Lawmakers Look to Fix Houston's Affordable Housing Crunch

An affordable housing crunch in Houston has lawmakers in Washington taking a closer look at what needs to be fixed here. As Houston Public Radio's Jack Williams reports, a growing city combined with stagnant public housing capacity has led some to call the squeeze on affordable housing a "crisis."

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Last December, the Houston Housing Authority opened its Section 8 Housing waiting list for 14 days and in those two weeks, 30,000 families registered to join the program. Only about 120 Section 8 units come open each month, so some quick math shows many of those applicants will have to wait. At a U.S. House Financial Services Subcommittee field hearing here in Houston, City of Houston Director of Housing Richard Celli testified the problem is a combination of population growth and limited affordable housing capacity.

"The reason there's a shortage is because we're such a growing community, that it's a double-edged sword. It's great to be a growing community, but when we have about 9,000 people a year moving to Houston and a good portion of those individuals are low to moderate income individuals, then there's a definite shortage of housing for those individuals."ξξ

Lawmakers are looking for ways to solve what they see as a growing affordable housing crisis, with only 4,000 public housing units owned and operated by the city and a need much greater than that. An influx of Katrina and Rita evacuees and the gentrification of what used to be affordable neighborhoods around downtown have the Houston Housing Authority's Horace Ellison looking for answers.

"We need to build more public housing units and we need to get more housing choice vouchers. HUD has allowed the Housing Authority to develop some additional public housing, but to my knowledge, an effective development program sponsored by HUD in the last ten years. So there needs to be some dollars budgeted and allocated for what I call hard units, physical public housing units."ξ

Developers are building affordable housing, but the communities are often on the outskirts of town and people who need the housing can't afford transportation or can't find jobs in those areas. Congressman Al Green of Houston says he'll do what he can in Washington.

"There are some philosophical differences that we're having to cope with in Congress. There are many persons who don't believe there is an affordable housing crisis anywhere in this country. There are others who see the crisis and are trying to find a means by which it can be abated. Unfortunately, that debate has stalled a lot of efforts to do a lot of good for people who actually need affordable housing. This hearing is going to give us the opportunity to address many of the concerns with empirical evidence from the people who are actually on the ground where the problem exists."

According to the numbers, there are at least 27,000 families who are "rent burdened" in Houston,ξ paying more than 30 percent of their monthly incomes on rent. Many of those families pay more than 50 percent of their incomes each month on housing.

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