Dallas’ homeless housing program hits halfway goal despite tough market, discrimination

More than 1,000 people have received housing, but nearly 800 are still waiting to find a unit as rising rents, low supply and voucher-based discrimination slow the process.

By Leah Waters and Andrew Little, 11:05 AM on Sep 8, 2022

Gary Hill outside of The Stewpot after meeting with his case manager in downtown Dallas on Friday, Aug. 19, 2022. The social services agency has helped Hill find a new housing opportunity and will assist him with rent when he moves in. (Liesbeth Powers / Staff Photographer)

Gary Hill was eager for his new apartment key after living in a shelter off and on since the pandemic hit. He’d waited months for a unit after being referred to a new Dallas rapid rehousing program.

The lease was all but signed when, abruptly, the landlord said Hill wouldn’t be living there after all.

No reason was given for turning him away. But Hill and those helping him could take a good guess.

Hill is receiving help through the Dallas R.E.A.L. Time Rapid Rehousing initiative and his caseworker, Taylor Edrman, said it’s incredibly common for landlords to decline renting to the program because it uses federal subsidies to pay for rent.

The resistance turns their work into an “investigative” endeavor, said Erdman, one that requires team collaboration to find property owners who will work with them.

Hill will get a place, but it will take time.

“I was disappointed, but not to the point where I lost hope,” he said.

Hill is among the more than 1,800 people who have enrolled in the rehousing program, which began last September. The Dallas initiative, a collaborative, $72 million effort funded by a mix of private donations and a one-time infusion of COVID relief money, aims to house 2,700 people experiencing homelessness in Dallas and Collin counties before the end of next year.

So far the program has hit its goal of housing 1,000 people before reaching its one-year mark.

The city’s homeless solutions director, Christine Crossley, attributes that success to the program’s transformation of homeless services in Dallas, allowing for more coordination among service providers and a standardized process for getting people housed.

“We’ve come this far and I have confidence that we have evolved as a system,” Crossley said. “And we’re really nimble now in a way that can combat what’s going on.”

Their success up to this point hasn’t been without major challenges.

Finding landlords who accept tenants receiving rental assistance is an ongoing struggle, according to multiple service providers. A legal barrier exists that allows property owners to turn away people based on their source of income — a problem exacerbated by a dearth of affordable housing and spiking rents.

As of late, resurging COVID-19 cases, overflowing homeless shelters and summertime staffing issues have all “greatly impacted” their efforts as well, said Joli Robinson, CEO of Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, the program’s lead agency. Housing placements for individuals took a dive in July with only 84 people finding units, the first time placements dipped below 100 since January. Only 73 people received housing in August.

The program has about a year to reach its goal of housing 1,700 more people while working to find creative ways around a housing market that’s burdening all renters in D-FW.

According to MDHA, there are nearly 800 individuals enrolled in the program still waiting on housing.

“It’s the challenge of anyone finding an apartment in this market,” she said. “We’re not asking for unique allowances … the source of income is a discriminatory space regardless of the client it’s attached to.”

Barriers to housing

Hill received help through The Stewpot, one of multiple providers that supports the program. This systemwide approach, linking agencies across the city to collectively address homelessness, has been the “north star” for the program, Robinson said.

“It’s kind of a team effort at this point,” said Erdman, who has been helping Hill for the last couple months. She added that much of that effort goes into finding landlords who will participate.

It is unusual for landlords to accept applications and then back out like they did with Hill. Most of the time, the moment they hear that the program uses federal subsidies is the moment they shut the door.

“We can’t say that word, ‘voucher.’ There’s that discrimination against the voucher,” said Michelle Secours, housing director for The Stewpot, about negotiating with landlords. That discrimination extends to the name of the program as well. “As soon as they hear ‘Dallas R.E.A.L. Time’ … you can’t even finish your sentence.”

Nathaniel Barrett, a residential real estate developer, has managed a dozen small, market-rate apartments across Dallas for about five years. He has housed voucher holders in the past and recently accepted a Dallas R.E.A.L. Time participant.

Barrett says the biggest reason landlords aren’t encouraged to take vouchers is the delay caused by working with a third party like a housing authority, which requires units to pass inspections. And during a tight housing market, he says, it’s much harder for people to use vouchers.

“Why would [landlords] jump through one extra hoop when [they] have somebody right here with the cash to move in,” Barrett said.

Despite any extra steps involved with voucher holders, Barrett said housing them is “an amazing benefit” because of a guaranteed source of income.

“I’ve had nothing but extremely positive experiences with it because it just reduces my collection efforts substantially,” he said.

The Dallas City Council was considering an ordinance that would prevent landlords from refusing to rent to voucher holders in 2014, prompted by a Department of Housing and Urban Development investigation that accused officials of discouraging affordable housing development. But before the council could do so, the Texas Legislature banned cities from passing such an ordinance and Dallas enacted a watered-down version that provides protections only for veterans.

A 2020 survey conducted by the Inclusive Communities Project illustrates the divide a ban can have.

