accessibility/availability, and affordability
are the three key components of housing. Within each of these components are
major barriers to housing that must be addressed in order to overcome the
housing crisis in Travis County.
QUALITY AND SAFETY
At least 58,690 Austin households have a housing need, meaning they live in
substandard or overcrowded housing or are paying more than they can afford.
At least 11,000 households are overcrowded and approximately 40,000 people are
living in substandard housing (Through
the Roof, July 1999).
Number of Austin Households in Substandard or Overcrowded Housing
Small renters (2-4
Large renters (more
than 4 people)
Note: Categories are not mutually exclusive.
the Roof", July 1999.
According to federal standards, an overcrowded household is one in which
there are more family members than there are rooms (not including kitchen
and bathrooms) (TLIH, 1999). Those in overcrowded housing are usually at the
lower end of the income ladder. Some reasons for overcrowding are affordability
and lack of public housing. For example, two full-time minimum wage workers
cannot afford a modest two-bedroom apartment in Austin, and the current waiting
period for Section 8 public housing is two years.
One example of overcrowded and substandard housing that has been highlighted
in recent news stories is the Rio Motel. Persons with little to no income
find that the motel is affordable because it allows 4 adults/guests per motel
room and does not require a credit history check or a large down payment.
The Rio Motel's monthly charge is $600, which includes local phone service,
water, utilities, cable, and maid service. This monthly charge is affordable
in comparison to average rents, when split among four individuals. However,
even two adults in a motel room would be defined as overcrowded, according
to federal standards.
Overcrowded conditions also exist in the owner-occupied housing stock in
Travis County. Many families continue growing long after a house has been
purchased, and sometimes relatives and friends come to stay until they can
find their own place to live. Many households have also taken on the responsibility
of providing elder care for grandparents, in addition to the care of children
already living in the household. These conditions often combine, resulting
in households where there are at least two or three people per room. Many
mentally ill residents in unregulated boarding homes also live with overcrowded
Substandard housing is defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as a housing unit
lacking a complete kitchen or bathroom. Dwelling units that do not meet standard
conditions but are feasible for rehabilitation are also defined as substandard.
This does not include units that require only cosmetic work, minor livability
problems, or maintenance work.
Different housing service providers appear to define adequate housing in
varying ways. For example, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
requires public utility companies to heat apartments for low income families,
but until recently refused to pay for air conditioning. Consequently, the
Austin Housing Authority, who is funded by HUD, had not provided air conditioning
to 1,928 low-income apartment units in Austin for 33 years until an especially
hot summer in1998 motivated them to reconsider their policy. That summer,
the board agreed to pay for installation of air conditioning units in 164
downtown apartments with local funds. The AHA plans to install air conditioning
in all of its other housing units for low-income families over the next four
years (Thatcher, 1998).
As stated by local providers, "the level and amount of housing repair
need in the community is equal to or greater than any level of need that has
existed since 1990." In Travis County there are hundreds of substandard
houses. In many cases, elderly homeowners are unable to repair their houses
themselves, and do not have funds available to hire a contractor. Unfortunately,
problems are often ignored until they have multiplied, and houses are too
badly deteriorated to repair. In FY 1999, 263 eligible families requested
services from Travis County's Emergency Home Repair and Weatherization Program
(see Figure 5). This number of families was double
the amount that requested services in 1997 (counts for 1998 are spuriously
Households Requesting Travis County Housing Services
Source: Travis County Emergency Assistance Program.
Note: The inflated number of households counted in 1998
reflects a procedural change that resulted in the over-identification of the
number of homes actually needing services.
In a brief survey of 112 homes that had requested help from Travis County
Housing and Weatherization Services, it was found that the homes needed a
wide variety of repairs (see Table 6). The most
common needs were for plumbing, ceiling, wall, and roofing replacement or
Housing and Weatherization Services Requested from Travis County Emergency
Services, August 1999 (Based on a sample of 112 homes)
OF HOUSING / WEATHERIZATION SERVICE
OF SERVICES REQUESTED
Ceiling and wall
replacement or repair
Window and door
replacement or repair
to the floor
modifications or installments
of services requested
Source: Travis County Housing and Weatherization
Services, August 1999.
The conditions of the homes certified as eligible in the County housing programs
are far more deteriorated than those in the general community, creating risks
that some contractors are unwilling to take to complete repairs. Moreover,
the cap on material expenses means that contractors often cannot complete
all necessary work and must leave the home still in poor condition. In addition,
Travis County does not provide enough funds to repair homes to meet existing
code requirements, which can necessitate a referral for housing repair services
to other community organizations after the County crews have finished their
This referral process reflects a strength in the housing repair system. The
few non-profit organizations who provide volunteers and resources to fix existing
housing problems work together and coordinate their activities in an attempt
to address all of the needs of each household. Among the organizations that
coordinate services are: Travis County's Emergency Home Repair Program, Hands
on Housing, Habitat for Humanity, and the Urban League (see "Austin's Commitment
to House the Poor" and "Through
the Roof" for further details). Based upon input from a housing focus
group conducted in November of 1999, area housing experts unanimously agreed
that the number of programs focusing on repairing existing housing is far too
small to meet the needs of the Travis County community.
