Low-income residents unable to afford surplus housing

GlobeSt.com, September 29, 2017                                                                         

While many displaced Houstonians have found temporary homes thanks to the housing glut, the vast majority of these units do not qualify as affordable if located in luxury high-rise buildings, says Lawler in this EXCLUSIVE.

The aftermath of Harvey has had a significant impact on Houston’s housing market and there is a growing misconception that the city is well positioned to deal with displaced residents due to the former housing glut. However, this fails to take low-income Houstonians into account, according to affordable housing experts.

According to FEMA data, low-income families in Houston were disproportionately affected by Harvey. Households earning less than $25,000 annually made up the largest group of residents likely affected by flooding and households earning between $25,00 and $49,999 ranked as the second largest group. The loss of naturally occurring affordable housing raises new concerns for these residents, as they face displacement and higher housing costs.

In this exclusive, Mary Lawler, executive director of Avenue Community Development Corporation in Houston, recently discussed the city’s affordability crisis and the critical steps it must take to protect low-income families on the path to recovery.

GlobeSt.com: How has Harvey exacerbated the loss of affordable housing?

Lawler: Prior to Harvey, there was already a lack of quality affordable housing in Houston, specifically in the city’s highly sought after Inner Loop where residents enjoy easy access to jobs, public transit and other amenities. However, apartment rates and housing costs have been significantly increasing over the past few years, making it difficult for more Houstonians to live and work in and around the city’s urban core. According to recent estimates, 190,000 households in the city were experiencing severe housing problems before Harvey, spending more than half of their income on housing or living in substandard housing conditions. While families at every income level experienced destruction from Harvey, FEMA data has shown that the storm disproportionately affected low-income residents.

Of the 135,000 homes affected by Harvey, approximately 45% of those are in households with a combined annual income of less than $50,000. These households have fewer financial resources to navigate the recovery process and now face a housing market where few affordable options remain. The expected rise in rents after Harvey creates cause for concern among lower income residents. Properties that remained dry through the devastating floods will likely see prices increase, and the loss of thousands of affordable apartments will place further strain on Houston’s inadequate affordable housing supply.

GlobeSt.com: How has this raised new concerns for these residents, i.e. displacement and housing costs?

Lawler: There has been a general misconception that Houston is well-positioned to meet the needs of displaced residents thanks to the existing glut of apartments that existed prior to Harvey. This is unfortunately not the case. While many displaced Houstonians have found temporary homes thanks to the housing glut, the vast majority of these units do not qualify as affordable. Much of the new construction in Houston is situated in luxury high-rise buildings that were developed at the height of the oil-and-gas boom. These housing costs are simply out of reach for many low- to moderate-income families, including the many who were already living paycheck to paycheck, or lost days or weeks of work due to the storm. Without the preservation and development of quality affordable housing, these families face further displacement and are at an increased risk for homelessness.

There are also concerns for affordable housing conditions after Harvey. Many residents that are faced with few affordable options may be forced to move back into substandard housing that was not properly restored after Harvey, simply because it’s the most affordable option. This can cause significant health issues, especially if the property did not undergo the appropriate remediation process for mold. Displaced low-income families with limited financial resources may also be forced to make concessions when it comes to critical expenses, like food and healthcare costs, in order to keep a roof over their heads.

GlobeSt.com: What are the critical steps the city must take to protect low-income families on the path to recovery?

Lawler: Houston’s escalating housing costs have created a critical need for investment in quality affordable homes. In recent years, there has been an influx of new development in and around Houston’s urban core, which has resulted in the destruction of many older, affordable properties. It’s estimated that the cost of a one-bedroom unit in and around downtown Houston is nearly $1,800, putting housing out of reach for many low-income families. While more must be done at the state and local levels, Avenue is committed to doing all we can to support those affected by Harvey. We are focusing on increasing preservation and production of affordable homes for rent and for sale, as well as identifying homes in need of repair.

GlobeSt.com: What types of lessons learned have you gleaned from working with Avenue?

Lawler: Comprehensive community revitalization efforts by definition are done with the putting the community in the driver’s seat. Building strong, successful communities starts from the ground up. Every neighborhood has a shared voice and a shared vision, so it’s important to engage residents early on in the planning process. Over the last 25 years, we have built, nurtured, supported and guided collaborations that directly impact the needs, concerns and desires of the community. Resident leadership is foundational to our strategy.

GlobeSt.com: What else may be of interest in terms of building affordable housing during this difficult time?

Lawler:  Housing lays the foundation for a family’s stability and success. When a family has access to a stable, affordable home, they have the key building block for all positive health outcomes, from physical and mental health to educational success, holding down a job and creating the foundation for a career. Through our work with educational partners, we have seen firsthand the critical impact that stable housing can have on a family’s well-being, especially children. Without a safe, stable, affordable roof over their heads, many children are put at an increased risk for emotional, behavioral and academic problems. Additionally, educational and after-school programs geared towards children may not be effective due to a lack of stability at home.

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