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Under One Roof: Who’s Using Affordable Housing in Austin?

Filipa Rodrigues, KUT News

If you’re going on a tour through the world of affordable housing, it’s good to have one of Austin’s most knowledgeable experts as your tour guide.

Meet Stuart Hersh. He’s a consultant with non-profit organizations that help produce affordable housing. During the last 30 years, Hersh has worked in a variety of fields that have to do with writing and enforcing building codes to writing affordable housing regulations.

But beyond the codes and regulations that govern affordable housing, there’s the people who simply call these places home.

Who are they?

“They tend to be more Latino and African-American than they are Anglo or Asian-American,” Hersh says. “They tend to be renters rather than homeowners,” he continues.

In other words, they tend to be like the Martinez family.

Teresa and Vincent Martinez live in the Blackland Neighborhood in East Austin. The Blackland Community Development Corporation is one of about a dozen non-profits that provide Austinites with affordable housing.

A huge agave plant sits outside their navy blue house. The house is perfect for the family – it has three bedrooms, and it costs $800 a month.

But Teresa tells me her day has not gone exactly as planned. “I’m tired,” she says. “Truthfully, I’m just worn out.”

It’s three o’clock, and she’s just learned she needs to work two shifts today. Teresa works for an unusual child-care facility that’s open until midnight. On top of the double shift, her husband Vincent has gotten very ill. He’s suffering from complications related to his diabetes. “And now,” Teresa says, “I gotta go get Andrea and bring her back, and I still have to drop off his prescriptions before I go to work at 4:30.”

On the ride to pick up her 13 year-old daughter, Teresa tells me times are tough. But, they’ve seen much tougher days.

A couple of years ago, Vincent was unemployed. They ended up living in their car. They were homeless for a few months with no money for the medications that control Vincent’s diabetes, or their children’s asthma.

Vincent got it worse. That lapse in care complicated things to the point that his foot will have to be amputated.

Housing expert Hersh says that’s the dilemma thousands of people who are on tight budgets face when they choose their housing.

“You’ll take something that you really can’t afford and something else gets sacrificed,” he says, “or you’ll take something you can afford but really isn’t very safe, and so you live with problems that don’t get fixed – because that’s all you can afford to do.”

Back at the Martinez home, the kids are trying to keep Snowy – the white-haired family dog – from playing with my microphone.

Teresa tells me stories from when they were homeless. She says they found refuge at the public library, and turned it into their command center. Vincent would frantically browse the web looking for jobs. Teresa would do the same, looking for resources for homeless families.

The searches finally paid off. It took three months, but they found a home in East Austin, and were able to move in just a couple of weeks later.

As I get ready to leave the Martinez home, I notice the wall around the front door is covered in wooden crosses. 

“We have our little crosses all up around our door, so everybody comes in we hope they take home blessings because we feel very fortunate to have our home now,” Teresa says.

They are fortunate. Going from being homeless to being renters in just a matter of months is unusual.

The first contact most applicants have with an affordable housing group comes when they place that first phone call. The voice message at the office of the Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corporation – saying there’s a three to five-year waiting list – is pretty typical. Hersh says that’s because the demand for affordable housing is much higher than the city’s current supply.

A family’s need is often plotted on a scale of median family income. Imagine providing for a family of four on a budget of $22,000. In Austin, that’s 30 percent of the area’s median family income – extremely low income, as defined by the government. And at that 30 percent MFI level, Hersh says, “there’s a need for housing for 30,000 more people than housing is currently available.”

Aurora Tijerina and her 14 year-old daughter are on a wait list. They’ve been on it since 2009. They live in Seguin, Texas. But Tijerina works in Westlake.

Tijerina tells me she grew up in East Austin and raised her two older boys there. She found a way to live and work in East Austin when her landlord hired her as her caregiver. She worked for her for nine years, but in a matter of months, her life was turned upside down.  

Her landlord died. Tijerina had to move out. And shortly thereafter, her husband died too. She found a job in Austin, but had to move to Seguin to find a home she could afford.

“You’re looking at over 100 miles to go to work, and leaving a child four towns away just to be able to make ends meet and to be able to keep the basic necessities going,” she says.

Tijerina has been keeping up that rhythm for almost four and a half years now.

Soon though, Tijerina will be able to return to her beloved East Austin. Just last week she found out she and her daughter are next on the list for an affordable two-bedroom apartment.

“We were like, just, ‘Oh my God – It’s here!’ It’s wonderful, wonderful feeling, wonderful.”

The Tijerinas will be moving into their new place in June. 

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Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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