There are an estimated 1,500 colonias statewide with 360,000 residents (Garcia,
1996). Although the term "colonias" is technically defined as a
substandard community located within 150 miles of the Texas/Mexico border,
the term is widely used to refer to any type of substandard housing development
within the state of Texas. Most colonias exist along the South Texas/Mexico
border in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, but many are also located in rural
In August of 1998, Governor Bush assigned his Secretary of State, Al Gonzalez,
to investigate colonias. In addition to visiting colonias along the Texas
Mexico border, he toured Kennedy Ridge, a subdivision located almost 10 miles
east of the capital in Travis County, where as many as 14 households had no
water or sewer service. He said the conditions in Kennedy Ridge were worse
than in many colonias he had seen, with children's toys lying in ditches with
sewage (Ralph Haurwitz, August 1998). Wastewater drained directly onto the
ground, exposing children and animals to serious health risks. Many residents
could not afford water and sewer system hook-up fees, which ranged in cost
from $5,000 to $8,000 per household. Other residents were disconnected from
the service when they stopped paying their bills (Ralph Haurwitz, July 1998).
Texas State law has contributed to the continuing development of colonias.
The Elgin Bank vs. Travis County (January 1996) ruling allows some residential
developments to disregard the subdivision platting process, the system that
requires standardized lot sizes and adequate utility services. As long as lots
have streets that extend to existing roads, the developer can escape county
supervision. This had led to the emergence of "flag pole" subdivisions
-- long narrow roads that extend off existing county roads and have a cluster
of homes at the end of the road. As a result of the Elgin Bank decision,
developers are not required to provide utility hook-ups, proper road access,
or drainage systems (Through
the Roof, 1999). Lack of proper structural resources makes it difficult
for fire & emergency services to locate unregistered developments and to
reach them quickly. The Texas Legislature granted border counties much broader
regulatory authority in an effort to curtail the development of colonias in
that area, but these regulations do not apply to the rest of the state (Haurwitz,
Most counties are urging the Legislature to revise the law so that all developers
must file a subdivision plat when starting to build or sell tracts. Other
counties want lawmakers to at least grant powers equivalent to those already
given to border counties. The Legislature failed to pass any of these proposals
during the 1996-97 session, but counties will push for the changes again in
1999. Several bills have been submitted for consideration. In contrast, real
estate lobbyists and land developers statewide have long opposed strengthening
the ordinance-making authority of county governments (Garcia, J., 10-23-1993).
In these unincorporated areas, it's up to the county commissioners to maintain
the streets. Suing colonia developers to make improvements has worked in some
instances, but colonia residents rely mostly on help from county programs, which
include using state grant money to set up centers where residents can get health
services or apply for home-improvement and small business loans. The Texas
Water Development Board estimated that providing Texas colonias with clean
water and sanitary sewer systems will cost more than $600 million (The Austin
Substandard lots are primarily purchased by low-income families who are U.S.
citizens. Lack of affordable housing has created a pressing need for alternatives.
Families are often promised public utilities, septic systems, sewers, and
roads, but these services are either poorly installed or never completed (Garcia,
Impact of Colonias
Social Equity and Health
One negative impact of colonia housing is the increased need for health prevention
services. For example, in 1998, almost 3,000 students in elementary schools
in northern Hays County were vaccinated against Hepatitis A (Shaw, 1999).
These children have an elevated risk of contracting Hepatitis A because they
live in neighborhoods with leaking septic systems and poor drainage (Haurwitz,
R. K., 07-15-1998).
In spite of the substandard living conditions, many residents are grateful
because colonias offer an opportunity for home ownership. Although stricter
development laws would improve the living conditions, they would also raise
the base price of each home/property. Developers report that building a home
in a rural subdivision with basic services would cost between $30,000 and
$40,000, a price that most colonia residents could not afford. These residents
currently pay $150 a month in the colonia, and have no credit history or bank
accounts (Garcia, 1996).
Many residents who move into these poorly developed rural subdivisions purchase
pre-manufactured/mobile homes. Although manufactured or mobile homes are more
affordable, the quality of mobile homes is not as high as permanent housing
structures, and the financial investment differs greatly from investment in
traditional houses. The value of a manufactured home decreases over time whereas
permanent homes tend to increase in value. For example, a mobile home may
be almost worthless by the 15th year of a 30 year mortgage, yet
owners continue to pay for it another 15 years. As a result, families are
left with no home equity, and lack the ability to use the sale of their current
home in order to move into a larger or more traditional residence.
