Subsidized Housing — for whom?

I saw a tweet on February 1 that made my jaw drop:

It seemed plausible to me, and I was outraged. Based on the number of retweets and favorites, quite a few others felt similarly. But I decided to dig a little deeper. Is this true? Is the math right?

The “section 8” program (or “housing choice voucher program” as it is now known) is administered by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which will soon be led by Ben Carson (who has no experience in the industry, but that’s a post for another day). According to HUD’s FY 2017 budget proposal, the voucher program assists 2.2 million low-income families at an annual cost of $20.854 billion. That amount includes funds for administrative costs and support functions (like research and technical assistance) as well as targeted programs (like vouchers for homeless families). HUD estimates that simply continuing to make payments for currently-assisted families would cost $18.447 billion. That means the average cost of a voucher, per month, per family, is roughly $699 (low estimate) to $790 (high estimate including support functions).

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison cite analysis from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities and estimate that, in Wisconsin, the average cost per voucher, per year is $4,738 (roughly $400 per month). Local housing market factors have a substantial impact on voucher costs, and Wisconsin has less expensive housing than many other states. I think that $750 per month, per family, is a reasonable back-of-the-envelope estimate of the cost of a housing choice voucher nationwide. The cost to support 30,000 families for one month would therefore be $22.5 million.

So how much are we spending for Melania Trump to continue living in her gilded New York City penthouse? Turns out, that’s much harder to determine. (Side note: isn’t it ironic, and sad, that it’s so easy to learn about the finances of government programs but so hard to find out anything about the finances of the Trump family? I digress…) The most commonly cited analysis is a CNN Money article quoting New York Police Department officials who estimated the cost of protecting the Trump family in NYC at $1 million per day. But it’s important to recognize that this situation is unprecedented and that $1 million per day figure is just an estimate. Furthermore, that estimate was for the transition period between the election and inauguration. It is not clear whether that cost will rise or fall now that President Trump is spending most of his time at the White House. But if we take the $1 million per day estimate at face value, then the conclusion is even more remarkable than Tracy Platt’s tweet suggested. The cost of protecting the Trumps in New York City is equivalent to providing a housing choice voucher for 40,000 families.

As I was trying to figure out the cost of the First Lady’s decision to stay in New York, a fortuitous story broke: Eric Trump’s business trip to Uruguay cost taxpayers $97,830 in hotel bills alone. Now there’s a concrete figure. For $97,830, the government could have provided a housing choice voucher for 130 families for a month. Instead we used it to protect Eric Trump for one weekend of doing business abroad.

Of course, I do think that the First Lady and the Trump children deserve to have publicly funded security. But at what cost? I also appreciate that their new positions will sometimes feel like an inconvenience. For Mrs. Trump, living in the White House, under constant public scrutiny, with her young son, sounds pretty unpleasant. For Eric and Donald Jr., limiting costly business travel will deprive them of opportunities for beach-front dining with potential business partners. Poor guys! And a similar situation applies to the business interests of the President himself. Ethics experts agree that President Trump’s “blind trust” is wholly inadequate. But Trump’s representatives complain that he would suffer losses if forced to liquidate his assets. Maybe he should have thought about that before he ran for President?

Of course, President Trump claims that he is going to do great things — fantastic things! — for the economy. Perhaps the Trump family should just dump all their money in a Dow Jones index fund, take a four-year vacation to the security of Mar-a-Lago, and watch their money grow!

Taxpayers and thousands of low-income section 8 families would applaud their “sacrifice.”