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With rents rising fast, Texas homeless shelters see more families seeking help

Jade Barron.JPG
Hunter Lacey
/
The Texas Tribune
Jade Barron at the Family Gateway shelter in downtown Dallas on Tuesday. Barron and her children moved into the shelter after the rent at their one-bedroom apartment was raised higher than they could afford.

Amid rising housing costs and relentless inflation, an increasing number of Texans are struggling to pay their rent and stay in their homes.

DALLAS — Jade Barron doesn’t know how she and her six kids will ever get out of a downtown homeless shelter.

For three years, Barron and her four children had crammed into a one-bedroom apartment in North Dallas — the $850 rent was what Barron could afford as a massage therapist.

Last year, Barron, 30, gave birth to twins. Finding affordable child care was next to impossible, often prompting Barron to cancel her massage appointments so she could stay home with the kids. Inflation made it more difficult for Barron to afford formula, diapers and wipes. She sold her car to try to make ends meet — but fell behind on rent anyway.

When Barron’s landlord told her he planned to raise her rent to $1,400 when her lease was up — Barron said the landlord already had threatened to evict her for unpaid rent — she and her family wound up at the Family Gateway shelter in May.

In early September, she faced a conundrum: She’d been offered a job at Dallas County’s public hospital system as a physical therapy aide, but without reliable transportation and affordable child care, she worried that she couldn’t accept it. Even if she did, it probably wouldn’t pay enough to cover an apartment in Dallas — where the median monthly rent for a one-bedroom has jumped from roughly $1,100 a year ago to more than $1,500 today, according to Zillow.

“I always thought that people ended up in shelters because they weren't handling their business,” Barron said. “But I found out … I was handling my business as best I could and I still ended up homeless and in a shelter.”

Last year, federal rental assistance, expanded unemployment benefits and a federal moratorium on evictions offered a safety net for lower-income Texans hit hard by economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, with rental assistance less plentiful and the other measures expired, soaring rents, unrelenting inflation and rising electricity costs have squeezed Texas renters who were already on the brink — creating doubts for some that they’ll be able to stay in their homes and pushing others into homelessness.

More than 522,000 Texas renters — or about 8% of the state’s estimated 6.2 million tenants — said they were behind on payments this summer, according to a recent U.S. Census Bureau survey. Of those renters, three out of five feared they would be evicted within two months.

In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, about 19% of renters earning less than $50,000 per year said they were behind on rent.

Homeless shelters in Texas have seen a corresponding jump in demand.

A Fort Worth shelter run by the Salvation Army of North Texas can’t hold everyone seeking assistance there, said managing director Jay Dunn. About 40 families are staying at the shelter, and the Salvation Army has placed another 25 in overflow hotel rooms.

“Once they fall into it, it's taking a lot longer because they have to get a much more competitive wage,” Dunn said. “They’ve got to deal with higher costs in a variety of areas in the market in order to sustain themselves.”

Families that stay at Salvation Army shelters increasingly need help with food and paying rent and utility bills even when they find a new home, Dunn said.

Family Gateway, a Dallas-area nonprofit operating three emergency shelters that can hold up to 100 families, received 3,351 calls from families who needed and qualified for assistance from January to August — almost twice the number it received during the same period last year.

Of those, the number of families who said they were on the verge of eviction has quadrupled. More were paying out of pocket to live in hotels — and even more were living in precarious locations like their cars, according to data provided by the shelter. Family Gateway said it routinely has had to place 30 to 40 families in hotel rooms because there isn’t enough room in its shelters.

“For folks who are doing well, [increased costs spurred by inflation] are an annoyance,” said Ellen Magnis, president and CEO of Family Gateway. “But for folks who are earning barely enough to survive, an extra $100 a month in rent or an extra $50 a month for gas or any little increase just throws a whole new set of folks off-kilter.”

As Texas attracted more residents and employers over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, demand for all kinds of housing skyrocketed. Since the summer of 2021, rents in the state’s largest metropolitan areas have surged by double digits — exacerbating the state’s housing shortage.

Estimates vary on how many homes Texas needs to build to satisfy demand. A recent report from Up For Growth said Texas was short at least 322,000 single-family homes and apartments in 2019.

Housing is even harder to find for low-income households. Texas has one of the largest gaps in the nation between the number of households considered extremely low income and the number of available affordable homes, according to estimates from the National Low Income Housing Coalition — for every 100 extremely low-income households, there are 29 available rental units.

“We don’t want the next Skid Row in our community,” Magnis said. “But that’s where we’re headed if we don’t start figuring out how to build and sustain people in lower-cost living. The shelter system cannot just absorb it.”

“Our own private place”

The Dallas-Fort Worth region’s sky-high rents also have made it virtually impossible for some newcomers to the area to find a place to live.

Heather Dillard, 42, and her 14-year-old daughter relocated from San Angelo to Lewisville, a suburb half an hour northwest of Dallas, in 2021 so Dillard could undergo the last of a series of surgeries to repair serious injuries she suffered when a drunk driver struck her vehicle in 2013, leaving her in a wheelchair for a year.

Her surgeon had moved from Austin to Lewisville. Rather than find a new surgeon, Dillard made the eight-hour round trip from San Angelo to the Dallas suburb several times and decided to move there for the final surgery and months of follow-up visits.

But Dillard, who works as a singer and music teacher, has struggled to find a two-bedroom home she could afford within a reasonable distance from her doctor’s office.