"Flag pole" subdivisions create safety problems on nearby county
roads. Due to insufficient drainage systems within the subdivisions, the drainage
systems along the county roads become overburdened and flooded by the subdivision's
runoff (Shaw, 1999). In addition, because many "flag pole" lot roads
are unpaved, during inclement weather they become impassable. Consequently,
residents must park their vehicles along the side of the county road and walk
into their neighborhood. These parked vehicles create a driving hazard for
other vehicles and limit the maneuverability of emergency vehicles trying
to enter the subdivision (Shaw, 1999).
Housing availability issuesare pervasive in the Austin area. With
97 percent occupancy rates, and new single family homes being purchased before
they are built, Travis County residents are becoming desperate for any housing.
Renters are having trouble finding any available units, and houses put up
for sale are sold in a matter of days, or even hours. Housing being built
is beyond the reach of lower income residents. Of the over 6,000 homes built
in 1999, only 20 percent were priced below $110,000. Only 15 percent of the
4,312 apartment units new to the market in 1998 were moderately priced ("Pricing
Austin out of the market?", July 1999).
Recently, a very powerful example of the lack of housing in Travis County
was highlighted in an article by the Austin American Statesman. In
November of 1999, the State had to rent military barracks for jail guards
who have been brought into town to work at the local state jail. The barracks
are being provided to prison employees on a temporary basis, because so many
were having problems relocating to the Travis County area. Although prison
guards do not make enough money to afford an average priced apartment, State
Jail Division Director Tom Baker said it best when he remarked, ".the
biggest problem is there are very few apartments available at all - at any
price." (Austin American Statesman, November 1999)
AVAILABLE FUNDING FOR HOUSING PROGRAMS
The primary cause of the lack of available public housing is that Federal resources
for publicly funded housing programs have not kept pace with the rapid population
growth in Travis County. The federal funding that the Housing
Authority of the City of Austin (HACA) receives has declined almost 20 percent
in the last two years, from $21.2 million to $17.8 million. As a result, HACA
has been unable to create new permanent affordable housing units. HUD has also
decreased the maximum rents it will pay in the Section 8 voucher program in
order to cut costs ("Through
the Roof", July 1999). In an economy where 97 percent of rental units
are filled, there is very little incentive for landlords to accept Section 8
vouchers, especially if the maximum rents are decreased.
Lack of available housing also has a significant impact on the success of
Austin's service providers in helping homeless persons achieve self-sufficiency.
Without adequate housing available in the community, homeless persons who
have successfully completed shelter, treatment, job training, and other self-improvement
programs are unable to take the final step toward independent living. The
lack of housing also restricts the availability of other services in Travis
County's continuum of care for homeless persons. Because there is not enough
affordable housing for homeless persons to move into, homeless persons tend
to stay in shelters and transitional housing longer than is necessary. This
results in a bottleneck in the system, restricting access to shelter and transitional
housing for those who are still on the streets.
LACK OF INFORMATION
Even though First Call for Help and Hotline for Help are tasked with being
the information distribution centers for social services throughout Travis
County, there are sometimes instances when information is outdated, or when
people are not aware of these call centers. As a result, neither residents
nor service providers are fully aware of the housing options available.
According to an Urban Institute study, in the Austin area nearly half of
all Hispanics and more than 40 percent of all African-Americans who applied
for loans in 1997 were rejected, compared to 22 percent of White loan applicants.
Similar financial information was presented when the study was conducted in
order to eliminate income or credit history as possible factors for the differences.
This study also found that minorities are less likely to receive information
about loan products, and are more likely to be quoted higher interest rates
than White people are. In the United States today, 73 percent of White families
own their own home, while only 46 percent of black families and 45 percent
of Hispanic families were homeowners ("Housing Secretary says Discrimination
Persists", September 1999).
Discrimination in housing has a long history in Travis County, dating
from 1929 when the City's first comprehensive plan designated a "Negro
district." This discrimination in housing persisted through the 1950s,
when the City Planning Commission continued approving plans that prohibited
blacks and Mexican-Americans from living in certain subdivisions (McIver &
Associates, October 1996). This legacy and current discriminatory practices
perpetuate racial division in this community.
In order to reverse this trend, the City Council established an Affordable
Housing Policy in 1987 that prompted the implementation of homeownership programs
for low-income people. Additionally, the City Council gave responsibility
for handling fair housing complaints to the Austin Human Rights Commission
(McIver & Associates, October 1996). The City of Austin also contracted
with ADAPT of Texas, Inc. to promote and conduct a seminar on the fair housing
rights of individuals with disabilities (City of Austin Consolidated Plan,
August 1998). These efforts have begun to address the segregation and fair
housing issues in Travis County.
