City of Victoria officials need to open their eyes to the role they can play in the affordable housing crisis plaguing our community.
This is by no means a simple problem that anyone should expect government alone to fix. But city leaders can take the lead in, first, acknowledging the problem exists and, next, accepting they have a job to do in addressing it.
One simple, key step the city needs to take immediately is to form a quasi-governmental committee to work with nonprofit and business leaders to identify ways to boost housing that people can afford. This is a move that would cost zero tax dollars but would provide some of the leadership needed to address the city’s critical housing shortage.
The need ought to be painfully apparent to anyone looking at what’s “Hidden in Plain Sight” –the title of this newspaper’s ongoing special series about economic inequality intensified by Hurricane Harvey. About half of the community’s renters spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. The 30 percent figure is a widely accepted percentage for a household to be financially stable.
When households are financially vulnerable, whether to hurricanes or medical catastrophes, the community suffers greatly. For example, one of the first expenses people cut is health insurance. Along with leaving families vulnerable, the lack of health insurance hits Victoria County taxpayers hard. Last year, the county-owned Citizens Medical Center saw its charity care costs soar 33 percent.
Many other compelling fiscal arguments abound. Prevention is much cheaper than law enforcement and other public costs incurred when families and individuals suffer. For example, a commission in Central Florida estimated that the region spends $31,000 a year per homeless person because of the costs of law enforcement, jail stays, hospitalization and emergency room visits. By comparison, it costs $10,000 to put that same person experiencing homelessness into a house and give him or her a caseworker.
Some City Council members have argued the government has no place in providing housing. This is highly selective reasoning. The same council members have no qualms about spending millions of dollars to build a new road – Placido Benavides Drive – because they think it will spur retail sales. Since it was founded in 1982, the public-private partnership known as the Victoria Economic Development Corp. has received up to several hundred thousands of tax dollars each year because the city and county hope this investment will generate new jobs.
During the past decade, council members have spent about $1 million supporting the Texas Zoo because they think the educational and entertainment opportunities it provides are important to Victoria’s quality of life. Shortly before Hurricane Harvey hit, council members also decided to take on the operation of the financially struggling Riverside Golf Course because this is considered an essential city amenity. Another significant public expense each year is the annual street party known as Bootfest.
The list of choices for spending goes on and on. All of the items listed above come with strong arguments supporting the public investment. Not one is stronger than the argument for a city investing in the basic need of adequate shelter for its residents.
The good news is many of the steps the city can take don’t have to cost money. For one, the city could examine ways to boost the number of affordable rental units by removing barriers to construction, such as offering incentives for development through density bonuses, tax abatements or fee waivers. The Washington Area Housing Partnership is one of many examples of a public-private partnership promoting affordable housing. The city, county and the Golden Crescent Regional Planning Commission should study the toolkit offered by the Washington partnership and look around the country for other best practices.
Considered creatively, this effort could coincide with other city priorities, such as revitalizing downtown. Affordable housing doesn’t have to mean only subsidized or big apartment buildings. Instead, the city could offer incentives for the development of duplexes, triplexes or fourplexes in existing single-family neighborhoods such as downtown, where experts agree a higher population density is needed to support more businesses there.
To get started, the city needs to understand that thoughtful and reasonable governmental policies are a hand up, not a handout, to those in need. The middle class is the backbone of every community, and Victoria’s working class is being strained beyond its limits. If the city doesn’t act soon and smartly, the crisis will only deepen.
If that happens, what’s hidden in plain sight will become impossible to ignore.