Houston’s Focus on Housing Is Working

Housing in Houston

Photo by Adrian N on Unsplash

Houston’s Homeless Population Has Decreased by 64% in a Decade

In 2011, Houston had the 6th highest homeless population in the country. Today, that number has dropped by more than half.

This improvement can be attributed to Houston’s laser-focus on housing first policies that move people into permanent housing more quickly than other models. 30,000 homeless Houstonians have been housed over the last 12 years.

A Bit of Common Sense Goes A Long Way

Houston’s policymakers seem to have learned from the mistakes that many other American cities continue to make. They clearly understand that if you want people to clear out from a certain area or encampment, they first need to have somewhere better to go.

And what counts as “better” doesn’t get to be dictated from on high. It depends on each person’s unique needs and how they can be met within a certain housing situation. 

Just think how many times you’ve heard people insist that homeless shelters are better than sleeping on the street because “at least you have a roof over your head.”

It’s a popular line of thinking among people with little to no experience in homeless shelters. But clearly, many people with first-hand experience feel differently.

In Houston, outreach workers first talk with people in encampments. They learn about their needs and connect them with permanent housing rather than just showing up one day to rip down their tents and tell them to move along.

Banding Together for Better Outcomes

Another key factor in Houston’s housing success so far has been organizing all the different organizations that provide housing and services for homeless people to work together rather than duplicating each other’s efforts and competing for funding.

This opening of the lines of communication between all the players working to end homelessness in Houston has improved efficiency immensely and allowed more people to be helped in less time.

For example, ten years ago, it took a homeless veteran an average of 720 days to navigate all the red tape and jump through 76 separate hoops. Now, the average wait for housing is down to 32 days.

But does this alone explain the difference in outcomes in Houston? After all, many other cities have been required to operate on housing first policies and open lines of communication between local agencies to receive federal funding. Still, few have seen as much of a reduction in their local homeless population as Houston has.

Insiders in Houston’s homeless sector cite their real and total commitment to working together to house people first. While other cities may check the boxes to follow the letter of the law, they’ve yet to really embrace the spirit of it. In Houston, they’ve gotten a taste of how well these systems can work when everyone is working together toward the same goal, and they’re not likely to go back to the old ways any time soon.

Houston’s commitment to housing first was displayed in how the city spent its COVID relief funds. While many cities put the money toward temporary solutions like hotel shelters and tiny house villages, Houston used it to pay rent on regular apartments occupied by formerly homeless Houstonians. 

Greedy Landlords Threaten Success

As much success as Houston has had in placing many homeless Houstonians in subsidized housing, it could all come crashing down at any moment if the owners of that housing decide they want to make more money by renting to unsubsidized tenants.

We’re starting to see this happen in Houston, as buildings that Houston’s homeless coalition has been filling with tenants start attracting investors’ attention. Suddenly, many of these landlords don’t want to rent to coalition tenants anymore, choosing to forgo the guarantee of a monthly payment from the government in favor of charging higher rent prices to tenants coming in from other sectors of the housing market.

As properties are sold to new owners, or current owners simply start being blinded by dollar signs, current tenants face an uncertain future, not knowing whether their leases will be renewed or if they’ll be subjected to a no-fault eviction.

Hopefully, Houston’s policymakers can call upon the city’s deep commitment to housing its homeless residents to stem this tide before it causes too much damage. Without legislation, this seems like a cycle doomed to repeat itself endlessly.

CLTs Offer Greed-Proof Opportunities for Housing

One solution for keeping housing affordable in the face of landlords and investors who want nothing more than to increase their bottom line is removing housing from the speculative market entirely. This is what Community Land Trusts do, placing ownership of the land and properties in the hands of a nonprofit organization dedicated to keeping that housing affordable in perpetuity. 

Unfortunately, Houston has recently cut city funding to its CLT program. The city initially allocated $60 million to Houston Community Land Trust to fund the construction of 1,100 permanently affordable homes in the first five years. Now, with just 136 homes built, Mayor Sylvester Turner, an early proponent of the program, pushed to cut its funding by more than half due to “slow growth.”

Of all the solutions Houston has to choose from, the Community Land Trust is the most permanent and future-proof. Keeping housing affordable in perpetuity is a step up, even from what we currently consider “permanent affordable housing.” 

As we’re starting to see cracks in the permanent housing model of paying market-rate rent for eligible individuals as the “market rate” rises and rises without limit, hopefully, Houston will revisit its investment in the Houston Community Land Trust.

If the city is as deeply committed to housing all of its homeless residents as it says it is, it won’t be long before they realize that this is the best and most sustainable path forward that’s currently available to them. It deserves to be fully invested in, even if growth is slow at first.

Kayla Robbins

Kayla Robbins


Kayla Robbins is a freelance writer who works with big-hearted brands and businesses. When she's not working, she enjoys knitting socks, rolling d20s, and binging episodes of The Great British Bake Off.

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