Since 2015, Community Solutions has led Built for Zero, a movement of 105 communities that are proving it’s possible to drive — and sustain — population-level reductions in homelessness.
We can create a reality where homelessness is rare overall, and brief when it occurs. Ensuring that this becomes the norm, rather than the exception, will require the United States to align policies, information systems, and human and financial resources toward measurable, population-level reductions in homelessness.
We identified four key recommendations that would scale the impact of the progress we are seeing in communities:
- Align government grants and contracts toward the goal of ending homelessness
- Ensure communities can collect and use comprehensive, high quality, person-level data
- Preserve and increase the supply of affordable housing
- Ensure equitable access to affordable housing
1. Align government grants and contracts towards the goal of ending homelessness
The first step for measurably and equitably driving homelessness toward zero is establishing a definition of success grounded in reductions, and a simple, transparent, and objective standard for measuring progress toward that aim. Ensuring that grants and contracts clearly establish accountability for, and provide funding in service of, population-level reductions in homelessness is a powerful way to support that alignment. It also ensures that we can improve the impact of existing resources and programs to achieve measurable, sustainable reductions in homelessness, even as we work to simultaneously increase federal housing supply and rental subsidy resources.
- Federal grants and contracts for homelessness programs should explicitly define success as reducing the number of people experiencing homelessness.
- VA Medical Centers and Public Housing Authorities should utilize relevant waivers and program flexibility provisions, including increasing the VASH payment rate to the full allowable amount and ensuring dedicated staff time to the HUD VASH program to improve the utilization rate of these vouchers.
- Every state should adopt homelessness reduction goals and leverage existing public health, social service, and housing funding, guided by quality data.
2. Collect and use comprehensive, high quality, person-level data
You can’t solve a problem that you can’t see, and homelessness is a problem that changes night over night, from person to person. Communities in Built for Zero have demonstrated that having access to up-to-date, person-centered information is critical for making progress on reducing overall homelessness.
However, many communities struggle to access current, person-specific data on the number of people experiencing homelessness and those individuals’ barriers to housing.
Communities rely on a tool called a Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), which is mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Congress and HUD had intended to ensure that Continuums of Care can use quality data to improve system outcomes and increase accountability for results. While this tool effectively measures programmatic compliance for federally funded programs, it fails to create access to the comprehensive, updated, person-level data needed to connect individuals with housing and equitably reduce homelessness.
As a result, most Continuums of Care, localities, and states cannot currently use HMIS to answer critical management and policy questions, or understand the true dimensions and dynamics of homelessness in their communities. They often cannot understand whether the number of people experiencing homelessness is increasing or decreasing month over month, and whether there is equitable access to homeless services and housing resources. Without this information, communities struggle to understand which strategies are driving reductions in homelessness and cannot make the most high impact and evidence-based decisions on the use of federal resources.
Communities across Built for Zero have demonstrated there are proven pathways for improving access to the information they need.
- VA Medical Centers should collect quality, by-name, comprehensive data on a monthly basis on every Veteran experiencing homelessness.
- Congress should require all Homelessness Management Information System (HMIS) vendors receiving federal dollars to provide Continuums of Care with the on-demand, authorized ability to retrieve, modify, copy, or move data from HMIS without incurring additional fees.
- HMIS vendors should provide Continuums of Care with the capability to generate a standard monthly report of all currently active individuals experiencing homelessness to drive interagency collaboration and population-level reductions. Currently, HMIS software vendors have created structural and financial barriers that keep Continuums of Care from being able to query their HMIS databases to obtain this information at regular intervals.
- Federal grants and contracts for homelessness programming should incentivize Continuums of Care to increase coverage of all people experiencing homelessness within HMIS through additional funding or points on application scoring criteria.
- States should establish data-sharing agreements and interoperability standards between HMIS and health information systems.
3. Preserve and increase the supply of deeply affordable housing
The United States faces a critical problem of inadequate and unaffordable housing units that disproportionately affects low-income families, people of color, and individuals experiencing homelessness. Over 8 million extremely low-income households spend more than 50% of their income on housing, putting them at a high risk of housing instability and homelessness. The country currently lacks 7.3 million available and affordable housing units.
- Cities and states should remove exclusionary zoning laws and land use regulations that have played key roles in limiting the development of new housing.
- Congress should include in any tax extenders package a 50% basis boost for developments serving extremely low-income households in at least 20% of the apartments. Currently, the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) often fails to serve extremely low-income households and those experiencing homelessness. By expanding the current basis boost from 30% to 50%, Congress can allow LIHTC to better target extremely low-income tenants at rents that are affordable to them.
- Congress should expand investments in Section 515 and the Multifamily Housing Preservation and Revitalization Program (MPR) and permanently authorize MPR to preserve affordable homes in rural America.
- Congress should decouple Section 521 Rural Rental Assistance from the requirement that a property must have a USDA mortgage to receive assistance, and allow low-income tenants to continue to receive rental assistance after the property’s Section 515 mortgage matures.
4. Ensure equitable access to affordable housing
Eligibility criteria, racism, and other barriers prevent people who have experienced homelessness from accessing and remaining in available housing units. The lack of access to affordable housing perpetuates inequality, hinders social and economic mobility, and increases the risk of homelessness.
- Congress should expand HUD and USDA rental assistance programs to increase coverage of eligible households and reduce wait times. Despite a proven track record, federal housing programs have been chronically underfunded. Today, just one in four families eligible for federal housing assistance get the help they need, and wait times for housing average close to two and a half years (28 months) nationally.
- Congress and state legislatures should remove criminal background and credit history from tenant eligibility criteria, including voucher programs.
- HUD should amend the code of federal regulations to remove at the federal level the minimum rent requirement for voucher holders.
- Congress should pass a national source of income anti-discrimination law to expand the ability of families to use vouchers and other federal rental assistance programs by treating federal rental assistance as a lawful source of income subject to fair housing protections.
- States and localities should enact good cause eviction and right to counsel laws to prevent evictions and promote housing stability by limiting the causes for which a landlord can evict a tenant or refuse to renew a tenant’s lease when the tenant is not at fault or in violation of any law.