Breaking News
More () »

Austin affordable rental units left empty as residents sit on waitlists

Despite Austin’s housing boom over the past few years, City data shows we’re failing at helping our most vulnerable find affordable housing.

AUSTIN, Texas — Foundation Communities will soon open an affordable housing complex. So far, more than 2,000 people have put their name on the list as “interested,” hoping for one of the 135 units.

“With the overwhelming demand, we've gone to a lottery system. We'll randomly select the first 40 names and then set up appointments with them and then continue to fill the property,” Walter Moreau, executive director of Foundation Communities, said.

Tom Bauer understands the fight to find affordable housing. He spent eight months calling different Foundation Communities complexes.

“I was pulling my hair out now. I mean, I kept wondering what was going to happen. All the phone calls, unbelievable,” Bauer said.

He moved to Austin to be closer to family. His first apartment was $2,100 a month, he said. His social security check was $800.

“My money was going fast through my life savings, everything,” Bauer said.

He and his two sisters called six different communities the first Tuesday of each month.

Foundation Communities, like other affordable housing developers, does not have a standard application to cover all complexes.

“Sometimes they would say, ‘Well, you got about 30 people ahead of you so hang in there and we'll call you,’” Bauer said.

Demand high for affordable housing in Austin

But some affordable housing websites paint a different picture of availability. The KVUE Defenders found dozens of units available for low-income families. We wanted to know why charities like Foundation Communities carried a waitlist when other affordable housing properties in Austin were available.

Affordable housing uses a federal government standard based on an area’s median family income (MFI). In the Austin-Round Rock area, it’s $110,300 for a household of four. Half of that amount is considered “very low income.” A household of four making 30% of the area MFI is considered “extremely-low income.”

“We started about 35 years ago, and our mission, our passion, has been to build really beautiful affordable housing both for families and individuals – and really not just housing, but the kinds of services that help families on a tight budget,” Moreau said.

Foundation Communities offers on-site community services such as education classes and health care. The charity has 7,000 residents.

“But the need is still so much greater. You know, we're only maybe 10% of the need. We could build 70,000 units,” Moreau said.

Moreau became executive director more than 20 years ago.

“I think the original board members and director were really visionary because in the ‘80s Austin was still cheap. You know, when the movie ‘Slacker’ came out, you could go to school part-time and you could be a musician. And I really think it led to our culture of weirdness. We were cheap and we were weird. And, I don't know, I think – I hope – we’re still weird, but we're not cheap anymore,” Moreau said.

Who qualifies for affordable housing?

The KVUE Defenders asked Moreau how they could have a waitlist when other area listings show vacant affordable units.

Affordable housing is tied to more than a person’s income.

“Every one of our communities was developed with different funding,” Moreau said.

Affordable housing programs for developers backed by government incentives come with rules and regulations. Depending on the incentive, a low-income tenant who would qualify for one complex may not qualify for another.

“There's HUD [U.S. Housing and Urban Development] guidelines, tax credit rules, city requirements, state laws, fair housing, and all those things make our leasing of an affordable apartment a little more complicated,” Moreau said. “Those are just the ones that I can think of off the top of my head,” Moreau said.

Some rentals have special restrictions, such as the Section 811 program. It was designed to help people with disabilities living in institutions, those with serious mental illness and youth with disabilities exiting foster care. But the tenant doesn’t apply. Instead, it’s a Qualified Referral Agent. Without that referral, the unit may sit empty.

What looks like a mass of vacancies are chipped away, tagged with rules and regulations meant to protect and help.

HACA housing

“We're one piece of the housing ecosystem,” Mike Gerber, president & CEO of Housing Authority of the City of Austin (HACA), said.

HACA administers HUD programs such as public housing and rental vouchers. It has 18 public and subsidized housing properties throughout the city totaling more than 1,839 apartments.

“There's still a tremendous supply gap because there's so many people who've come to Austin … We need to dramatically increase the supply of housing here in our city,” Gerber said.

Gerber said there’s not enough federal money to build enough public housing here. By law, HACA is not allowed to have a net increase in HUD-backed public housing. The housing is capped at Oct. 1, 1999 levels.

To help people find a unit that fits their needs, groups like HACA and Foundation Communities invest in their own properties using a mix of public and private dollars. HACA owns a subsidiary corporation called Austin Affordable Housing Corporation (AAHC).

“The motto we have is to find all types of housing for all types of people in all parts of our city,” Gerber said.

AAHC has developed nearly 60 properties over the past 10 years.

“Actually, all of them are affordable. Some have different affordability levels serving those at 60% [MFI], serving those at 80%, serving those at 30% … It's part of a broader system. We're trying to lift everybody up,” Gerber said.

Barriers to getting approved for affordable housing

The KVUE Defenders asked Gerber about the affordable housing vacancies they found. He said not only are there not enough to match the household to the right unit, those who do meet federal income guidelines and any other restriction may not pass property-owner screening.

Property owners may have requirements such as two months’ worth of rent due up front, a high credit score and no violent crime convictions.

“We know the criminal background checks are an issue,” Gerber said.

Another reason why some places carry a waitlist and others have vacancies may also come down to the application.

There is no standard affordable housing application that a renter can use. They must apply to each complex. Each application costs a family money and time – two things they may not have. When they see a vacancy, they need to be sure they would qualify.

“We try to stay especially flexible for families that are in crisis situations,” Moreau said.

Foundation Communities helps people transition out of homelessness. The plans are underway to build eight more communities before 2030.

“We do a rental history check, a credit check, criminal check. We try to stay especially flexible for families that are in crisis situations. If a family's been homeless and we do a credit check, we expect there's going to be some marks on their record, and so we try to design criteria that are flexible,” Moreau said.

That flexibility may lead to longer waitlists.

Bauer said he needed Foundation Communities to lower his living expenses, and it ended up saving his life. A cheaper rent means more money to fight cancer. Some of his doctors are within a 30-minute walk.

Foundation communities covers utility payments and has a food bank. It leaves Bauer with enough money at the end of the month to cover medical deductibles.

Some other charities with affordable housing include:

The Austin Tenants Council offers an in-depth affordable housing guide for people seeking affordable housing in Austin. The guide includes listings with contact information, amenities, income levels served and other property information.

Erica Proffer on social media: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

KVUE on social media:Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | YouTube

Before You Leave, Check This Out