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Houston’s Lack Of Affordable Housing Is Contributing To Its Unusually High Eviction Rate

In the decade prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Houston’s Harris County reported one of the highest eviction rates in the country. Housing experts say the unusually high eviction rate is a reflection of just how little affordable housing there is across the metro.

The barriers to successfully building affordable housing are significant, and without major changes, the number of evictions will likely only increase, as more households succumb to financial distress caused by the pandemic.

A new federal administration in January, coupled with the Texas Legislature convening during the same month, may offer an opportunity for lawmakers to introduce measures that can help fund more affordable housing and create policies to address systemic problems that lead to evictions in the first place.

“Evictions cannot and should not be separated from the larger impact that they have on the evicted households, the broader housing system and society at large,” Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research Deputy Director Kyle Shelton said.

“The costs of stabilizing households, whether through rental assistance or other ways to alleviate debts/support households, will pale in comparison to the years of instability and economic impacts of not acting to support the households most in need of support.”

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Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Harris County evicted more households than nearly any other U.S. city, ranked only behind New York City’s five counties combined, according to an analysis of Eviction Lab data by the Kinder Institute.

Harris County evicted 17,749 households, or 48.49 families per day, in 2016, according to Eviction Lab’s last available data. That resulted in an eviction rate of 2.46%, compared to 2.17% Texas-wide and 2.37% across the U.S. Those figures only reflect fully executed evictions. Harris County’s eviction filing rate was 4.91% in 2016, meaning that about five of every 100 renter homes faced eviction proceedings.

The unusually high eviction rate in Harris County prior to 2020 can be attributed to several factors: a major shortage of affordable housing, the rising cost of living, stagnant wages and state laws that tend to favor landlords rather than tenants all play a role.

In the wake of the pandemic, Houston’s low-income renters are facing even tougher headwinds. Though a combination of federal stimulus funds and eviction moratoriums has helped to keep people housed over the past nine months, a new federal aid package continues to stall, heightening the risk of snowballing evictions in the new year.

Households with an extreme cost burden, which is defined as paying 50% or more of their income on rent, are likely to be at the most immediate risk of eviction. That amounts to about 164,000 households, or 23% of renter households in Harris County, according to the Kinder Institute.

It’s no coincidence that Houston has such a high eviction rate — the city is woefully lacking in affordable housing options, pushing low-income renters to potentially lease space beyond what they can reasonably afford.

Even before the pandemic, Houston ranked fifth in the nation and first in Texas for having the most severe affordable housing shortage. The city has 19 affordable housing units for every 100 households in need, or about an 80% deficit, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

There were 91,892 active applications for the Houston Housing Authority’s Public Housing Waiting List in September. That fell to 76,263 applications in October, as two public housing properties were converted to project-based voucher assistance, authorized under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Rental Assistance Demonstration program.

Texas Housers Southeast Texas Director Zoe Middleton said Harris County’s high eviction rate is a reflection of just how undersupplied Houston is from an affordable housing standpoint.

“You have people that are really stretching themselves financially to live in certain housing,” Middleton said. “And then, you don't have a housing market that is producing housing at the right income level.”

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ITEX Group President Chris Akbari

Affordable housing is a challenging asset type for developers to build. A combination of slim margins, pushback from the local community and inconsistent political support means developers and city officials in Houston often face a steep uphill battle in getting projects off the ground.

In comparison, Houston has seen a boom in Class-A multifamily construction over the last five years, particularly within the urban core. Subsequently, the city has become oversupplied in luxury apartments. The pandemic and energy downturn have also affected multifamily occupancy this year in dense urban areas.

Middleton noted that the number of active applications on HHA’s Public Housing Waiting List does not account for the thousands of undocumented immigrants living in Houston, who are also desperately in need of affordable housing but are unable to apply.

ITEX Group President Chris Akbari said the stock of affordable housing for extremely low-income tenants who are receiving some kind of rent-based assistance is extremely oversubscribed, just because there isn’t enough supply to meet demand.

“There is not enough assistance programs to help those that are in need. And then, of course, it's further perpetuated by this pandemic,” Akbari said.

“In the Houston region, there's every year an allocation of approximately $10M in low-income housing tax credits, which is about $100M of total cash. And for a major city like the city of Houston, that in itself is just not nearly enough.”

Houston-based ITEX Group operates 56 multifamily properties across Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and Colorado, totaling 8,000 units. About 70% are affordable workforce housing and receive some kind of subsidy or tax credit from the federal government. The company has four affordable housing complexes in Houston.

Akbari said the majority of tenants in ITEX Group’s affordable housing complexes are people of color. Across the company’s entire portfolio, the rent delinquency rate is only about 10% right now, and most people are trying to figure out a solution to pay the back rent they owe, he said.

In general, households in need of affordable housing are people of color. Harris County has 45 ZIP codes that are economically distressed, according to the Distressed Communities Index tool developed by Economic Innovation Group. An analysis of that data by the Kinder Institute found that eight of the 45 distressed ZIP codes in Houston are majority-Black and 28 are majority-Hispanic. No majority-White ZIP codes in Houston or Harris County are distressed, based on the EIG index. 

The areas that have seen the most eviction cases filed in 2020 also fall within those economically distressed areas. As of Nov. 23, 1,195 eviction cases have been filed against households in Greenspoint this year, the most of any Houston-area neighborhood, according to data science consulting firm January Advisors. The population of Greenspoint is 93.1% Hispanic, according to EIG’s findings for the neighborhood’s ZIP code, 77037.

Judge Jeremy Brown is the justice of the peace for Harris County Precinct 7, Place 1. Brown said the vast majority of tenants who appear in his court for eviction cases are Black and fall into the cost-burdened, low-income category.

“People of color, Black and Brown, but disproportionately low-income Black and Brown folks, come to the court, and that [was] before COVID,” Brown said.

Shelton said evictions are just one item on a long list of disproportionate inequities facing Black and Brown households, and the pandemic has only amplified those challenges.

“[Eviction] impacts schools, it impacts health care, it impacts employers and it impacts all of these different entities who could be connected to that single household and have to deal with the impacts of the consequences of that eviction,” Shelton said.

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The Texas State Capitol building in Austin.

There may be opportunities to address Houston’s affordable housing shortage next year, when the 87th Texas Legislature convenes in January.

Akbari said there are a number of things that the Texas Legislature could potentially look at, including a state housing tax credit and more funding for the State Housing Trust Fund, which has had limited funding for the past several years. 

Middleton said she has been trying to evangelize the development of a local housing trust fund for just the city of Houston, which could act as a flexible source of funds to draw from or supplement existing HUD-funded projects. 

“It's a very common tactic nationwide, in cities that recognize they have an affordable housing problem,” Middleton said.

Another helpful change would be to remove some of the barriers that require local and state representative approvals for affordable housing developments, according to Akbari. Those requirements are pushing developments into areas where the land can be more expensive.

“Because the land costs a lot more, it limits the amount of units that you can build, and it ultimately reduces the new supply coming online. So I think those are the types of things that the state legislature could help with in 2021,” Akbari said.

Shelton said rental assistance programs at the local level have played a critical role in keeping people housed this year. In light of an incoming administration in Washington, D.C., and the upcoming session of the Texas Legislature, it could be a good opportunity for local lawmakers to make meaningful changes and “shore up” the housing system. That could involve programs for deferrals, or systems that prioritize keeping people housed, even after the pandemic.

“Evictions were a crisis before COVID. Houston had some of the highest eviction rates in the country well before COVID. So even after we get through all of this, it doesn't mean evictions are magically going away,” Shelton said.