One in four: America’s housing assistance lottery

By Erika Poethig :: May 28th, 2014


Housing policy has the ability to exacerbate or mitigate extreme income inequality in American cities. Where incomes are growing and inequality is increasing, cities like New York and San Francisco, rising prices and rents can displace poor families. But affordable housing secures a place for low-income people in communities with growing tax bases and improved services. Having access to better schools, good transportation networks, recreational facilities, and other community services enables families to improve their quality of life and provide greater opportunities for their children.

Unfortunately, affordable housing is a scarce resource in many cities. America’s housing policy has never fully met the demand for affordable rental housing, and the number of households served by federal rental assistance has essentially plateaued. Today, only 24 percent of the 19 million eligible households receive assistance—basically, only one in four households wins the housing assistance lottery.

Who are those winners? How great is the need? What happens to those who don’t win? Our new whiteboard animation answers these questions.

The assistance lottery isn’t the only housing challenge that low-income families face. Across the country, only 3.2 million housing units are available at rents that are affordable for more than 11 million extremely low-income households. This leaves 8 million households—households earning 30 percent or less of the area’s median income, which ranges from $7,450 to $33,300, — spending a large portion of their income on rent, living in substandard housing, or both.

With such a large rent burden, these households can’t afford to pay for food, transportation to work or school, prescriptions, education or training, and other needs. Families with affordable housing have greater access to a chain of benefits, from better health to more resources for education. For example, families with affordable housing spend $151 more on food a month than families with severe housing burdens. Children who receive inadequate nutrition are sick more often, suffer growth and developmental impairments, and have lower educational achievement. From the very start, these children have more limited opportunities.

A growing body of research demonstrates that housing serves as a platform to connect families to services to improve health, education, and economic outcomes. As we learn more about the importance of housing as a platform for health, safety, and achievement, it is clear that greater rental assistance is needed at the local, state, and federal levels. If we want to reduce inequality, we can’t have children’s futures continue to be determined by the housing assistance lottery.

Look for more ideas about the role of housing assistance on our Housing Assistance Matters page.

The Assisted Housing Initiative is a project of the Urban Institute, made possible by support from Housing Authority Insurance, Inc. (HAI, Inc.), to provide fact-based analysis about public and assisted housing. The Urban Institute is a non-profit, nonpartisan research organization and retains independent and exclusive control over substance and quality of any Assisted Housing Initiative products. The views expressed in this and other Assisted Housing Initiative commentaries are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute or HAI, Inc.


  1. MBG  ::  7:25 pm on May 28th, 2014:

    Link to report is broken.

  2. Surabhi Dabir  ::  11:39 pm on May 28th, 2014:

    Nicely done!

  3. Friday news roundup 5/30/14 | Nan McKay and Associates  ::  1:19 pm on May 30th, 2014:

    [...] MetroTrends: One in four: America’s housing assistance lottery [...]

  4. Nene  ::  12:12 pm on June 3rd, 2014:

    I believe that every human being should be able to live for free. God doesn’t charge us to be created so why should be let man charge us to live. This crisis will get worse before it gets better. The rich is getting richer and the poor is getting poorer.

    This is a wonderful video and you basically broke down the whole economics of housing isolation and discrimination. I think God will make everything right in a minute.

    I noticed that the government is doing away with affordable housing but yet they are building expensive condos and lofts everywhere. Gentrification is causing the cost of living to rise in certain places as well.

  5. Nene  ::  12:14 pm on June 3rd, 2014:

    Everyone deserves to be able to afford decent, clean, up to code and affordable housing.

  6. More than half of American households make sacrifices to afford housing  ::  12:29 pm on June 3rd, 2014:

    [...] week, Urban released a whiteboard video (embedded below) that explores the trade-offs renter households make when they pay too much of [...]

  7. Susan Woodward  ::  2:24 pm on June 5th, 2014:

    Best statistic here is that disabled gets 23% and elderly gets 32% of housing assistance. Surely other variables are important — communities resist subsidized housing because they believe that the subsidized residents bring trouble. This is less so with elderly people, that’s why they are over-represented. What other factors? Must be something going on with LIHTC allocations, but what?

  8. John Reeder  ::  10:59 am on June 6th, 2014:

    Here in Arlington VA, a wealthy suburb of Washington, DC, Va Tech Center for Housing Research data data indicate that about 14,000 households need affordable rental housing; only about 6,500 live in subsidized rental housing. So even in a community with average family income of $107,000, about 20 percent of households need rental assistance and only a third actually receive help.

  9. America’s Housing Assistance Lottery  ::  7:35 am on June 10th, 2014:

    [...] Urban Institute has a new short video that addresses the following [...]

  10. Vikki Russell  ::  5:49 pm on June 11th, 2014:

    Thank you for sending me this newsletter. I should watch your attached video, and learn more about your organization. Pass your door on Connecticut Avenue, N.W. quite often. Look forward to learning more about the “Housing Lottery” via your link. It would be great to find a way to afford to stay in D.C. Sincerely, Vikki Russell

  11. Dodging the Hard Questions about Homelessness | CAPITAL & MAIN  ::  12:46 pm on July 4th, 2014:

    [...] housing received it, leading advocates to describe the process of obtaining assistance as a “lottery” [...]

  12. Vanguard’s Amazing Food Donation — and our Housing Help Challenge « The Crisis Ministry of Mercer County  ::  9:29 am on July 25th, 2014:

    [...] Urban Institute recently released a thought-provoking video about housing cost burden and some of the surprising causes of homelessness in the United States. [...]

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  14. What happens to families on housing assistance when the assistance goes away? – The Washington Post  ::  5:17 pm on September 22nd, 2014:

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  15. Tens of Thousands Apply for Scarce Housing Vouchers | The Daily Float  ::  9:31 am on November 6th, 2014:

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  16. Tens of Thousands Apply for Scarce Housing Vouchers | Tens of Thousands Apply for Scarce Housing Vouchers | Social Dashboard  ::  9:40 am on November 6th, 2014:

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  17. Tens of Thousands Apply for Scarce Housing Vouchers | Pinoria News  ::  10:48 am on November 6th, 2014:

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