Experts say most rental housing construction is aimed at high-income renters — making it harder for low-income Texans to rent affordable homes. Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune
The percentage of Texans who rent instead of own their homes is rising at a faster rate than the state’s population. So, too, is the number of households spending more than 30% of their income on rental housing costs.
According to a Harvard University Joint Center for Housing Studies analysis released late Thursday, by 2018, nearly half of Texas households that rent were considered moderately or severely cost burdened by 2018. Moderately cost burdened means people spend between 30% and 50% of their household income on rent. And severely cost burdened means they spend more than 50%.
“In terms of other states, this is kind of in the middle of the pack,” said Whitney Airgood-Obrycki, research associate at the Joint Center for Housing Studies. “But Texas is seeing affordability pressures grow maybe faster than the rest of the country.”
In 2008, 1.3 million Texas households that rent were moderately or severely cost burdened. By 2018, that number rose to 1.7 million.
Meanwhile, the number of renter households in Texas is growing at twice the rate of owner households, according to census data. Airgood-Obrycki said this can have long-term effects on families’ wealth.
“This decreases the number of people that are gaining equity through home ownership,” the researcher said. “Also tenants don't have as many protections in Texas as in other states. So it creates a greater percentage of folks in vulnerability.”
One of the problems that Texas has, according to experts, is that although housing is being built, almost none of it is affordable.
“New construction is almost entirely at the high end,” said Airgood-Obrycki.
The Dallas area is the most extreme example of this in Texas. There, the market added more than 199,000 units available for $1,400 per month or more between 2008 and 2018. But the number of units renting available for less than $800 decreased 73%. Similar trends happened in the Houston area and, to a lesser degree, in the Austin and San Antonio regions.
“In Dallas it seems there is a really strong growth in high-income households who can actually afford those units, and you do see new construction to be able to absorb the demand [for that segment],” said Airgood-Obrycki. “Hopefully over time, those units will filter down to low incomes, but that's going to take a long time. We need to think about different segments of renter households and what they each need in terms of supply.”
Texas as a whole has lost around 586,000 units under $800 a month in 10 years while gaining more than a million rental units costing $1,000 a month or more.
“Texas is very unaffordable for the lowest income households,” said Airgood-Obrycki. “This is true everywhere across the country, but when we look across the states, Texas does have one of the highest burden rates for low-income renters who are making less than $15,000.”
In the Austin region in particular, 91.2% of the households that earn under $15,000 a year spend at least half of their incomes on rent. This percentage of severely cost-burdened families is bigger than in any other metropolitan area in the country for that income bracket.
“Anyone who is that poor is probably having to work another job or work on the weekends just to be able to make ends meet,” said Nora Linares-Moeller, executive director of HousingWorks Austin, a housing advocacy organization. “More than likely don't have health insurance, so it just takes one incident in which you go in the hole. And it also just takes one or two months where you don't pay your rent and then you could get kicked out.”
Between 2008 and 2018, the Austin area had the third-highest growth rate of renter households in the country. That was fueled by a dramatic increase in upper-income renters.
“Part of the story is that there's pressure coming from these high-income renters, and that's filtering down through the market and affecting the middle income,” said Airgood-Obrycki. “The higher-income renters are pulling rents up.”
Advocates and researchers say that these conditions, added to the fact that Austin has the lowest vacancy rates and the lowest percentage of units under $600 per month of any metropolitan area in Texas, might be contributing to homelessness.
“When you [own] a home, you have the ability to go and work out some kind of payment process,” said Linares-Moeller. “But with renters, they can kick you out if you haven't paid your rent. So, yes, I absolutely think that's another reason why we are seeing people and families experiencing homelessness.”
Disclosure: HousingWorks Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.