By MIKE McGEE
The Dallas Examiner
As the effects of COVID-19 continues for months on end, a potential rent and housing crisis looms in Dallas County.
Joblessness remains high even as the $600 CARES Act state unemployment assistance has run out, with low- and middle-class households continuing to feel an economic pinch. For many locals, this has meant rental deferments, rent assistance and temporary moratoriums on evictions.
However, tenants and property owners are both finding this type of aid far from perfect, and more importantly, unsustainable in the long term. It is in this current state of events that Social Venture Partners Dallas presented “Housing Responds, A Part of the Responds Series from SVP Dallas,” held Aug. 11.
Panelists involved in the video presentation represented experts and decision-makers in Dallas housing.
Their discussion was intended to “shed light on what is to come for our communities and economy, spotlight successful interventions, and illuminate how we might avert a housing crisis in North Texas,” according to a statement from SVP Dallas.
During the video seminar, Jennifer Owen, attorney with Higier Allen & Lautin, P.C., noted the dual factors of a need for more affordable housing and the cost of rent rising faster than wages created problems in the housing rental market even before the COVID-19 social distancing and economic slowdown.
“Thirty-six percent of renting households in the U.S., that’s 44 million renters, have an annual median income of $41,000,” she explained. “Seventy-three percent of the poorest renter households are severely housing-cost burdened. That means they are spending more than half of their income on housing, which means there’s little left over for food and other basic necessities.”
City council member Casey Thomas II, vice chair of the Housing and Homeless Solutions Committee, mentioned some of the protections the city has in place to confront the ongoing COVID-19/housing crisis.
The mayor created two economic recovery committees once COVID-19 reached Dallas, Thomas said, including the committee on which he serves.
“We passed an ordinance that placed and put protections in for any renters,” he said about the directive penned under the declaration of disaster. ”Anyone who’s at risk for eviction as a result of losing their income due to COVID-19, they have 60 days where they can come up with an actual plan for a payment plan, or work out some other plan, between them and the management company of the apartment complex that they’re in.”
Even while the similar federal ordinance has expired, the city’s protective ordinance remains active, he offered.
Philanthropic organizations have also partnered with the city to assist in stemming the pressure many feel in the current rental market. Ashley Brundage, the senior vice president for Community Impact of the United Way of Metropolitan Dallas, discussed a $4.8 million grant the United Way received from the city as part of a larger federal aid payment.
Her organization, and the 17 other nonprofit groups it partners with, has put those funds to use more efficiently at a local level for those in need. This includes getting aid and services to areas of concentrated poverty as well as to undocumented communities. Brundage confirmed that the Apartment Association of Greater Dallas website had a list of other funding resources available.
“I want to add these dollars just aren’t enough. We need a whole lot more in the community,” she admitted. “I know that H.U.D. and the state have other dollars to allocate but it just hasn’t gotten down [to] the local level yet.”
During the online discussion it was mentioned that there was a popular sentiment regarding the plight of landlords or property owners; how their financial struggles during this time were not significant or should be left to their own devices to get by.
Lucy Billingsley of The Billingsley Company rejected that notion. A major figure in property building and management as well as and philanthropy for decades, Billingsley reminded viewers that there were two types of property managers; the large, wealthy commercial groups or multifamily developers, and then significantly smaller owners.
“The mom-and-pops have about 40% of the nation’s 48 million rental units, so the impact on the mom-and-pops is instant, it’s hard, and it ripples right through their personal economic wherewithal,” she lamented.
Even though The Billingsley Company does not trade in affordable housing, she confessed that even a percentage of her tenants either had to move elsewhere or seek assistance during the current economic difficulties.
“So, as our clients go, so go we. You know, landlord is almost a bad word, but when you’re one, it really wears your heart.”
She indicated that ethical landlords would care about their communities, the quality of their properties as to how they enhance people’s lives, and the residents themselves, among other factors.
Billingsley also argued that landlords in many cases do not own their buildings. Like many a homeowner, a bank is the real owner of the property until it is paid off, even in the face of ten years of rising property taxes and other long-term economic issues.
A loss of rent leads to a high rate of evictions. To a landlord with a shrinking profit margin that means the potential of a bank foreclosing on property with the possibility of all tenets being forced out, families leaving the area, and employees losing their jobs. It is not a process that companies building communities want. Mass evictions do no good for any landlord, Billingsley proposed.
Owens challenged both Billingsley and Thomas on getting more developers to build affordable housing in such a way that makes sense for them to do so, in this COVID-19 moment and beyond.
“One of the first steps is knowing how many affordable or workforce housing units we need,” the councilman responded. “That’s something that we’ve charge staff with, to give us a number. And I know they’re working on that. And once we have that number then we can look at different forms of housing; multi-family housing, mixed income, single family, and then we can effectively address the housing shortage that we have here in the city of Dallas.”
Billingsley admitted that property taxes were the biggest expense of her developments, at a cost of 47%. Lower taxes would be the greatest appeal to getting her company more involved with creating affordable housing.
Thomas also acknowledged the problem that the “not in my neighborhood” mindset brings to affordable housing, regardless of COVID-19.
“There’s been a lot of opposition in the past to affordable developments, but once you get a chance to know the people as opposed to ‘that person over there,’ see who the person is, know their story, understand their challenges, and be empathetic, that’s the key word,” the councilman voiced, “… it helps us to realize that we’re more alike than we are different.”
All of the participants agreed that more discussion and further working towards complex solutions to the complex problem of renting during COVID-19 – and affordable housing beyond the current state – was needed. During the conclusion of the webinar it was announced that further “Housing Responds” talks would be developed. The series can be found on the SVP Dallas YouTube account.