Gabrielle Gomez is the voice of assurance on the end of an emergency call. As a Houston Police Department 911 telecommunicator, she answers the call to public service and performs a life-saving service to the community every day.
But like thousands of Houstonians, Gomez has struggled to find an affordable apartment when the rising cost of local housing outpaced her public servant income. Gomez, a single mother, recently moved closer in town after living in suburbs with her daughter, but cutting her daily commute came at a price.
The national average annual income for emergency dispatchers is $38,800, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Budgeting 30 percent for housing would mean paying about $970 a month in rent, but the median cost of rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Houston is $1,492.
“I work at the Houston Emergency Center, and I wanted to live closer to work because we can be called to work during times of emergency,” Gomez said. “It was nearly impossible to find a two-bedroom apartment that I could afford on my salary, so my daughter and I will settle on a one-bedroom for now.”
Gomez is not alone. According to the 2009-2013 Census Bureau American Community Survey, there were about 392,000 low- and moderate-income households in Greater Houston whose income could qualify them to reside in subsidized affordable homes. The Houston Chronicle reported that during the same years, an estimated 400,000 low-income families in Harris County spent more than 30 percent of their income on housing. As of April 2017, the Houston Housing Authority estimated 43,000 families were on the waiting list for subsidized housing.
Housing authorities say Houston is in an affordable housing crisis, yet many Houstonians are quick to say, “No, no thank you, not in my backyard,” to new development. But a recent Houston Housing and Community Development Department campaign aims to counteract NIMBY (not in my backyard) sentiments by encouraging residents to say yes to affordable homes for all incomes in all areas of the city.
The “Can I Be Your Neighbor,” or “Say Yes,” public awareness campaign featured Gomez and two other city employees on posters that were distributed on social media and in 460,000 City of Houston water bill inserts. The campaign aims to educate Houstonians about the working individuals and families, like police officers, firefighters, and medical workers and teachers who are economically segregated due to escalating rents and home sales prices. Joan Hendricks, another HPD dispatcher, and Jason Griggs, an HFD firefighter, also participated in the campaign.
“We hope this campaign will put a human face on the need for affordable homes and educate the viewer that when affordable homes are opposed, it denies others who provide valuable services to our city the opportunity to improve their quality of life,” HCDD Director Tom McCasland told the Rice University Kinder Institute.
With the help of HCDD’s communications team, Sasha Marshall and Mary Itz, HCDD planners, launched the “Say Yes” campaign as part of National Fair Housing Month in April. But that was just the beginning. Marshall said the department plans to extend the campaign until the end of the year.
Affordable home developments are frequently stymied by community opposition that is based on misinformation and stereotypes, Marshall said.
“Armed with these negative perceptions, residents have organized to fight proposed affordable home developments by writing letters of opposition to public officials, raising money to create websites and hire lawyers, and voicing their opposition during public hearings for Low Income Housing Tax Credit properties. If there is too much community opposition, potential developers seeking tax credits will back out of the property, or the property will not receive the number of points needed to secure the tax credits needed to finance construction. At that point low- and moderate-income Houstonians are back to square one.
“If opponents just listened, they would understand that saying ‘Not In My Backyard,’ means rejecting the elderly, people with disabilities, veterans and hard-working Houstonians who serve your neighborhood every day,” Marshall said. “They are making your coffee, cooking your food, teaching and caring for your kids, protecting your neighborhood and cleaning your homes. These people provide a valuable service to the community that you enjoy every day; these people make your life better. You entrust them with those services, but you don’t want them to live in your neighborhood?”
Further complicating matters is legal source of income discrimination in Texas. Landlords are legally permitted to reject renters who plan to pay with Section 8 housing vouchers.
“Property owners who accept vouchers as payment are typically already in low-income areas,” Marshall said. “This potentially limits voucher holders to remain in low-income areas with underperforming schools, and they are stuck in the cycle of poverty. So, how is that household truly being assisted?
“Housing assistance is a step up not a handout,” she said. “We always root for the underdog in the movies and in sports, so why don’t we root for the underdog in real life? Why are people unwilling to give others a chance?”
Residents might be surprised by the quality of construction and designs of recent affordable home developments, Marshall said.
“These properties are built with a lot of careful consideration to the existing housing stock in the area,” Marshall said. “Most people can’t tell the difference between affordable home developments and new luxury apartments. HCDD funded affordable home developments win architectural, design and environmental awards, including LEED certification, and they have not affected property values negatively.”
In addition to award-winning designs, Marshall said many developments include supportive services such as job training, home buyer assistance education and child care services so residents can become upwardly mobile and not reliant on assistance.
The “Say Yes” campaign was launched in April, but it is already gaining momentum and favorable feedback. Local, state and national organizations including the City of Seattle, Evolve Austin and Stanford University have expressed interest in analyzing or replicating the campaign model. Marshall said HCDD was invited to present at the National YIMBYtown (Yes In My Back Yard) conference this summer in Oakland, Calif. The campaign was also featured in the Rice University Kinder Institute Urban Edge blog.
Moving forward, HCDD is developing an affordable home development survey on its website, plans to work with City Council members to gauge public sentiment in each district, give educational presentations to the public, and host an affordable homes tour where the public can see the affordable homes for themselves and meet the residents who live there.
“We want to educate the public and open the dialogue about affordable home development before it gets to a heated public hearing,” Marshall said. “We plan to speak to Super Neighborhoods and homeowner associations that have not been receptive in the past and ask, ‘What would type of housing would you not mind seeing in your neighborhood? You may not agree with the development that a developer proposed last year; what if we did a smaller multi-family complex, or what if we did scattered site homes or other types of affordable homes?’
“We want people to talk to their friends and neighbors, be educated and educate others, and be vocal about your support of affordable home options for all incomes in all areas of the city,” Marshall said.