Hunting for Housing
Landlord lawsuit and housing research frame housing crisis
By Mary Tuma and Michael King, Fri., Jan. 9, 2015
As promised by the Texas Apartment Association earlier this month, a state legislator has filed a bill for the upcoming legislative session to prohibit cities from enacting "source-of-income" anti-discrimination ordinances, measures meant to grant low-income renters greater housing options.
With support from tenants and affordable housing advocates, City Council passed such a measure on Dec. 11. Senate Bill 267, filed by Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, would allow landlords to continue to refuse accepting renters who receive some government subsidies, such as U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Housing Choice Voucher Program funds (commonly referred to as "Section 8 vouchers"). Echoing criticisms voiced by the Texas and Austin apartment associations, Perry, a land developer, called the rule tantamount to "one-sided lease contracts with numerous strings attached." The AAA recently filed suit to block the enforcement of the Austin ordinance, originally set to go into effect Jan. 12, claiming similar problems. The city then filed and was granted a motion to move the suit from state to federal court. During a Jan. 6 hearing, U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks issued a stay order, preventing the ordinance from being implemented until he makes a decision during a Jan. 26 preliminary injunction hearing.
"Accepting federal housing vouchers was never intended to be mandatory," said Perry in a statement. "Businesses should not be forced to partner with a governmental agency that significantly impacts its flexibility and day-to-day operations."
Proponents of the protection – including the city of Austin – dispute the notion that the ordinance translates into a direct contract with the feds (see "Landlords Sue to Block Section 8 Renters," Dec. 19). According to a report produced by the Austin Tenants' Council fewer than 10% of Austin-area landlords accept Section 8 vouchers, so the rule is seen as an important step to make the federal program effective locally.
In announcing his bill, Perry ascribed the anti-discrimination policy as somehow originating in the Obama Administration. "There is a push in Texas to implement these Obama-style policies in many of our cities," Perry said. However, several cities and states passed similar laws well before Obama took presidential office. According to the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, Seattle took action in 1989, Chicago in 1990, San Francisco in 1998, and New York City in 2008.
On the local front, on Dec. 22, the city of Austin Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Office released a draft Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice, a research effort required of the city under HUD standards. The city is seeking public comment on the report, which is available for download at www.austintexas.gov/page/reports-publications (and in print at the Central Public Library, neighborhood centers, and other locations). The report was prepared for the city by Denver-based BBC Research and Consulting; the consultants reported that data limitations made some conclusions uncertain, but they identified a range of obstacles to residential housing choice, including: the disproportionate impact of the lack of affordable housing on minorities and the disabled; historical patterns of segregation; overly complex land-use regulations; and private market practices (e.g., racial "steering") that limit housing choice.
The report also provides an "action plan" for the city and other local authorities to improve broader access to affordable housing: e.g., CodeNEXT (land code revision and simplification) to enable a greater supply of affordable housing; the creation of a "land bank" and similar policies to make more tracts available for housing; and better metrics and incentives for neighborhood parks, to better distribute parkland throughout the city. Comments are requested by 5pm, Friday, Jan. 9. For more information, see www.austintexas.gov/department/housing.
And on Jan. 24, the Ending Community Homeless Coalition will be performing its annual, in-person count of the Travis County homeless population, the local version of a nationwide homeless count. ECHO is recruiting 300 additional volunteers to count Austin's homeless population, most specifically those who will be sleeping outside in the early morning hours of Saturday, Jan. 24.
Under the terms of ECHO's HUD funding, every year the coalition counts both the people staying in shelters (i.e., "sheltered") and those sleeping "unsheltered" on the streets, greenbelts, and elsewhere. Volunteer registration is open and ECHO is training volunteers throughout January, for three shifts that will perform counts in Downtown/Central Austin, the suburbs, and the distant areas of Travis County. In order to do a more thorough job this year covering all of Travis County, ECHO is recruiting 500 volunteers in all (up from 300 in 2014). Interested volunteers can register at www.austinecho.org. All volunteers (who will most often work in teams of three) will need to attend trainings this month.
The Austin effort is part of a nationwide "Point-in-Time Count," which is compiled across the country during the last 10 days of January – when the most people are likely to be sheltered against the weather. According to ECHO, outside shelters, most Austin homeless are found in campsites in the very early morning, making that time most effective for an accurate count. Homeless counts provide critical information on the number and characteristics of U.S. homeless, data used to measure homelessness on a local and national level. HUD publishes the data annually on its HUD Exchange website, and the count also becomes part of the Annual Homeless Assessment Report used by Congress and federal departments to better understand the nature and extent of homelessness. The 2014 Travis County PIT Count found a total of 1,987 homeless people: 1,539 sheltered, 448 unsheltered.
Concerning 2015's additional volunteers, ECHO Executive Director Ann Howard said in a release, "We want to be thorough. ... We want to recruit and train as many volunteers as we can to more thoroughly cover the community. We strive for an accurate count. While it has been satisfactory to see our [homeless] numbers going down from year to year for the last six years, we want to make sure we are not missing areas and people."
For more info about ECHO or to volunteer, visit www.austinecho.org/get-involved/volunteer.