AUSTIN (KXAN) — To help Austinites exit homelessness and remain in stable housing, two local groups are enlisting property managers to help lower barriers to housing.
On Monday these groups came together in a press conference announcing this new campaign called “How to House.” The effort is led by Austin’s Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO), which oversees the Austin area’s homeless response system, and the racial justice nonprofit Austin Justice Coalition.
“We know how to house our neighbors, and these partnerships turn that knowledge into practice,” said ECHO Community Housing Portfolio Manager Kaylin Rubin at the virtual press conference.
Together, ECHO and AJC are aiming to recruit property owners and managers to enter into partnerships with the community housing team at ECHO. From there, the two parties negotiate ways they can offer units to people leaving homelessness. Both ECHO and the property managers will agree on low-barrier tenant screening criteria. As part of these negotiations, ECHO talks to property owners about things like the potential to access risk mitigation dollars or additional funding that can be used to cover unpaid rent or damages.
ECHO explained all of the housing units created through this partnership will be permanent housing.
In December, ECHO launched this campaign and has since connected 13 households to permanent housing options through partnerships with properties.
With this network of housing options, ECHO said it plans to connect people exiting homelessness with available places to live in these properties. The people who ECHO refers to the housing units will have another factor going in their favor: they will all be enrolled in programs that offer rental assistance and case management.
The How to House campaign also strives to “promote antiracist practices in housing” by curbing barriers to housing that disproportionately impact Black residents and other marginalized groups.
Austin’s homeless population is disproportionately Black, as is the inmate population at the county’s jail. The latest census numbers for Travis County indicate 8.9% of the population is Black. By contrast, 32.8% of the current inmates at the Travis County Jail are Black, as are 36.5% of the people experiencing homelessness in Travis County during the 2020 Point in Time count.
The speakers at Monday’s press conference noted having a criminal record — even if it is something minor or that gets dismissed — ultimately can disqualify people from housing. In Travis County, where Black residents are disproportionately incarcerated, that means Black residents are statistically more likely to be disqualified from housing opportunities.
Crystal Barone, managing partner for Twelve Rivers Property Management, spoke at the press conference, because her company has been partnering with ECHO on a similar project for the past 10 months.
“I’ve been working with several of my investors that purchased rental property and talked them through the program,” Barone explained. “It’s gone really well. Of course like any program, any tenant landlord situation, it’s not going to be perfect. Overall, its gone really well, and we’ve seen some good success from it.”
“Most people think if you’re in real estate, you automatically love what’s going on now,” Barone said of the Austin housing market. “I think we have a serious affordability issue.”
In Barone’s opinion, it has been worthwhile for her company to partner with ECHO.
“My team loves that we’re part of this program,” she said. “It feels so amazing to be part of, a small part of, some of the solution to help create more housing.”
“I think there’s so much more positive than there is I would consider worrisome, if that makes sense,” Barone said of ECHO’s program.
There is more information for community members and property managers about the program on the How to House website which you can find here.
Barriers to housing
Three people at Monday’s press conference shared details of their own lived experience with homelessness to talk about barriers to stable housing.
Summer Wright, a member of the Austin Youth Collective program, explained she was homeless on and off over the course of six or seven years. Wright said a year ago she was unable to hold a job longer than one week and had no real access to effective mental health care.
“In Austin, I got very lucky with the push to end youth homelessness; this is the first stable housing that I’ve had really,” Wright said of her current housing.
“It’s changed a lot for me,” Wright said of the housing she’s received. “I have access to mental health services; I have been able to hold work, which I haven’t before.”
“When I was on the street, I sometimes used drugs, sometimes I didn’t,” she added. “But I was able to stop when I was housed, because I didn’t have to cope with that any more.
Lyric Wardlow, who is also a member of the Austin Youth Collective, explained she came to Austin eight years ago with her mom, moving from motel to motel. It wasn’t until Wardlow began working in homeless services, that she realized why her mom had struggled to get housing.
“There was limited to no housing available for someone like her,” Wardlow noted. “When I say ‘someone like her,’ I mean an African American, Black woman who suffers from mental illness, who has permanent disabilities that keep her from working a full-time job.”
For those who’ve never been involved with homelessness outreach before but want to help, Wardlow suggested reaching out to properties or apartments you know about the How to House program. She sees this new campaign as “putting another piece into the puzzle” of addressing homelessness in Austin.
“This is just another step in the right direction, and this is something that could make a big impact if we’re all able to make that choice,” Wardlow said.
While this campaign aims to “significantly reduce the number of people experiencing homelessness,” those working on the campaign were quick to point out this campaign is not a standalone “fix” to end homelessness in Austin, but rather an important piece of the larger puzzle.