Federal cuts could worsen Austin’s affordability crisis, groups say

July 22, 2017
Nick Wagner
Robin Hoffpauir listens to a speaker during a rally at City Hall on Saturday. Austin Homes, Austin Voices organized the rally to protest President Donald Trump’s proposed budget cuts for affordable housing.

Budget cuts proposed by the Trump administration would have a devastating effect in Austin, a city already facing affordability issues, housing advocates say.

At a rally Saturday morning outside City Hall, representatives from a number of community organizations said slashing federal housing funding by 15 percent – or $7 billion – would affect countless people already struggling to make ends meet such as low-income families, veterans, people with disabilities and seniors.

Austin alone stands to lose $18.2 million in funding, the groups said, which would affect 1,929 households. If the proposed budget, which U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, called “appalling,” is passed, Texas as a whole would lose $494 million in housing funding, affecting 55,023 families statewide.

“We’re living in one of the least affordable places in the U.S.,” said Stephanie Thomas with ADAPT of Texas, a disability rights group. “Housing is critical to people’s lives. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to realize we need more funds for housing, not less.”

The need for vouchers and other forms of housing assistance is tremendous in Austin, Thomas and others said. A third of Travis County residents are spending about half their income on housing expenses alone. In Williamson County, it’s almost 50 percent of residents.

The average rent in Austin was $1,224 in 2016, according to Capitol Market Research. Someone making the federal $7.25 minimum wage, for example, would have to work 82 hours each week to afford a market-rate one-bedroom apartment, the groups said.

READ: Looking for a two-bedroom apartment in Austin? You need to make $23 an hour

Robert Hewett, a disabled Army veteran, is one of many Central Texans who count on government assistance to help with housing costs. For the past 2½ years, he’s lived at Capital Studios, a Foundation Communities project on East 11th Street near the Capitol.

“Living at Capital Studios saved my life and restored my dignity,” he said.

After losing his hearing, Hewett said, he was no longer able to work as an engineer. He burned through his savings, then worked briefly as a trucker – living out of a truck – before eventually becoming homeless.

“I felt so desperate,” he said.

He landed at Capital Studios after spending about six months in a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs shelter.

“These programs are critical,” Hewett said. “There are far too many people in our city who still need a home.”

Jacqueline Perez is another Central Texan who needed help to keep a roof over her head. She’s the recipient of a home built by Habitat for Humanity.

“I still remember the day I got the call. I still get the shakes thinking about it,” she said, choking back tears. “My parents were always treading water, never able to achieve the American dream of homeownership. I’m proud to say their daughter now has that American dream.”

Austin, Perez said, is “a beautiful city with beautiful families who deserve stable homes.”

“I’m blessed to have a home, but I know I’m not the last to need one,” she said.

At the city level, officials are continuing to work on affordability, City Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said, but he said continued federal assistance is a must.

“These cuts being proposed by the federal government are devastating,” he said. “There is a national housing crisis. This isn’t just an Austin problem.”

Flannigan, who said he’s the only council member who is a renter, said he knows firsthand how challenging it can be to pay the bills each month.

“We can’t do it alone,” he said. “We need solutions from our national leaders. We need them to know we’re paying attention. We have to fight.”