Only 9% of apartment complexes accept housing vouchers across Dallas, Denton, Rockwall and Collin counties, according to the survey, and most that do in Dallas are concentrated in its southern part. Areas where voucher holders don’t live are more likely to be white and higher income than areas where vouchers are accepted, which are disproportionately Black and Latino.

About 76% of people housed through the program so far are Black, African American or African; 54% of people experiencing homelessness in Dallas and Collin counties are Black or African American.

“While we’re getting people housed we also have to change a system that makes it OK to discriminate against source of income,” said Robinson.

To incentivize landlords to get on board, last year the program started giving out $1,000 to any who made their units available. The program offers to pay one month’s rent to hold units about to open up as well. But the carrots often aren’t enough.

To boost their efforts, lead agency MDHA created a housing locator team in January to deal exclusively in engaging landlords. The team is testing new strategies to persuade apartment owners to give their clients a shot, focusing on “retention and relationship building,” Robinson said.

Marsha Jackson, who leads the team, described the approach as “holding hands” of property owners. “We’re listening to them scream, whatever they need from us, we give it to them, because they don’t have to house our clients,” she said.

Visiting proprietors multiple times per week is part of the job, which involves walking landlords through the move-in process, doing inspections and providing continuous assistance throughout their tenant’s stay, such as furnishing the apartment and checking in on a regular basis.

Bypassing apartment leasing offices in favor of reaching property owners directly is another workaround, as well as arranging contracts for units that have yet to open up, giving landlords the security of knowing that units will be filled the moment they become vacant.

Fair rent in a hot, undersupplied housing market

A hot housing market exacerbates the challenge of finding landlords willing to accept low-income tenants, according to Mandy Chapman Semple, managing partner at Clutch Consulting Group. Chapman Semple helped launch Dallas’ rapid rehousing program after doing similar work in Houston, a city that has moved more than 25,000 people into housing over the last decade.

“We’ve never been more challenged in the housing market across the country, and this is absolutely true in Dallas, than we are today,” she said.

Most recently, rent in Dallas has been increasing at a clip of 12.3% year over year, according to data from CoStar. That has created a rapidly growing gap between market rents and what federal rental assistance covers.

HUD sets the amount federal housing subsidies can cover in a city, called the Fair Market Rent. In Dallas, that’s $1,150 for a one-bedroom apartment. But the average rent is now $1,568.

“In the environment we’re in now, HUD can’t keep up with what is their average rent because they do it annually, but this year, rent’s just skyrocketed,” said Rebecca Cox, chief services officer with The Bridge Homeless Recovery Center.

Attempting to catch up, HUD recently announced that the Fair Market Rent in Dallas will change in October to $1,326 for a one-bedroom apartment.

North Texas’s housing supply also isn’t keeping pace with its soaring population growth. According to a report by Up for Growth, a national research and policy organization working to solve the housing shortage, D-FW was short more than 80,000 homes in 2019. According to Texas A&M Real Estate Research Center, that number ballooned to over 100,000 in 2022.

Robinson said the homeless response system has transformed so much over the past year that if barriers didn’t exist, the more than 4,400 people experiencing homelessness in North Texas could get housed.

“If we had 4,000 units … we could house people without having to figure out if their rent met the HUD standard for rent reasonableness,” she said.

Helping those they can, while they can

Housing has been elusive for Hill since the pandemic hit, which caused him to lose his job as a dishwasher. He has found employment since then and is hoping for an apartment near his workplace. For now, he’s been commuting from a shelter while the program works to find a unit.

“When you’re in that time of need, you need a place to go,” he said. “So I do thank God for the shelters and all the assistance.”

While a major step up from staying in an emergency shelter, the program is similar in one way: It’s meant to be temporary, at least for the majority of those in it.

Out of the 2,700 people the program is aiming to house, 2,000 of them, including Hill, will receive help through a rapid rehousing subsidy, which covers rent for 12 months. The rest will receive emergency housing vouchers, which can be used beyond one year and are reserved for domestic violence survivors, families and people with serious health problems.

For rapid rehousing recipients like Hill, the goal is to provide them with enough support for them to become self-sufficient after the year is up. Tenants also receive help with utilities, furnishings and job placement.

In that way, the program is no different than any citizen receiving a little financial help from family, a church or other social service entities, said Robinson.

“Programs like this are what we all need from time to time to gain stability … when our life is in crisis,” she said.

As homelessness increases due to rising rents and evictions, looming over the program are questions about more permanent solutions. Much of the funding, including tens of millions in COVID relief money, is a one-time stimulus.

“I don’t think the city will see that amount of money coming into the system [again],” Robinson said.

Crossley and other city officials have said the city hopes to purchase more buildings for permanent supportive housing, which would assist people who are chronically homeless — those who have been unhoused for a year or more — and help skirt the problem of voucher discrimination.

For now, help is a step toward security for people like Hill.

A week after Hill’s unit fell through, another opportunity opened up. Currently he’s weighing his options together with Erdman — he’s hoping to sign a lease and move into an apartment within the month.

“I want a key. When I get off [work] I want to go home and open a door,” he said. “I’m very excited about getting ready to move.”