenges of Using Emergency Housing Vouchers and Strategies for Overcoming Them

The National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) has released a report, “Using EHVs to Get People Housed: Focus Group Discussions on Challenges and Current Strategies,” describing homeless services leaders’ experiences using Emergency Housing Vouchers (EHVs) for people experiencing homelessness. The report shows that while homeless services leaders welcomed a new program designed to help people experiencing homelessness access housing, they faced barriers getting eligible households leased up. These barriers included difficulty finding affordable and available housing, the persistent effects of housing discrimination, and staffing shortages.

The EHV program was created and funded through the “American Rescue Plan of 2021” and provides 70,000 vouchers to Public Housing Authorities (PHAs) to assist individuals experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness. As of the end of February 2022, 17.5% of the vouchers had been used for lease ups. More recent data available through HUD’s EHV dashboard reveal that 28% of the vouchers have now been used.

NAEH researchers conducted focus groups with 47 homeless services leaders representing 35 Continuums of Care (CoC) and one Public Housing Authority (PHA) to learn about the challenges and strategies involved in EHV implementation. Interviewees explained that finding available and affordable units was a major challenge of implementing the EHV program, leading to low lease-up rates. Some of this difficulty may be attributed to the tight rental market, with record low vacancy rates and only 36 affordable and available units for every 100 extremely low-income renters. Additionally, many EHV holders were looking for housing at the same time, leading to competition among EHV holders. Participants also cited as a barrier a lack of buy-in from landlords, many of whom did not want to participate in the voucher program. CoC and PHA staff developed several strategies to mitigate these difficulties, including hiring housing navigators, negotiating with landlords to make the program more appealing, and offering landlords incentives such as providing an additional month’s rent or paying for apartment improvements to bring a unit up to inspection standards.

Partnerships between CoCs and PHAs also proved somewhat challenging. CoCs identify EHV-eligible households while PHAs administer vouchers, but CoC staff expressed frustration that while PHAs had final decision-making power, they often lacked experience working with populations experiencing homelessness. This led to disagreements about which populations to prioritize, as PHAs worried that higher-need households – including people experiencing chronic or unsheltered homelessness – would not be able to maintain their vouchers. To overcome these worries, CoCs helped educate PHAs about issues involved in homelessness. CoCs and PHAs also achieved success by conducting regular meetings and implementing shared tracking systems to stay in communication about the status of eligible households.

Focus group participants also emphasized the effects of structural discrimination, such as redlining and zoning ordinances that limit multi-family housing, that have persistent effects on the supply and availability of affordable housing. Focus groups highlighted staffing challenges as well, with many CoCs experiencing high turnover or difficulties hiring due to both low pay and exhausting work. To mitigate these challenges, CoCs used COVID relief funds to provide bonuses and wage increases. CoCs also created new roles specifically intended to implement the EHV program.

NAEH offers several other recommendations in the report to improve the implementation of the EHV program. NAEH recommends HUD not recapture vouchers, a fear among CoCs, as localities that are serving the highest-need populations may take longer to lease vouchers. The authors recommend that HUD and other entities expand platforms for technical assistance and collaboration across CoCs. The report also recommends expanding access to affordable housing through set-asides for people experiencing homelessness.

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