The cost of housing in Houston is reaching crisis levels and will be a priority for the city’s next mayor, several of the major candidates say, echoing advocates and resident surveys.
Those campaigning to become Houston’s next chief executive point to a raft of causes and solutions for the issue, including the need to make the city more friendly to home and apartment developers and provide further assistance for renters facing eviction.
About three-quarters of Houston residents say affordable housing needs to be a priority for the next mayor, per a survey from the Rice University Kinder Institute for Urban Research and Houston Landing.
According to Princeton University-based Eviction Lab, an average of 7,000 renter households in the Houston area have been evicted each month this year, well above the-pre pandemic average.
Julia Orduña, the Southeast Texas regional director for the nonprofit Texas Housers, called the situation a “crisis” and said there are several needs that should be addressed by the next mayor.
Many of the mayor candidates agree housing affordability should be a priority for the next mayor, but they differ on how best to address the sweeping issue.
Operations at the Houston Permitting Center are almost certain to get an overhaul, no matter who is elected. Candidates, homebuilders and housing advocates say the city’s permitting process needs to be improved.
“If I was a younger builder, I would never build in Houston, I would build out in Harris County where they welcome builders,” said Mike Dishberger, president of the Greater Houston Builders Association and CEO and co-owner of Houston-based Sandcastle Homes.
While the local market is one of the most active in the country, fewer developers are willing to build within the city limits of Houston, Dishberger said.
The city frequently touts the benefits of affordable housing projects to homebuilders, but delays in the permitting process and a complicated building code create costs that are not present outside of the city, Dishberger said.
State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said he has heard the same from homebuilders.
“The housing departments have become very complacent,” Whitmire said. “They’re not meeting deadlines and it’s harming Houstonians’ opportunities for affordable housing, and I won’t tolerate it.”
Whitmire, like many of his fellow candidates, said he would improve the housing market by providing steady leadership and working to solve inefficiencies in city government that are making it harder for developers to build housing.
Attorney Lee Kaplan has centered his campaign around rooting out corruption and inefficiency in Houston government, arguing it is at the root of many of the city’s problems, from slow garbage collection to housing affordability.
“All of these things feed in on one another,” Kaplan said. “If we have more people living in the city, we’ll have a broader tax base, which means more revenue and more people to share the load. This benefits everybody, even the wealthy.”
Businessman and former Metro chair Gilbert Garcia also has attempted to fill a lane as an anti-corruption candidate, promising to audit the city permitting and housing departments as soon as he takes office to identify issues burdening the building process, he said.
U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, promised a “boom” of rental properties and single-family homes to drive down housing costs and said that could be accomplished by streamlining the city’s permitting process.
District I Councilman Robert Gallegos was the only candidate to point to an expansion of the city’s tax credits system to incentivize developers to build low-income housing.
He also advocated for a revival of the city’s Community Land Trust. The program was launched with much fanfare in 2019, but it has failed to achieve its lofty goals of building thousands of affordable homes.
Gallegos said it still can be a resource in the city’s efforts to make housing affordable.
Before addressing homebuilding, Lee said she would prioritize Houston’s skyrocketing evictions by creating public-private partnerships to build affordable housing complexes on city land. High rental costs would be addressed by meeting with apartment owners to push for more affordable leases and expanding the city’s rental assistance program with federal money.
The Kinder survey found 40 percent of respondents said they often or almost always worry about making payment to keep a roof over their heads. The percentage was higher for Black and Hispanic residents of the city, according to the survey.
With thousands of Houstonians being evicted every month, Orduña said the next mayor needs to focus first on assisting renters.
“Not only are people still dealing with stagnant wages and rising rents, but there is a considerable issue in the poor conditions of rental and subsidized housing that create more of a problem for renters,” she said.
While rental assistance was a cornerstone of the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Orduña said it does not address the eviction problem at its core. She recommended an expansion of legal resources for renters facing eviction and new ordinances that empower renters to fight back against unjust evictions.
Many low-income renters are trapped in situations where the only apartments they can afford to rent are in dire condition, but still are evicted if they are unable to make rent, Orduña said.
“There is zero accountability for landlords to keep up with their tenants,” Orduña said.
Other than Lee, few candidates pointed to assistance for renters as a priority for their affordable housing plans.
Former Councilman MJ Khan also is running on a platform to root out corruption and waste and make city government more efficient, which he said could improve the housing market. He also said he would expand rental assistance programs in the city.
“There has to be some public sector involvement to make sure renters and landlords are not abusing the system,” Khan said. “Renters a lot of the time also don’t have that legal expertise they need to prevent an eviction, so we need to expand that, specifically for the poorest.”
As the city works to develop housing, the needs of homeowners and renters should be prioritized to prevent residents from being priced out of their homes by rising property values and cost of living, Orduña said.
Gallegos said the issue is of particular concern to him because his district’s housing costs have been rising and threatening to price out older residents on fixed incomes. When pushing for more affordable homes, Gallegos said senior-focused housing would be a priority throughout the city.
Gracie Cash, a retiree living in South Acres, agreed.
Houston’s next mayor needs to keep seniors in mind while pushing for development across the city. While Cash owns her home, she said inflation, rising property values and higher taxes threaten to price many of her peers out of their homes.
“When they build, something needs to be worked out with the seniors in those areas because it does affect them,” Cash said.