Homelessness Is Down In Houston: What The City Did That Worked

Jul 3, 2019

From Texas Standard:

Last week, Texas Standard reported on how three Texas cities – Dallas, Austin and Lubbock – are tackling homelessness. Now, The Texas Tribune reports a twist to the narrative that homelessness is generally on the rise. In fact, the Tribune reports that homelessness is actually going down in Houston.

Juan Pablo Garnham is the Tribune's urban affairs reporter, and says Houston’s decline in homelessness started around 2010 when the city was facing a crisis.

“The Department of Housing and Urban Development … decided to make Houston one of the 10 priority communities to work on homelessness,” Garnham says. “So, there was this reaction from the city, from the community that worked with homelessness, in general, and there was a complete restructuring of the system.”

He says the mayor at the time, Annise Parker, made tackling homelessness a priority, and the city’s housing authority also got involved. Also, Houston nonprofit Coalition for the Homeless started using data to better track the needs of those experiencing homelessness.

“For example, instead of everyone giving food, maybe they realized that they needed X amount of food pantries, but there was also a need for someone to coordinate the process to get people in housing,” Garnham says.

He says more precise data also helped the city get more federal funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD. That money was key to the city improving its homeless rate. But that money had to be managed properly and Garnham says Houston did that well.

“There’s a big administrative side to this,” Garnham says. “And Houston, certainly, with the money that they got, they did a great job.”

And since HUD bases its funding on how cities perform, it was more likely to continue to give Houston money.

“What you have is a virtuous cycle that Houston saw,” Garnham says. “They keep getting more and more money, and the biggest reason [for] this is their good performance.”

Dallas, on the other hand, is struggling with climbing homelessness rates. Garnham says the main driver of this is a lack of affordable housing. He says most of the new housing being built in the city is for middle- and upper-income households.

“There’s a lot of luxury construction,” Garnham says.

He says Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies’ recent report on the state of housing in the U.S. pointed to Dallas specifically for its real estate boom.

“It has the highest volume in home sales in 2018, tied with Los Angeles,” Garnham says. “And home prices have grown 42% between 2006 and 2018.”

On the other hand, the City of Dallas didn’t have a dedicated office to tackle homelessness until 2017. Garnham says there’s also been leadership and organizational problems that has kept the city from effectively dealing with the problem.

“If you don’t have all the little parts working together and having the same data and using it better, that can also impact the numbers,” Garnham says.

Housing affordability is the first problem to tackle, Garnham says, but beyond that, it’s all the other stuff that Houston is doing – and Dallas isn’t – that’s helping keep homelessness down.

“There is also these other components to the problem that is institutional,” Garnham says.

Written by Caroline Covington.