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Dwindling Affordable Housing Options Could Set Houston Back On Homelessness

Fewer than 2,000 affordable housing units could all but eradicate homelessness in Houston, according to one advocacy group, but getting there will be far from easy given rising rents and shrinking affordable housing stock in Harris County.


Between 2018 and 2019, the county lost 20,000 multifamily units that charge less than $800 monthly in rent, a November report from Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research states.

The vast majority of affordable housing in Houston is unsubsidized rentals, or units that don't receive funds from programs like Low-Income Housing Tax Credits or Section 8. Houston unsubsidized units are typically in southwest-area Houston, in older, less amenitized buildings that may have maintenance problems or are graded poorly by the Harris County Appraisal District, according to the report. Those grades track overall structures, not individual units, and the Kinder Institute says little is known about individual unit conditions.

Over half of the 55,000 subsidized affordable units in the Houston area may expire in the next 20 years should landlords not renew their terms. 

For those that are completely unhoused, Houston lacks 1,900 permanent affordable housing units that could significantly reduce homelessness among individuals and families in the area, according to the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County CEO Mike Nichols

“To say that a lack of affordable housing contributes to homelessness would seem to be stating the obvious: If people can’t afford housing where they live, they fall into homelessness,” Nichols said in a Nov. 29 editorial. “But for those who don’t work on the issue, it may be less obvious that a lack of affordable housing also presents a barrier for the agencies seeking to help people get out of homelessness.”

Nichols said that the organization is speaking with Houston-area leaders to see how they can use Covid-19 relief funds, such as the American Rescue Plan, for new infrastructure.

Houston ranks poorly nationally when it comes to homes for low-income families: 19 homes for every 100 families searching that are at or below the poverty line, per March data from the National Low Income Housing Coalition. The vast majority of families looking for this housing are people of color, the report stated, adding that among major metropolitan areas, only Las Vegas has fewer homes for low-income families. 

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development named Houston a “Priority Community” in 2012 due to its high homeless population, Nichols said. Though Nichols cites his organization’s efforts to tackle both veteran and overall homelessness, housing 24,000 people in the past decade, the Kinder Institute report calls for further work to create a systemic approach to help landlords tap into affordable housing funding.

"A creative stacking of funding sources and strategies is called for,” the report said. “Authorities will need to consider how they can leverage public-private partnerships, expand tax increment financing and tap into federal programs to direct housing dollars to preservation efforts.”

Slim margins, local pushback and wavering political support have created challenges for those Houston developers who do want to build more affordable housing units. The Houston City Council and the city of Houston have approved or progressed on several developments this year, however, including projects in Greenspoint and Sharpstown.