Why 2015 Marks a Shift in Houston's Homelessness Strategy
2015 has been a big year for eradicating homelessness in Houston. Veteran homelessness is effectively eliminated and permanent supportive housing in the pipeline will bring the city to its goal of serving our entire chronic homeless population. That’s wonderful news both from a humanitarian and a taxpayer perspective, and it’ll signal a shift in multifamily projects funded by the city in 2016 and beyond.
The City of Houston Housing and Community Development Department moved to a “housing first” model to tackle homelessness in 2011, and set the goal to build, renovate or convert 2,500 units of permanent supportive housing. The method focuses on getting people into permanent housing (not shelters) and then providing services to get them sober and/or healthy. Director Neal Rackleff (pictured with the team spearheading homelessness initiatives, Melody Barr and Susan Speer) tells us the city has completed or started 2,510 units since. That includes 12 new construction projects totaling 766 units and $44M of funding from HCDD.
The most recent delivery is Temenos Place II, which just opened last Thursday at 2200 Jefferson. (Here’s Neal at the grand opening.) Neal says it was a particularly challenging deal that took over three years because an unusually large number of players were involved in its funding. His department pumped $4.5M into the 80-unit development, which also got funding from the Temenos Community Development Corp nonprofit, an affordable housing program grant from FHLB Dallas and Amegy Bank, HUD and Harris County Community Services Department.
Neal’s also really enjoyed working with New Hope Housing; over the past eight years, HCD has put $30M into its developments, and NHH at Rittenhouse (pictured) is one of his favorite permanent supportive housing projects. New Hope’s projects epitomize something that Houston does differently than most “housing first” cities—focus on architectural excellence. Neal says New Hope and other Houston affordable housing developers build communities that are “practical cathedrals"— beautiful and yet built/managed economically and prudently. He says Houston’s model lowers NIMBY pressure, benefits surrounding property values, increases tax revenues, and elevates the people who live there.
The outcome: Houston has housed 2,744 people in the last four years, chronic homelessness (people homeless for longer than a year or more than three times in the last four years) is down 70%, and overall homelessness has dropped 50%. Neal’s most excited about our progress with veterans—Houston was recognized this year by President Obama as one of two large cities that have virtually eradicated veteran homelessness. (Pictured is that recognition ceremony.) 3,917 homeless vets have been housed in the last four years, and there are homes available for more. HCD’s funding goes beyond just apartments—it put $1.3M into the land acquisition for SEARCH’s new HQ because the org serves the homeless.
Neal (who isn't skateboarding as much these days because of an injury) believes these 2,500 units should sustain the system for the foreseeable future. The homelessness initiative has redirected resources from traditional affordable housing, and Neal tells us now the city can put money back to properties serving people at/below 60% of median income (in Houston, that’s $29k annual salary). He’d like to explore building workforce housing for people at 120% of median income and below, especially in the CBD and Midtown, where even above-average income Houstonians have gotten priced out. He’d like to incentivize mixed-income, affordable, workforce and market-rate housing going forward, but he’ll be getting a new boss in about a month and will have to see what the new mayor’s priorities are.