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Lawmakers pitch rental assistance to improve students’ education

Delegate Carrie Coyner listens on the floor
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Del. Carrie Coyner, R–Chesterfield, listens on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024 at the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond

The proposed pilot program would subsidize 5,000 families’ rent for two years.

Two Virginia lawmakers submitted an amendment to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s proposed budget that would provide monthly rental assistance to 5,000 families with children through June 2026.

The proposal, sponsored by Del. Carrie Coyner (R–Chesterfield) and state Sen. Ghazala Hashmi (D–Henrico), would set aside $100 million over the next two fiscal years, beginning July 1, to help cover rent for 5,000 families with low incomes. At a press conference last week, Coyner pitched the pilot program as a way to improve students’ learning outcomes.

“So many Virginia families are struggling under the burden of high housing costs,” Coyner said. “The ensuing housing instability has a direct impact on academic achievement and has a direct impact on mental health.”

That sentiment was echoed by Brian Koziol, executive director of the Virginia Housing Alliance, who said he’s seen the effects of that instability in his kids’ classes.

“Teachers will have 25 students at the beginning of the year. By the end of that school year, it is an entirely different 25 children,” Koziol said. “So, the burden that we're placing on these young children in their most formative years is really, truly unfathomable.”

According to Jeffrey Lubell, a principal associate for housing and asset building at Abt Associates, housing affects children in a number of ways, including through its location, quality, affordability and stability.

While Lubell said all of these components are important to address, kids who have to move often struggle academically, even if they don’t have to change schools.

“Just having to be in a new place and getting used to surroundings, it can make you feel insecure, right?” Lubell said. “Children thrive when they have stability.”

Lubell oversaw a 2011 research brief that looked at several studies of how moving affects children. He noted the effect depends on the type of move, starting with the example of a student whose parents made a plan to move prior to the school year to access a school with more resources.

“There may be a little bit of a learning curve associated with getting used to the school environment, but you're starting at the beginning of the school year, you plan to be there a long time, you're in a better school. That's probably a net positive thing for the child,” he said. “I contrast that with somebody who moves four times in the same period of time, some moves occur during ... school, they're not planned moves … that may lead to, obviously, a lot of problems with their schooling.”

One study of Chicago sixth graders that Lubell’s team looked at found that students who’d moved at least four times in the previous six years were about one grade level behind their peers who had not. Another study in Michigan found students who moved unexpectedly were more likely than others to be chronically absent.

Who could access the program?

To qualify for the program, families would have to be what federal officials classify as either “very-low” or “extremely low” income, meaning they must make 50% or less of the Area Median Income where they live. In Richmond and surrounding areas, that’s $53,300 or less for a family of four. The program is also limited to families with at least one child age 16 or younger.

Families that receive assistance would be asked to contribute no more than 30% of their income to housing costs. According to an early estimate from the Virginia Poverty Law Center, one of the organizations supporting the proposal, families would receive about $750 per month in rental assistance on average. That subsidy would be paid directly to the landlord, and the specific subsidy would differ from family to family depending on income and rent.

While the program is only a two-year pilot, Koziol said it would be a long-overdue investment by the state into ensuring housing affordability.

“One-hundred million dollars may sound like a lot, and it is, but it's a small investment in comparison to Virginia's statewide budget,” he said. “We calculated that only two-thirds of 1% of the general funds in the state budget in this current fiscal year go to affordable housing — despite it being on the tips of, I think, everyone's tongue.”

Still, the pilot would cover only about 1% of what’s needed to relieve the housing cost burden from all very-low income households in Virginia. According to a 2021 study from the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, which conducts research for the General Assembly, it would cost about $5 billion each year (roughly 6% of the state budget) to ensure that no very-low income household pays more than 30% of their income on housing. That includes about $3 billion in rental subsidies.

$100 million may sound like a lot, and it is, but it's a small investment in comparison to Virginia's statewide budget.
Brian Koziol

The pilot would supplement the federal Housing Choice Voucher program, which receives far less funding from Congress than is needed to cover all eligible households. In Virginia, only about 25% of voucher-eligible households actually receive them, according to a study published in 2022 by the state Department of Housing and Community Development.

That results in long waitlists for vouchers across the state, with an average wait time of nearly three years, according to JLARC. In some parts of the state, the waitlist for vouchers hasn’t been opened to new applicants in more than a decade.

Patrick McCloud, chief executive officer of the Virginia Apartment and Management Association, said he’s hopeful that while providing assistance to more families, the state can design a more streamlined program than the federal vouchers.

“One of the constant challenges we have faced as housing providers is navigating the bureaucracy behind the federal Housing Choice Voucher program,” he said. “ This is a chance for Virginia to do it the right way, to focus on outcomes for those families … so that both the resident is the customer and the housing provider has an efficient operation.”

If the pilot is approved, DHCD would be required to submit a report to the General Assembly on its effectiveness by Nov. 30, 2025.

Neither the Virginia House of Delegates nor Senate has voted on the budget proposal yet, so the pilot program still has several legislative hurdles to clear. A similar proposal failed to make it out of committee in either chamber last year, though Virginia’s 2023 elections changed the makeup of both bodies.

Corrected: February 1, 2024 at 6:35 PM EST
A previous version of this article misspelled Jeffrey Lubell's name.
Connor Scribner is the assistant news editor at VPM News and also reports on the housing market and public housing.