The COVID-19 pandemic increased the urgency to respond to the nation’s homelessness crisis. At the start of the pandemic, an estimated 578,000 people were experiencing homelessness across the United States on a given night, and faced heightened risks of severe illness and death from the disease.1,2 As part of the broader pandemic response focused on homelessness,3 the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 appropriated funding for 70,000 Emergency Housing Vouchers (EHVs) to subsidize housing for people experiencing or at imminent risk of homelessness.
The size and scope of this deployment of EHVs created an unprecedented opportunity to house a significant share of people at risk of or currently experiencing homelessness. However, research has highlighted challenges to the program’s rollout, which occurred amid pandemic-related disruptions and the deployment of several other pandemic response programs.4 Surveys of Continuums of Care (CoCs) about six months after the program’s launch found that only about half of the communities had actually started leasing housing with EHVs,5 and as of February 2023, only two-thirds of EHVs had been successfully leased up. Tapping into the unused potential of these tenant-based vouchers is critical; research has shown that long-term housing subsidies are effective in helping people exit homelessness and stay housed.6
This commentary looks at the successes and challenges for the EHV program almost two years since the program’s launch. We begin by describing the EHV program, and present data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) EHV Data Dashboard, as of February 21, 2023.7 We then take a closer look at the key challenges to making sure awarded EHVs are used in California, and the strategies that some jurisdictions have employed to overcome these challenges. These findings come from 18 interviews with staff members at 10 housing authorities, six local homelessness systems (including interviews with staff at county departments and CoC lead agencies), and two direct service providers across California conducted in 2022. Our findings highlight ongoing challenges of using EHVs in tighter housing markets, but also point to important strategies that can help to ensure that EHVs and other voucher programs are successfully leased up and lead to more people experiencing homelessness finding safe, stable housing.