Supportive housing reduces homelessness, improves public safety and saves taxpayer money. It’s the kind of successful program that brings together the public and private sector, nonprofits and faith-based groups — even Democrats and Republicans.
So, why is it suddenly under attack by the state of Texas?
“This doesn’t make any sense. We are shaking our heads over here,” said Mike Nichols, head of the nonprofit Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County. “I believe good government can help, and this is just the opposite.”
A proposal by the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs would block people with criminal records from accessing the effective combination of affordable housing and wraparound supportive services that has helped reduce Houston’s homeless population by more than 50 percent over the past eight years, according to Houston officials.
The draft rule change is part of the state’s qualified action plan for 2021, which outlines how Texas spends federal funds earmarked for developing affordable housing. Barring those with criminal convictions would severely limit the main intervention used to successfully house the homeless, said Marc Eichenbaum, special assistant to the mayor for homeless initiatives.
“By doing this, we’re creating this huge class of untouchables who are stuck on the streets,” he told the editorial board. “We’re creating modern day lepers without giving them even a colony.”
Most chronically homeless people have criminal records. Nearly 50 percent self-identity as having been convicted of a felony, officials said. The real number is likely to be higher and is probably around 75 percent once you include misdemeanors, Eichenbaum said.
This comes with the territory, as many suffer from substance abuse issues or mental illness that led to their homelessness in the first place. Being on the street itself increases the chance of being arrested.
“If you’re homeless, you are 10 times more likely to have a negative experience with the police,” Nichols said. “If you drink a beer in your house, nothing happens. They drink a beer; they’re going to have a problem.”
The state’s proposal would keep applicants out of affordable housing for two years if they have been convicted of nonviolent felonies. Even Class A misdemeanors, such as possession of 2 ounces of marijuana or criminal trespass, would ban someone for at least a year.
This blanket prohibition is likely to become a never-ending circle, as the longer someone spends on the street, the longer they’re exposed to trauma and the likelier they are to suffer from substance abuse and mental illness.
Speaking to the Texas Tribune, a TDHCA spokesperson said the proposed rule change stems from safety complaints about a now-canceled supportive housing project in the West Campus neighborhood near the University of Texas at Austin.
The state’s argument about keeping dangerous people out of communities makes sense, but putting NIMBYism aside, would you rather have someone with a criminal record roaming the streets or housed and getting the help they need?
There are also rules already in place. The federal government prohibits subsidized housing for certain sex offenders and those convicted of arson or of manufacturing meth. Affordable housing developers can create their own screening policies, but they are flexible and can address issues on a case-by-case basis.
Even the development of tax-supported affordable housing projects is subject to community input and minor opposition can scuttle plans.
The rule change doesn’t make much sense fiscally, either. A recent Harris County study found that it costs local taxpayers an average of $91,000 a year for a person to remain on the street, mostly in emergency health care, criminal enforcement and clean up. Compare that to the $17,000 a year, mostly in federal funds and divided almost evenly between rent and services, spent on supportive housing.
With little to warrant the rule change, it’s no wonder that Republican and Democratic lawmakers are speaking out. A bipartisan letter — signed by 17 legislators, including Republican state Reps. Sarah Davis and Dan Huberty and Democratic Reps. Harold Dutton and Senfronia Thompson — urges the state to reconsider the “misguided plan.”
Texas state Rep. James White, R-Hillister, head of the House Corrections Committee and far from a bleeding heart, is a little more blunt, calling the proposal “absolutely unproductive” in a recent Twitter post.
“This housing program is funded through federal tax credits and federal policy has addressed this issue since 2016 and I have not heard of any concerns. TDHCA needs to pull the damn rule. This is bureaucracy on top of bureaucracy,” White wrote.
The Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs must drop the proposed rule before it votes on its plan next month. If it fails to do so, then it will be up to Gov. Greg Abbott to reject the change.
In the past, Abbott has railed against Austin’s homeless policies. It would be hypocritical and foolish for the state to take away one of the best ways to fight the problem.