group of researchers at the Department of Housing and Urban Development have been quietly developing an idea that could fundamentally upend the nearly 50-year-old housing voucher program, which helps more than 2 million low-income families afford apartments in the private rental market every year.

The idea is relatively simple: What if, instead of traditional housing vouchers laden with convoluted red tape that landlords notoriously hate, low-income tenants could pay their rent with cash? Would that make it easier for tenants to find housing or move into better neighborhoods? Could that even save the government money by streamlining the aid?

Right now, due to funding constraints, only a quarter of those eligible for housing choice vouchers (formerly known as Section 8 vouchers) ever receive one. But if you are in that lucky 25 percent and are awarded a voucher, you might not be able to use it. The program is so cumbersome that only around 60 percent of beneficiaries can find a landlord willing to rent to them.

This isn’t the first time the federal government has explored questions around cash rental assistance: In the early 1970s, Congress successfully piloted a program to 14,000 families across 12 cities. That research, however, was largely forgotten about in the following decades. It wasn’t until recently, when some HUD employees stumbled upon old reports buried on an agency bookshelf, that policymakers realized the cash rental assistance model might be more valuable for modern times.

They are building on that older research as well as more recent developments: an ongoing related study in Philadelphia, the Covid-19 experiments with new kinds of cash assistance (including not just housing aid but also stimulus checkschild tax credits, and food subsidies), and dozens of encouraging guaranteed income pilots that have cropped up over the last few years. HUD officials now say it’s time to give federal cash aid a closer look.

The leaders behind this effort held their first official meetings last week, pitching philanthropic groups on the idea and asking for their financial backing. While the two virtual sessions were closed to the press, a HUD official told me “30 to 40 interested funders” came to their Tuesday pitch, and “dozens more” to their Thursday one. The team is convening a third meeting with nonprofits and housing researchers on September 19.

Though the HUD appointees who led the meetings — Brian McCabe and Aaron Shroyer — are framing the idea as a modest research project, officials involved are clear-eyed on where such a study could ultimately go. If, for example, a rigorously designed experiment provides new evidence for changing how vouchers are administered, that could have major implications for the $30 billion annual program and all the low-income families it serves. A small pilot could lead to a larger demonstration study, which could, officials say, then lead to pitching Congress on permanent change.

The wheels of federal policy reform move slowly: It might be 10 years until HUD makes any sort of long-term ask of Congress. But the wheels are turning now, in a way they never have before, to make the idea of cash aid a reality.

Read the full article about replacing housing vouchers by Rachel M. Cohen at Vox.