A terrible legislative session for low-income Texans

Photo by Eddie Seals

Too many Texas legislators think their job is to benefit the people who make money off of housing, not the residents who live in it.

In this state, a legislative session is usually a windfall for landlords, developers and builders and a gut punch for low-income residents, especially renters. The session that just ended was no exception.

Legislators filed dozens of bills written by wealthy special interests to drive up rents, stack the deck against tenants in court, block local initiatives to build more affordable housing and otherwise make the already-difficult task of finding a decent place to live in Texas even harder.

Make no mistake — this state is in the middle of a housing affordability crisis. More than a third of Texans are renters. Yet there's a statewide shortage of more than 677,000 rental units affordable for low-income households, one of the worst deficits in the nation. The situation is especially dire in our major cities, where renters outnumber homeowners and housing deficits are growing daily.

Session after session, the Texas Legislature ignores this crisis — or finds ways to make it worse.

Lawmakers didn't do anything try to help families afford their rent and avoid eviction. They took no interest in alleviating the severe cost burdens that force 72 percent of extremely low-income Texans to spend more than half their incomes on housing. Nearly every bill filed to address resident issues went nowhere fast.

Meanwhile, legislators fell over themselves to pass a bill, proposed by millionaire developers, to allow construction of even more low-income housing on cheap land near low-quality schools. They prohibited tenants from disputing unfair water charges in court, allowing landlords to charge whatever they want with little consequence. They tried to hike renter late fees and blocked attempts to give tenants more notice about rent increases or make it easier for them to pay rent electronically.

State lawmakers also don't want cities to solve their own housing problems, echoing owner fears that profits would be jeopardized. Last session, the Legislature banned local efforts to stop landlords from discriminating against people with housing vouchers. Now wide majorities in the House and Senate have voted to prevent municipal fees that could have generated tens of millions of dollars to build more affordable housing. And several attempts to expand local tools to preserve affordable land and prevent displacement were crippled or shot down.

Texas' large-scale housing problems remain entirely unsolved. The state has not dedicated new resources to its already meager housing production fund in years, starving programs that create homes for residents in rural areas, veterans and people with disabilities. Many of the farmworkers fueling our state's economy live in inhumane conditions, crowded by the dozens into unsanitary rooms, but the state hasn't fined or enforced a violation against any facility in more than a decade. Hundreds of thousands of Gulf Coast residents, especially low-income families unable to rebuild on their own, remain vulnerable to years of displacement if a hurricane strikes due to the incredibly slow, expensive and inequitable way Texas administers disaster housing recovery.

The for-profit housing industry had another successful session at the Texas Capitol. But millions of lower-income residents have once again been left wondering: What about us?

John Henneberger

Co-director, Texas Low Income Housing Information Service

@TexasHousers

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