A new study from researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Housing Initiative at Penn, “Evaluating a Cash Transfer Benefit to National Housing Trust Residents,” documents the impacts of a direct cash transfer program administered by the National Housing Trust (NHT) for low-income renters in NHT properties. The researchers and NHT staff surveyed residents in Washington D.C. to determine how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted them financially and how the cash transfer program affected residents’ livelihoods and housing outcomes. The researchers found that many surveyed NHT renters experienced housing instability during the pandemic, with 49% reporting they were behind on rent. Nearly seven in 10 cash transfer recipients reported that the program helped them improve their household’s finances, and 62% reported it reduced their stress.
Researchers worked with NHT to identify 150 tenants to participate in the direct cash transfer program. The cash transfer provided tenants with $230 per month for three months. Tenants were surveyed twice between May and August 2022, before and after receiving benefits from the program. The study sample also included a control group, but due to difficulties with follow-up survey completion, findings from the follow-up survey focus solely on outcomes among cash transfer recipients. The survey gathered information on tenants’ rental history, current finances, and the health and well-being of their household, as well as whether the tenants received rent relief through the StayDC rental assistance program or unit-based Section 8 vouchers.
Among all NHT renters surveyed at baseline, 49% reported being behind on rent, 41% reported borrowing money for rent, and 20% reported experiencing overcrowding. Renters receiving a unit-based Section 8 voucher experienced considerably less housing instability, as 28% reported being behind on rent, 11% reported borrowing money for rent, and 0% reported experiencing overcrowding. Renters also reported high anxiety about their housing stability, with 31% reporting they were “Always” or “Very Often” worried about their housing stability. The direct cash benefit program was shown to mitigate these levels of anxiety slightly. Among cash transfer recipients, 29% reported being worried “Always” or “Very Often” about their housing stability prior to the cash transfer, compared to 22% after the cash transfer.
Survey respondents also reported experiencing significant financial hardships during the pandemic. Among all residents surveyed at baseline, only 5% reported that they had money left over to save. Nearly 90% of households reported making spending changes to make life more affordable during the pandemic, including 45% who delayed bill payments, 26% who cut back on utilities, and 15% who skipped medical costs. After receiving the direct cash transfer, a slightly lower share of recipients reported having to adjust their spending to make ends meet. Among cash transfer recipients, the largest change was observed in the share of households who skipped medical treatment, which fell from 14% of households before the cash transfer to 5% of households after the transfer.
Participants also self-reported how the cash transfer impacted their financial and housing stability, and how they spent the transfer. Sixty-nine percent of respondents self-reported that this program improved their households’ finances and 62% reported that it reduced stress levels. Most commonly, the cash transfers were spent on food, monthly bills, personal goods, and transportation.
These findings demonstrate that direct cash transfer programs may have positive impacts on low-income renters, though housing and financial stability improvements were modest. The researchers suggest this may have been a result of the relatively short-term intervention or inflation. The authors highlight that more investigation is needed to determine how direct cash transfer programs can assist low-income renters in the long term.
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