Harris County housing authority addresses national housing crisis, natural disasters with blend of compassion, innovation, and quick response.
Mother Nature rages and gusts, tearing down whole towns in an instant. Storms of a quieter nature – rising joblessness, an ailing economy and a healthcare crisis – work at a slower pace but yield similar devastation: people displaced from their homes, seeking shelter and necessities.
Whether violently wrenched or gradually wrestled from their homes, displaced Americans have a tireless champion in the Houston-based Harris County Housing Authority (HCHA). When disaster uproots households, this small force wields big power, working swiftly and systematically to set things right again. The team’s credo is that no one should be without access to safe, decent,
|affordable housing, not even temporarily. The HCHA is a logistics team of the most humanistic kind. They connect people in dire circumstances with the basic necessities – and they do it in a hurry. Especially in emergency situations, the HCHA can mobilize its teams in order to act quickly and respond with results-oriented help rather than heel-dragging bureaucracy.
By the numbers
The HCHA is a governmental non-profit agency which provides housing services to more than 1.7 million residents in a 1,100 square-mile area. However, HCHA’s work stretches much farther than its 1,100-square-mile charge of Harris County, Texas. Aside from sheltering the displaced and creating top-notch affordable housing there, the HCHA team of 20 has provided shelter for 250,000 people across the country, estimates CEO and Executive Director Guy Rankin. “We exist to provide housing for people who need it, when they need it, not just in Harris County but wherever a need exists,” says Rankin.
Such an expansive purpose can sound lofty, but when closely examined, a few of the huge milestones already accomplished, and the statistics they represent, become staggering.
After Hurricane Ike ravaged Houston in September 2008, the HCHA mobilized a points-of-distribution (POD) system that dispatched 3,000 18-wheelers from the Astrodome to deliver water, ice, and food throughout the three most severely affected counties. A total of 4 million meals were systematically delivered to satellite destinations and distributed. “For weeks we fed several hundred thousand people in the area – all while electricity was out,” Rankin says.
His all-in-a-day’s-work attitude comes from the knowledge that his team has sprung into action to solve even bigger crises, winning national recognition in the process. After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and a good portion of the Gulf Coast in 2005, the HCHA devised housing solutions for 10,500 families with no homes to return to. HCHA created the country’s first disaster housing voucher program and helped families find places to settle after leaving makeshift shelters like the Astrodome. Rankin considers that the HCHA’s most difficult undertaking to date – housing almost 11,000 families in 18 days. The work continues today, as the HCHA helps to gradually move people out of transitional housing and back into their communities.
Innovation and Heart Drive Success
The HCHA is often called upon to help develop and execute transitional housing plans in emergency situations like Hurricanes Katrina and Ike, but the day-to-day aspect of providing quality, affordable housing to Harris County residents requires its share of moving and shaking, too.
Just one of 4,100 housing authorities in the United States, the HCHA falls in the middle of the pack in terms of size. Yet it consistently performs at the top. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has ranked the HCHA among the nation’s highest-performing housing authorities for six consecutive years. At the center of the small agency’s disproportionate achievements is heart – with the ability to stretch beyond any pre-defined boundaries and limitations.
“Our compassion doesn’t end when the budget runs out,” explains Rankin. “We savor the challenge of finding new resources and creating out-of-the-box solutions when others have given up.”
Some housing authorities do little more than run the lottery for Section 8 rental-assistance vouchers and manage the government-mandated program for providing low-income housing in their area. Rankin sees HCHA’s role as much bigger and more important than “just managing one government program.”
“I see it as looking for opportunities to create the best housing developments in America. Those opportunities don’t involve just a public entity,” he says, explaining HCHA’s innovative approach to seek housing development partnerships in uncommon places. “The full scope of opportunities spans all of the collaboration that could go on between public, private, nonprofit, and charitable organizations.”
The goal is to house people while making communities better, and Rankin’s not one to rule out partnership with any viable entity if the collaboration can further that goal.
Exploring many avenues to address the county’s affordable housing shortage, the HCHA hit a productive chord in public/private partnerships. The HCHA works with private developers to produce single-family homes or apartment complexes that offer a mix of market-rate housing and affordable housing for people of limited means. The properties feature attractive designs and many amenities that renowned developers traditionally include in their luxury market rate properties.
The HCHA used public/private partnerships to create each of its six master-planned communities, which feature ample open space, well-manicured grounds, internet access, and Class “A” amenities like clubhouses, recreation and fitness centers, and beauty salons. Homes for larger families include 4-bedrooms and two-car garages, desktop computers, and community pools and playgrounds. One such community, Waterside Court in northwest Houston, received the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials’ Award of Merit last year for masterfully addressing the shortage of affordable housing for larger families.
