Thousands Jump At First Chance In 5 Years To Join Houston’s Public Housing Waitlist
Houston Housing Authority’s public housing waitlist reopened Jan. 15 for the first time since it closed amid an affordable housing shortage in 2018.
Interest in the waitlist shows demand has not slackened since, according to HHA CEO and President David Northern Sr.
“It has been tremendous,” Northern told Bisnow last week. “The first day was 6,000 people. And right now it is a little over 30,000 people who have applied. We had lines around the corner of individuals seeking opportunities to be a part of our programs.”
The authority was able to work through some of the demand it got in 2018, placing enough people in public housing apartments, group homes and single-family homes to reopen the list.
But the backlog hadn't cleared, with roughly 9,800 households already awaiting public housing in December, the Houston Chronicle reported. Before 2018, the last time the waitlist had been open was in 2010.
People who sign up for the waitlist before it closes on Feb. 15 will be entered into a lottery to fill units as they become available through natural attrition or new units coming online.
"The lottery system is used to select applicants for the public housing program and is designed to ensure ALL eligible applicants have an equal chance of being selected," according to a statement from HHA leadership.
The statement said selection is based on a combination of the applicant's preferences, bedroom size, household size and income, and is subject to passing a criminal background check.
There is no set time frame for when units will be available, although lines are longest for the newer of the 10 public housing developments working with Houston Housing Authority to pare down the list, the Chronicle reported.
Two of the developments are for residents 62 or older and the waitlist is now offered in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Mandarin, Swahili and Korean in an effort to make the program more accessible.
The opening of the waitlist comes as Houston is becoming less affordable to live in, according to a report from New York-based RentHop. Houston is the sixth least affordable city in the U.S. based on a median 2022 studio rent of $1.5K monthly and an average single’s income of $63.5K per year, per the report, meaning rent would take up about 28% of income.
Housing is considered affordable when a household spends less than 30% of its income on rent or mortgage and cost-burdened when it rises above 30%. Nearly 1 in 2 Houston renters are cost-burdened, according to HHA data.
It’s also harder to buy a home in Houston with the average interest rate on a mortgage hovering around 6%, and just 10% of Houston homes now categorized as affordable, per Point2 data. Meanwhile, Houston ranked fifth in the 50 highest population U.S. metros for most families living in poverty at 11.2%, according to 2021 data.
HHA has a separate housing voucher program, which does not currently have an open waitlist. But it can not meet the need on its own and those in the affordable housing community agree it will take a joint effort to fill the gaps.
The average household is staying in public housing for six years before reaching economic independence, per HHA.
"The need is great. And we're working hard with our community partners to bring affordable housing online," Northern said, adding one major hurdle is public acceptance of affordable housing within neighborhoods. "Our whole goal is to ensure that individuals that live in certain communities can stay there."
CVS Health is one company stepping into the breach with an investment of $16.7M to build 82 new affordable housing units for older adults with Hunt Capital Partners and Texas Inter-Faith Housing. The latter two organizations closed $13.8M in federal low-income housing tax credits and $194K in federal energy-efficiency financing for Westheimer Garden Villas between Fountain View Drive and Chimney Rock Road.
“We are very focused on … health equity and helping close gaps and disparities,” said Stephanie Rogers, CEO of CVS’ Aetna Better Health. “Part of the strategy is addressing housing insecurities and access to affordable and safe housing.”
Health can easily slip down on the priority list when housing is a concern, she said of the property, which will be marketed to people aged 55 and older making 60% or less of the median income in Harris County.
The NHP Foundation this month leased land at 3300 Caroline St. in Midtown where it will build RoseMary's Place, a complex with 149 housing units for chronically homeless people, said Neal Drobenare, senior vice president of NHPF.
The lease was funded by $18.6M from the Houston Housing and Community Development Department, $10.2M from Harris County Community Services Department, $13.5M from the sale of tax credits to Hudson Housing and $2.3M from Magnificat Houses Inc. as a sponsor loan.
Each resident of the new apartment complex will get their own furnished microunit. The common areas will have offices for social service providers so residents can access them without leaving the building, Drobenare said.
Being in a walkable neighborhood and close to transportation will be a plus for residents amid a Houston ordinance change that ended a previous requirement for dedicated parking. Less parking is appropriate for the residents of RoseMary's Place, who will most likely not have cars, Drobenare said.
The development's land belongs to Magnificat Houses, a nonprofit organization that works to provide emergency shelter and alternatives to living on the streets. NHP partnered with them to fill their need for real estate development, Drobenare said, adding it is important for organizations with different strengths to work together to fill the need for affordable housing in Houston.
“A part of our mission is to increase the capacity of local groups to produce housing,” Drobenare said.
But that production can come painfully slowly for affordable and public housing, which face the same barriers as the rest of the real estate industry right now, Northern said.
“Supply and demand of labor, but also materials shortage throughout the supply chain is pretty slow right now,” he said. “So that's hurting and harming us. It costs more, we're going to take longer to develop. And with interest rates, we have to spend more on the loans that we need in order to get some developments done.”