Could Creating Affordable Housing Become the Next Hot Thing?

New Orleans  In a meeting recently, I was asked who cares about providing affordable housing opportunities in rental and ownership markets for low-and-moderate income families, and after a nanosecond head scratch, I couldn’t help but reply, “just about nobody.”

Two pieces in the daily papers speak to the crisis, and, just maybe, the opportunity that interest is rising in reappraising this market, so desperately sought by our people.

The first in the Times looked at the surprising demand for homes in Houston, despite the flooding from Harvey, including in some neighborhoods still watching the water recede. One realtor claimed that of 50-odd pending sales, only 8 had backed out. Others noted that the number of calls from families expressing interest in buying even in flooded areas was soaring, surprising everyone. Sure, many are hoping for bargains, but that also goes to the heart of how desperate people are for housing. The story leaves with a question from one family mulling over paying $50,000 to buy a flooded property and another $50,000 to fix it up, and thinking that might still be a bargain, despite the history of flooding and the expectation that there will be more in the future. They noted that it might be worth it even with steep payments for flood insurance in the future. What can you say, but that this is crazy, and that it underlines how desperate families are.

Another piece in the Wall Street Journal talked about a company raising $233 million for an affordable housing fund from foundations, funds, and high-worth individuals because luxury housing has gone slack, while demand for affordable homes is skyrocketing. This is unlikely to be much of an opportunity for low-and-moderate income families, but still it’s moving in the right direction.

Median family income according to the Census Bureau is now knocking at the door at $60,000 per year. Families with $40000 to $60,000 in family income, fair credit, and steady jobs that are producing that income can afford to buy homes, if they are priced right, putting them in better shape buying, rather than renting. They might be better renting, if there were caps that hedged against gentrification and guaranteed affordability, and if the units were decent, but few developers are producing units for this market.

Yet, there are tens of thousands of abandoned homes in city after city creating the classic situation that spurred ACORN’s squatting campaigns in the 1980s to match “people that need houses with houses that need people.” This is affordable housing stock, if the will existed to rehabilitate it. Post-Katrina, it was amazing to have our partners from Cornell and other universities go door to door in flooded areas and find that more than 80% of the homes could be rebuilt rather than demolished.

We need a massive, national program that invests in putting these two problems together to come up with one solution. If we could do it, then, yes indeed, affordable housing could be the next “hot” thing in our cities.

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Houston Landlords and Banks Need Pressure, Tenants and Owners Need Help

Photo: Elizabeth Conley, Houston Chronicle
Community organizer Alain Cisneros talks to Rockport Apartment residents about the damage to their homes following Tropical Storm Harvey.

Houston  Going into Beaumont on Interstate 10, one exit after another was still closed off. Water was still standing. Trailers in a park near a small lake were still submerged with water coming up to the shoulder of the highway. Spotted along the route in one random location after another were abandoned cars and trucks, some with hoods propped up, some in the middle of the median, and others seeming to have almost made it to high ground, but then flooded.

Coming into Houston city limits on the north side of I-10, trash heaps, dumpsters, and tractor trailer rigs were now the landmarks. The giant Fiesta grocery store that was once our rendezvous point for driving into town to see the Astros play, was now a clean-out and construction zone. Motels were lined up with doors swung open and heaps of trash in their lots. Once in town, everything seemed almost normal in the city center. Talking to one storm refugee, he commented that he was flooded out and got out of his apartment after hours of bailing and waiting for the end and realizing that the water just kept rising, but once out of his place, he couldn’t see a pattern. One building would be gone and another untouched.

Much of the Houston recovery tragedy is invisible from the highway of course. I talked to Alain Cisnerous and Caesar Espinoza with F.I.E.L., which in Spanish is Familias Immigrantes y Estudiantes en La Lucha or Immigrant Families and Students in Struggle. The organization had been founded a decade ago with the original mission of helping immigrant students figure out financing to afford college, but had more recently focused on DACA and more general issues facing the immigrant community. Needless to say their plate was already overflowing their capacity.

And, then comes Harvey. They told me stories that were outrageous. In southwest Houston, a largely Hispanic area in many sections with thousands of apartment complexes, flooding had been severe. FIEL had visited with families trying to escape the water who had gone to the upper floors of their buildings for shelter and found they were nothing but shells, framed with wooden studs. Families that ended up at the convention center and elsewhere with apartments that were uninhabitable were getting texts and calls from their landlords about rent payments and late fees that would double their normal payments. In one case, a family unable to return would now owe $1200 a month because of fees and penalties on rent that had been $500. This is outrageous.

I asked whether Houston’s progressive and well-regarded mayor, Sylvester Turner, had jawboned the Apartment Association on the issue of opening up vacant units for the displaced and waiving rent and fees for abandoned units. They answered, no. Mayors and New Orleans and Houston had done so after Katrina for refugees. Why not Houston’s own people who are now under the gun? Had banks offered forbearance to mortgage payers who were underwater, literally, and waived foreclosures? Once again, they indicated nothing had been done like this to their knowledge, though ACORN had easily been able to win a number of six month extensions after Katrina. Was there a daily meeting in the Mayor’s office to coordinate the recovery, like Houston’s former mayor, Bill White, had organized? Was there a coalition of nonprofits making sure that equitable plans were produced for rebuilding and distributing relief money? No, no, not that anyone I met knew.

There is probably a lot of this happening somewhere at some level, but it definitely has not sunk down to the grassroots where FIEL and others are working. Lessons have to be learned from disasters, but I was disturbed in Houston that so many of them were so easily being forgotten.

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