The crisis is already in motion: about 727,000 Texans have no confidence they can pay their rent for the coming month, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's latest data. Another one million have “little confidence” that they’ll make rent next month. About $217 million remain in the Texas Rent Relief Program’s coffers, enough to support monthly housing for about 36,000.
Even before the pandemic, the stage was set for a housing crisis. The Dallas-area housing market boomed in recent years, but wages didn’t keep up. As a result, more and more low- and middle- income people were forced into precarious rental situations, using between 30% and 70% of their monthly income on rent. Meanwhile, more than 4,000 people live on the streets in Dallas County.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit early last year, unemployment and homelessness ballooned in Texas. Both federal and state efforts aimed to help by supplementing unemployed peoples’ monthly income. But state officials ended Texas’ additional financial benefits ended last month, and the Supreme Court recently axed the nationwide eviction ban.
Still, Wheaton sees a unique opportunity approaching.
Texas is set to receive just under $16 billion in federal coronavirus response money in the coming weeks as part of the American Rescue Plan Act. Texas Housers, alongside Southern Dallas Progress CDC, Texas Tenants’ Union, and several other housing advocacy groups, say the state needs to set aside $5 billion for housing stability projects.
“We have a real opportunity to leverage our federal dollars to help fix a huge state issue right away,” Wheaton said.
Last week, Texas Housers and the other groups released a proposal detailing how the $5 billion could be spent. The proposal outlines a multi-pronged strategy for using the federal dollars to both alleviate the immediate housing perils the homeless and the poor are facing, and to build durable affordable housing solutions.
“This is money to stop immediate evictions, but it’s also programs that will have multi-generational long-term positive effects,” said Dena Jackson, chief operations officer at Texas Women’s Foundation. “We’re asking how we can build assets and build wealth in these families that they can then turn down to their children."
But some state lawmakers have other plans for ARPA funds. Last week, Sen. Jane Nelson, the state Senate's top-ranking Republican and chair of the Senate Finance Committee, proposed spending exactly zero dollars on housing initiatives.
Senate Bill 8, which Nelson introduced late last week, allocates more than $7 billion in ARPA funds for replenishing the state’s Unemployment Compensation Fund. That fund protects businesses from increased unemployment taxes, which depend on the number of employees filing for such benefits.
“COVID-19 impacted Texas on many fronts, and this bill takes a holistic approach to address a wide range of needs that emerged during the pandemic,” Nelson said in a press release.
The bill aims to support businesses after pandemic-related layoffs, provide healthcare to teachers, broaden access to mental healthcare, expand resources for crime victims and beef up support for healthcare workers.
"These are strategic, one-time investments that will strengthen our ongoing recovery from the pandemic," Nelson added.
“Let’s get ahead of that curve. Let’s make it easier for low and moderate income people to rent, and make it easier for low and moderate income people to buy homes, right now.” - David Wheaton
Wheaton said giving more than $7 billion in ARPA dollars to the Unemployment Compensation Fund while leaving housing initiatives high and dry betrays the core mission of the ARPA to alleviate the worst conditions suffered by those most affected.
In Dallas County, Black and Latino households are three times more likely to face eviction than white households, according Princeton University's Eviction Lab and Child Poverty Action Lab.
James McGee, president of Southern Dallas Progress CDC, said the absence of any spending on housing initiatives in Sen. Nelson's proposal reveals who the GOP considers a priority in Texas.
“The truth is that they don’t give a damn about these people,” said James McGee, president of Southern Dallas Progress CDC, another coalition member.
Sen. Nelson’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Beyond the $7.3 billion earmarked for unemployment payouts to businesses, McGee attributes the distribution of funds proposed in SB 8 to a simple motivator: greed.
“This is how you set it up perfectly for investors,” McGee explained. “If you don’t put any money towards housing, you create a ripple effect of evictions, and therefore vacant houses and vacant apartments. Then developers can come in, knock down what’s there and remodel it and make 30-40% profit,” said McGee.
The coalition is trying to avoid this by building new affordable housing units, increasing rental assistance opportunities and equipping renters with tools to navigate the housing market — efforts which McGee said all aim at “stabilizing housing” for low- and middle-income renters.
Wheaton of Texas Housers warned that without an intervention like the one the coalition is proposing, “We’re going to have another affordable housing crisis in the next five to 10 years.”
The incoming heap of federal funds presents a rare opportunity to address a long-standing statewide problem, he argued.
“Let’s get ahead of that curve," Wheaton said. "Let’s make it easier for low and moderate-income people to rent, and make it easier for low and moderate-income people to buy homes right now."