Renters also experience additional barriers in housing practices, as more
and more apartment complexes conduct credit and criminal history checks. Barriers
such as these prevent many residents from securing affordable housing.
Another issue that affects housing availability/accessibility in Travis County
is the "NIMBY" or "Not in My Back Yard" attitude. This
is a common problem for developers who try to build affordable housing in
existing neighborhoods, but encounter road blocks put up by neighborhood organizations
or community groups who fear that such projects will lower property values.
In 1998, neighbors protested an affordable housing project on Slaughter Lane
in South Austin, and another project on Manchaca Road. Neighbors had concerns
about the maintenance of the sites, despite the fact that Central Texas Mutual
Housing (the management organization) has a strong track record for maintaining
its properties ("City's NIMBY Epidemic," June 1998). In 1997, the
City Council opposed an affordable apartment complex in Northeast Austin after
residents complained that it would cause crime ("NIMBY Bug Has Struck
City's Affordable Housing", December 1997).
The NIMBY phenomenon can be beneficial to neighborhoods when it succeeds
in preventing hazardous uses of property near residential areas, but when
applied to affordable housing, it can have the negative effect of perpetuating
racial division and exacerbating other social problems. Although studies have
shown that subsidized housing developments do not negatively impact the value
of surrounding property and have the ability to diminish social problems ("Through
the Roof", July 1999), organizations in Travis County continue to
mobilize to prevent such developments. Unfortunately, stereotypes about housing
for families who earn less than the average city income are not easy to overcome.
As is explained in "Through
the Roof," Travis County has a severe shortage of affordable housing.
In comparison with larger Metropolitan Statistical Areas in Texas, Austin's
housing market is the most expensive. The wage that a worker would need to
earn per hour to be able to work 40 hours per week and afford a two-bedroom
unit at the area's Fair Market rent is at least $10, 200 percent of the current
minimum wage of $5.15 per hour (Out of Reach, September 1999).
For families trying to purchase their first home, the largest obstacle that
they face is saving for a down payment and closing costs. For low-income renters,
the barrier is saving for the first and last month's rent payment and for
damage deposits. Another problem is bad credit. Underwriters usually require
at least two years of clean credit in order to qualify for a mortgage. Lower
income persons can take advantage of local credit counseling programs to begin
to address this problem. Down-payment assistance programs exist to help first-time
homebuyers, but similar programs for renters are rare. Down payment assistance
programs are popular because the investment per person is relatively low,
and more people can be served with the number of dollars available. The drawback
to this "helping more people is better" philosophy is that moderate-income
people who qualify for first-time homebuyer programs are not those who are
most in need. The very low income people who need housing assistance may require
more expensive services, which means that the funding dollars won't be stretched
In response to suburban sprawl, the City of Austin has adopted a Smart Growth
plan, which limits the development of land on the City's fringes. However,
as available land within city limits becomes scarce, competition for that
land drives up land costs, which in turn drives up housing costs. Portland
has long been a model city for "Smart Growth" but is currently experiencing
a housing affordability crisis, in part because of Smart Growth efforts. (George
Passantino, October 1999) Planners in Travis County will have to walk a fine
line between preserving the environment and keeping housing costs down. The
City of Austin is also considering a "SMART Housing" proposal that
would give builders/ developers providing new housing in designated areas
waivers and expedited processing for including up to 40 percent of the units
at affordable rents/ prices.
The City of Austin's permitting processes for building houses are
extremely lengthy, and delays in construction translate into increased costs
in housing. In order to process a fifty-lot construction project in Austin,
the Texas Capital Area Builders Association estimates that it takes a year
and a half. In Cedar Park, it only takes eight months, Pflugerville takes
one year, and Round Rock only takes six months. Austin also has high development
fees, at an average of $4,163 per lot. When compared with Dallas, Houston,
San Antonio, Round Rock, and San Marcos, Austin's development fees, on average,
range from 20 to 120 percent higher ("Through
the Roof", July 1999). Because of high building costs, developers
often find that the only way they can afford to build housing is to focus
on the most expensive housing developments. This leaves lower-income residents
with fewer options, and forces the market to rely on older housing stock for
City environmental laws designed to protect the aquifer limits land
uses as well. A consequence of these protective policies is the increased cost
of development in sensitive areas, which results in development of more expensive
housing in sensitive areas. Costs are increased because of lower allowable densities,
larger lot sizes, construction of water quality and detention ponds, limitations
of infill and redevelopment in these areas and of additional foundation work
required to deal with shifting soils (Through
the Roof, July 1999).