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Skyrocketing rents in North Texas threaten people with housing assistance

Brittany Jones-062122.JPG
Bret Jaspers
/
KERA News
Brittany Jones says she's experienced poor housing conditions at the Hillcrest Apartments in Mesquite. She’s looking for a new place to live. She says she was told that she can't stay in her apartment while receiving a housing subsidy after the complex failed an inspection.

Brittany Jones said she’s experienced mold, insect infestations, and a lack of air conditioning during her four years at Hillcrest Apartments in Mesquite. She’s written apartment management, advocated in the media, and even founded a tenant's union at Hillcrest.

But all that effort still hasn’t led to a suitable place to live. Jones has been searching for a new unit because Dallas County has said she can’t stay in her apartment while receiving a housing subsidy. The county no longer has a contract with Hillcrest due to the conditions, according to its public health director.

Jones is a recipient of housing assistance through the federally funded Housing Choice Voucher Program. The program requires people getting the aid to have apartments inspected before they move in. They also must find units within a specific price structure.

Recipients say the most recent standards, established in October, are inadequate due to skyrocketing rents over the past year.

“In that time frame of me trying to find somewhere, my voucher expired,” Jones said. “There’s nowhere for us to go.”

Jones took her concerns to Dallas County Commissioners Court earlier this week.

“Can we get more time?” she asked commissioners. “What can we do to get the costing list raised? Because if we know that they’re raising the cost of living, why not raise the cost of the pricing list so we can get in these apartments?

Apartment List says year-over-year percentage rent increases for several North Texas cities are in the double digits, including Dallas (17.4%), Plano (21%), and Mesquite (15.2%).

Jones has had her voucher extended more than once. She initially waited for Hillcrest to find her a new unit. When that fell through, she searched elsewhere. Late Wednesday, Jones told KERA her voucher was extended again until late July.

A fellow Hillcrest resident, Karen Chatmon, said she also had a late July deadline.

“You should give us a year to find somewhere,” Jones said in an interview. “If you know there’s no affordable housing, there’s nowhere for us to stay … It’s going to take us more than six months.”

Dallas County Health and Human Services is just one of the local agencies that manages the voucher program. Director Philip Huang said he knows rents are rising, but that the caps are set by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Huang said the feds will reassess those limits if more than 40% of families receiving vouchers in a zip code are putting more than 30% of their adjusted monthly income towards their share of the rent.

“That’s when the modification to the maximum subsidy is corrected by HUD,” Huang said.

Huang’s staff told him that the county’s data is not showing numbers that would prompt a change in HUD’s payment caps. Nor has his staff seen a trend of more apartment complexes failing inspections.

“We don’t want people living in places that aren’t safe and sanitary,” he said.

The City of Mesquite is suing the owners of the Hillcrest Apartments, a suit which the union recently joined. The landlord and the city agreed to a court order that said violations of city code must be repaired by June 10.

“For years, the City has received resident complaints of lack of heat, air conditioning, hot water, and other property management issues,” Mesquite City Manager Cliff Keheley said in a February letter to residents.

Got a tip? Email Bret Jaspers at bjaspers@kera.org. You can follow Bret on Twitter @bretjaspers.

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