The state’s draft action plan for spending $57.8 million in federal disaster recovery funds was released on Jan. 18. The Texas General Land Office, which oversees the administration of the federal funds, has given the public several weeks to comment. Every day until
Feb. 1 Feb. 13, we’ll be asking fundamental questions about the action plan as we draft our own comments to the GLO to advocate for equitable disaster recovery for all Hurricane Harvey survivors.
Across Texas cities (and much of the country) renters are feeling the squeeze. High rents and a shortage of affordable housing mean that too many people are paying too much for a safe place to call home.
In Houston about 45 percent of the population rents. But the State of Texas Plan for Disaster Recovery doesn’t pay much attention to renters compared with homeowners. Where the plan does propose to fund rental housing, it badly misses the mark with the rent levels the State plans to let developers charge.
The draft Texas Hurricane Harvey Action Plan says that of the $57.8 million it has been allocated thus far, the state plans to spend $43.5 million on homeowner programs in Harris County and not a dime for renters. The plan does set aside some money for rental housing, $10.8 million, all for the reconstruction and rehabilitation of multifamily housing in the three South Texas counties of Aransas, Nueces and Refugio. The state recovery plan notes that more federal funding will be on the way — sometime. There is still no timeline for when the $5 billion in federal community development funds will make their way to Texas. Until they do, the relatively small pot of $57.8 million is all that is available.
The damage to rental units across the disaster-impacted area has already caused a spike in rents, increasing the burden on low-income renters. About two months after the storm, the Houston Chronicle cited real estate experts who reported a 20 percent hike in rents, and that increase will likely stick around for a long time. Folks with very low-incomes in Houston and Southeast Texas we talk to who were made homeless by the hurricane say the impact on them is much greater. They can’t find anything to rent at any price for what they can afford to pay.
Despite that fact, renters have seen little help other than some temporary rental assistance and hotel vouchers from FEMA. The people who are being left farthest behind after the storm are the extremely low-income renters who, even before the storm, had difficulty affording a decent place to live. In a report on the shortage of affordable housing across the country written before Hurricane Harvey, the National Low Income Housing Coalition found that there were only 18 units affordable and available for every 100 extremely low-income households in the Houston MSA. (According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, a family making less than 30 percent of the area median income, adjusted for family size, is Extremely Low Income. This is about $18,300 in Houston for a family of four). That isn’t a housing crisis, that is a housing catastrophe. And then, the hurricane hit.
Below is a map / chart created by Texas Housers that shows the gap in affordable housing for all Texas counties impacted by Hurricane Harvey. Keep in mind that this data is from before the storm, so the situation is much worse today. Harris County (containing most of the city of Houston) and Waller County have two of the largest numerical deficits in affordable units for extremely low-income households: 126,000 units.
The state’s draft action plan does pay attention to important renter needs in three select counties: Nueces, Aransas, and Refugio County have a deficit in affordable housing for low-income households, very low-income households and extremely low-income households (see chart above for definitions of those categories).
Housing renters with low incomes in those counties is vital, but the action plan doesn’t effectively target getting them help. The plan proposes that 51 percent of the apartments reconstructed and rehabilitated with the $10.8 million will be affordable to low- to moderate-income households (incomes less than 80 percent of the area median family income) for at least 10 years. The remaining 49 percent of the housing have no limits on the rent. The State’s plan misses the folks most in need of help. The bar chart on the graphic above shows, for each county, the number of rental units affordable and available for every 100 households in each of the three income categories: Extremely Low Income (0% to 30% of median income), Very Low Income (31%-50% of median income and Low Income (51%-80% of median income).
Before the hurricane, all three South Texas counties had just few or slightly more than 100 units for every 100 Low Income families earning 51-80% MFI. But each county has fewer than 45 units for every 100 Extremely Low Income Families (0%-30% MFI). And the hurricane likely made this gap worse because low-cost apartments, by and large, don’t do as well in disasters as higher rent units.
The State’s rebuilding plan does not propose addressing this gap. First, the plan fails to address the affordable housing gap for families and individuals who make far less than 80 percent of the area’s median family income. Apartment owners and managers will have no incentive to reduce rents to make apartments affordable to families at lower income levels. Second, the apartment owners who get these millions from the state only have to rent them at affordable prices for 10 years. After that, they can raise the rent as much as they want. The state’s draft plan also does not indicate it will prohibit landlords from discriminating against tenants with government rent vouchers, like Section 8 or temporary rent assistance for disaster survivors.
Finally, and this is a big deal, the state is not planning to use this money where the greatest rental need is. Harris County had the greatest number of housing units damaged (a total of more than 100,000) followed by Jefferson County (18,000) and Galveston County (16,000). You can learn more about this issue in a blog from last week. Aside from that, the greatest share of low-income renters in disaster areas is far and away located in Harris County — nearly 70 percent.
There are a total of 630,000 low-income renter households in Texas affected by Hurricane Harvey. There are more than a quarter of a million households who have extremely low incomes and thus little access to affordable housing. In devising how to help Texans recover, state government should be more mindful of the needs of the most vulnerable. The place to begin recovery is with those who are suffering the most.