Meanwhile, Dillard stayed in a hotel, which cost $650 to $850 per month — which was less than a one-bedroom apartment in Lewisville. She spent at least $3,000 from her savings and still had to borrow money from family members and get federal rental assistance dollars through a local United Way affiliate to cover nine months while she recuperated and had follow-up visits with her doctor.

Heather Dillard.JPG
Hunter Lacey
/
The Texas Tribune
Heather Dillard and her daughter Serena Dillard outside the Salvation Army shelter in Denton on Wednesday.

“It did bother me to a point because I wanted a place for my daughter and I … where we can have our own private place,” Dillard said.

The need for housing assistance also is growing in North Texas as housing costs and inflation surge. United Way of Denton County, which distributes the county’s allocation of federal rental assistance funds, received more than 400 applications when it opened the application process for the latest round of funds on Oct. 1, said Gary Henderson, the organization’s CEO. The organization now has a backlog of 2,760 applications for rental assistance, he said.

“We’ve never seen 2,760 households reaching out to avoid eviction, to avoid homelessness,” Henderson said.

Denton County officials set aside federal stimulus funds to pay for emergency hotel stays for people who recently lost their housing — but those funds dried up in May. That’s when Dillard and her daughter moved into a Salvation Army shelter in Denton, 20 minutes northwest of Lewisville. They’re now on a list for housing through the charity’s rapid rehousing program and still searching for an affordable apartment.

They’re trying to put down roots. Dillard is passing out fliers for her budding business giving voice lessons. She also wants to perform again. In an office at the Denton shelter, she sings a few bars in a bluesy croon reminiscent of Norah Jones. She’s looking for a guitarist to accompany her at live gigs in the college town but doesn’t have the necessary gear — she sold her speakers, microphones and other gear earlier in the pandemic to pay the bills.

Being without a home has tested her faith, she said, but ultimately strengthened it.

“You realize that everybody else around you is going through similar situations,” she said.

“Absolutely hating the world”

In 2015, when Mary Smith moved into her two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment in the Lake Highlands neighborhood in northeast Dallas, her part-time job as a cashier at Home Depot was enough to pay the $800 rent.

In April, the property switched hands — and her new landlord told her that if she planned to renew her lease at the end of September, they would hike the rent by $580, a nearly 60% increase over her current $1,000 rent.

Smith’s not alone. According to the recent Census Bureau survey, nearly 174,000 renters in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex reported that their landlords had raised their rent by more than $500 within the last 12 months.

The drastic jump shocked Smith. Her previous landlord had raised the rent gradually over the years — but never by such a large amount. The new landlord told her that’s what the market would fetch for the unit, Smith said.

“When I went into the office to speak with them, they said, no, that is what I have to pay,” Smith said. “They said everybody is gonna pay what the unit is worth.”

Smith reached out to a Dallas lawyer who represents tenants facing eviction and asked whether her landlord could legally raise the rent that much for an existing tenant. The response: In Texas, where there’s no statewide rent control law, landlords can raise rent as much as they think people will pay.

Smith, 61, can’t afford to move. Typically, landlords want new tenants’ monthly income to be at least three times the amount of their rent — a bar she’s afraid she couldn’t clear.

To cut costs, Smith cut her cable subscription and switched her internet and phone plans to the cheapest possible, she said. She’s taken more hours at Home Depot and babysits and braids hair to bring in extra money — and borrowed money from a local church. In December, she’ll begin receiving Social Security checks.

Even then, finances will be tight.

“I can’t be splurging,” Smith said. “It’ll be tight. But I’m not comfortable, and I just can’t jump up and move.”

“Damned if I do, damned if I don’t”

The Texas housing market has cooled since the Federal Reserve began raising interest rates in the spring to try to put the brakes on inflation — resulting in higher mortgage rates. Meanwhile, rents have risen by double-digit percentages each month this year compared with the same time last year in the state’s major metropolitan areas, according to figures from Zillow — though those increases have slowed.

Higher mortgage rates combined with still-high home prices have created more demand for rentals, said Orphe Divounguy, a senior economist at Zillow. At the same time, more builders are constructing new apartment buildings because of that demand, he said, which means rents won’t rise as quickly as more rental units become available.

Builders in Texas filed construction permits for new projects that will include nearly 74,000 rental units through August, according to the Census Bureau, a 20% jump from the same time period last year.

“We expect rent growth to slow,” Divounguy said. “We just don’t know how long that adjustment period is going to take.”

That has left Barron, the Dallas-area massage therapist with four children, in a difficult position. She accepted the job at Parkland Health, Dallas County’s public hospital system, and found child care for her three youngest children. But she still doesn’t have a car and plans to rely on ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft to help her get from the shelter to her job and take her kids to and from day care. Ride-sharing would cost her hundreds of dollars per week.

The Parkland job — which pays about $2,800 a month — isn’t enough for Barron to afford rent along with her other costs.

A family the size of Barron’s will likely need a federal housing voucher to afford a place to stay, said Magnis, the Family Gateway CEO. But vouchers are hard to come by and are given out through a lottery system.

Even if Barron received one, there’s no guarantee she would find housing. Under state law, Texas landlords don’t have to accept tenants who receive federal rental assistance — and landlords who do are scarce in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex.

“Damned if I do, damned if I don’t — that’s what it seems like a lot of the time,” Barron said. “But I try to stay hopeful. … I just don’t want to let my children down.”