Photo: Adam Morse on Unsplash

The Third Annual Houston Centered Policy Challenge highlighted how the Bayou City can tackle affordable housing in extremely unique ways.

Affordable housing in America has been described as a crisis and a ticking time bomb, but buying a home wasn't always like this.

The NAHB/Wells Fargo Housing Opportunity Index shows that the peak of housing affordability was reached in 2012 when 78 percent of new and existing home sales were affordable for a typical family based on their incomes and current interest rates.

By the third quarter of 2018, that score of 78 had plummeted to 56, meaning only 56 percent of home sales were affordable.

Noticing these negative trends in homeownership and housing affordability, Rice University's Center for Civic Leadership hosted its Third Annual Houston Centered Policy Challenge focussing on affordable housing in the Bayou City.

Eight groups made up of 22 undergraduate Rice students presented their proposals to a group of judges consisting of city leaders and housing experts from around Houston. The judges of the presentations included Dwight Boykins, Houston city council member; Tory Gunsolley, president and CEO of the Houston Housing Authority; Amanda Timm, executive director of Local Initiatives Support Corporation; Tom McCasland, director of the City of Houston's Housing and Community Development department and Stephan Fairfield, founder and CEO of Covenant Community Capital. 

The groups' presentations highlighted ideas ranging from residential developers being required to build 10 percent of their new developments towards affordable housing, landlord incentives for housing voucher holders, intergenerational housing with elderly tenants being mixed with college students, affordable housing planning near transit lines and others. 

Out of the eight groups, the judges chose the top three and one "people's choice" award.  Following the presentations, Boykins told the students encouragingly, "You guys are the future. Every presentation was awesome and I'd give everyone an A."

People's choice - Healthy housing metric

While affordable housing developments require a lengthy check-list to be approved in a specific location, environmental pollution is a minor requirement in Texas, according to Rice students Maheen Khizar, Alice Liu and Isabel Kilroy. For their affordable housing presentation, they focused on how proposed housing needs to be on land that isn't exposed to extreme environmental pollution.

"Air pollution comes from refineries and traffic emissions. The majority of these are concentrated in the East End and the Ship Channel," Liu said. "The respiratory hazard index of Houston shows that there are a higher number of respiratory cases in this area of Houston than on the west side," noting that affordable housing developments and homes are also largely located in areas that are high on the respiratory hazard index, too. 

Therefore, the team proposed "to interweave the environmental requirement set throughout the criteria for new affordable housing developments" by the city code. 

Third place – Reporting code violations

Renters have legal rights to the quality of housing they pay for, though, for some, there is a fear to report maintenance to their landlords, so too many live in unhealthy or unsafe environments.  

"The majority of the reporting requires identification and people are afraid to report out of fear of their immigration status," Johnston French said. "Tenants have established rights, but they're scared to speak up due to their immigration status." He and his team, including Oria Wilson-Iguade and Katherine Nguyen, presented a proposal that established a resident representative to work as an advocate for the other tenants to get things done with the landlord and to take the complaints to the city if the landlord didn't comply. 

For their research, the team spoke to residents in the Gulfton area in Houston. "Gulton is very diverse, highly dense, primarily low-income and comprised of immigrants," Nguyen said. "The population is majority immigrant so there’s this fear that if they would report these violations, their immigrant status would be threatened, so there’s a lack of trust here. People aren’t reporting them because of fear of government and we want to build that trust more."

"Tenants will have a trusted community individual and they will build that trust," Wilson-Iguade said. "The ideal representative we are looking for has four qualities: Multilingual, trusted within the building, knowledgeable and in good standing with the landlord." She continued that the cost to the city would be low and would solely offer training to the potential representatives. French followed saying, "The representative would first report the concerns to the landlord. We want to give the opportunity for the landlord to respond. Then, the rep would send an email first to 311. The goal is to increase reporting, though we recognize this may lead to increased rents and displacement during repairs. It’s a two-step process and we are working on the first portion."

Following their presentation, Boykins spoke from his experience saying, "The landlords you're talking about are slumlords. They don’t care. They just want their rent. It would be very difficult to find a person to rise up against the landlord. I’m just telling you as a kid who lived in the projects and something that the books won’t tell you."

Second place – Backyard neighbors

Houston's recent attempts at developing new affordable housing units were met with Civil Rights violations and criticism for over-spending while housing fewer people. Due to this, Rice undergraduates Marlena Fleck, Connor Rothschild, Alex Tobin and Allison Yelvington proposed the idea of backyard neighbors in Houston's Heights, East End and Montrose areas. 

"What this shows us is a high-rise model is not compatible for neighbors. How do we take the impact that a high-rise would provide that would fit for homeowners and neighbors?" Yelvington said.

The students proposed that homeowners in the area are incentivized to rent to voucher owners by the city covering the cost of adding an Accessory Dwelling Unit or ADU, which is a small unit custom-made to a homeowner's backyard or garage. The units, according to the students, would add value to the homeowner's property because it would have an additional dwelling unit and the neighborhood can provide housing to numerous voucher holders without the development of a "high-rise eyesore."

The team pointed to Austin's Alley Flat Initiative, which assists homeowners with building sustainable, affordable housing on their properties.

"We know that affordable housing does more to divide neighborhoods than bring them together," Rothschild said. "We know the current system doesn’t work. Our’s does. We bring people together. Our proposal isn’t just about ADUs – it’s about us.” 

First place – Re-entry housing 

Rice students Christina Lee and Emma Donnelly zeroed in on a unique proposal focusing on "one of the most vulnerable" populations in Texas — incarcerated, single mothers. 

The team started their presentation noting it takes Texas $124,000 to house mothers in jail and to separate them from their children in foster care for a year, but only $34,000 to build an affordable housing option for a family. 

"It is pretty clear that we have a lack of housing for justice-involved populations," Lee said. "Seventy-five percent of women incarcerated are the primary caretaker of their children. These women are more vulnerable to mental health issues and are unable to take on manual labor jobs that are dominated by formerly-incarcerated males."

They proposed that more impactful advocacy programs for this specific population need to be created. Donnelly said in part, "We want a two-fold approach: pre- and post-exit programs. Currently, only one Harris County program focuses on mothers and one of them focuses solely on currently pregnant mothers.

"We want to expand mentoring-mom advocacy programs. We need to focus these services on housing because it can be an intimidating transition," Donnelly continued. 

Along with the advocacy programs for resettlement after incarceration, they also included asking mothers for 30 percent of their income, which is the suggestion the Census Bureau has used since 1981.

"The truth is, not all mothers are ready to enter the housing market. At least 33 percent were homeless or receive assistance post-incarceration," Lee said. "It’s difficult to track the paths they take after incarceration. 

"We have an incredibly vulnerable population to keep in mind and the children are suffering the most."