By integrating fair-market and affordable housing units in its communities, HCHA creates opportunity and helps foster self-sufficiency among residents who initially rely on rental-assistance vouchers.
In addition to providing quality affordable housing to seniors and large families, the HCHA has developed the award-winning Independence Homeownership program. This initiative allows qualified participants to use their housing-voucher payments as a stepping stone to homeownership and financial stability. The innovative program provides first-time homebuyers with down payment assistance and transitions participants from rental assistance to a graduated mortgage payment they will eventually assume in its entirety.
‘Your Space Is Your Springboard’
Through its innovative housing initiatives, the HCHA aims to help people achieve self-sufficiency. By extension, the broader HCHA goal is to help create more stable and prosperous communities.
These goals arise from Rankin’s insistence that every person needs a “space” – a home that’s not just a box to reside in but a place that really lets people go about living.
“Where are you without that space to live?” Rankin asks. “What are you going to do? You’re not going to vote. You might struggle to keep a job. You’re not likely to have kids play Little League or Pop Warner football.” The whole community outlook changes, he points out.
HCHA uses a clear, common-sense approach to connect people with the space they need. In a sense, the public/private partnerships and the rapid response capabilities utilized by HCHA are repeatable, formulaic processes that can be duplicated anywhere in the nation. But they’re never mechanical – the team at HCHA has learned to never forget the deep human situation that drives the need.
Rankin remembers clearly the day that lesson hit home. He was arranging housing for Hurricane Katrina victims and had ushered three women into his office. “I was being my normal self, emphasizing to them that you’ve got to have a space. ‘You must have a space, and I’m going to take you to a space. Aren’t you happy I have a space for you?’ And the more unresponsive they seemed, the more earnest I became. You think they would be happy, right? Because they’ve lost everything, and we’re giving them something, right?”
“They looked me in the eye and said, ‘Could you give us a moment? Our kids are dead.’”
“That kind of stops you in your tracks, opens your eyes and heart to the human condition underlying the need,” Rankin says. “So you’ve got to take all that passion you have and move it to a different level.”
“I’ve learned it’s one thing to find people a box; it’s another thing to understand why that person wants that box, needs that box, how they even move to take care of that box. I could build you a bunch of pretty boxes, and they’ll all be ghettos and projects in a couple of years if you don’t understand what that person needs and where they’re going in life.”
Implicit in the HCHA’s success is that understanding of your “space” as the springboard for self-sufficiency and fostering a better community. But the HCHA is not quick to label what that space looks like – big or small, multifamily or detached, modern or classic. The HCHA team believes what’s important in fashioning a space for everyone is to make that space blend well with the neighboring communities. Better yet, mix it in with the neighboring structures, if that potential exists.
“When you talk about affordable housing, there’s a particular view in people’s minds,” says Rankin. “They make up an image of what that is. I don’t. … When I say ‘a space,’ that gives me the freedom to design and think about whatever we want to build. We can build it as nice as something in the Florida Keys; we can build it like a New York brownstone. It just has to fit in with the surrounding community. That’s key.”
Tribute to Veterans
One way to ensure the housing fits its environs is to design the entire community, with a master plan encompassing everything from green spaces to garage doors. HCHA’s latest innovation, Patriots by the Lake, will honor U.S. veterans with that kind of master-planned community. The development is slated to open in August 2010, as troops return from overseas.
The 91-acre waterfront development in northeast Harris County is a manifestation of the HCHA’s mission to develop innovative housing communities. The development will include home sites, condominiums, affordable senior housing, office space, shops, medical facilities, parks, boardwalk, hotel, marina and other amenities. With the Veterans Administration as a partner in determining function and design, HCHA intends to ensure that Patriots by the Lake delivers the medical and ancillary services that veterans seek most from the VA. Plans also include a Wall of Heroes memorial with the names and images of fallen soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan engraved in granite.
“It will be a place where veterans and their families can live, work, and receive medical and support services. The entire project will serve to honor those who have served us well”, says Rankin.
Surviving the Storm
As an ailing U.S. economy takes time to rebound, developers across the nation struggle to fill high-end neighborhoods. As a result, housing authorities will begin to see a greater volume of clients in need of affordable housing.
For years, the HCHA has sought innovative housing solutions and emphasized self-sufficiency as a starting point of achieving homeownership. That focus seems almost prescient -- and much in tune with the Dec. 13 address that then-President-Elect Barack Obama gave regarding the country’s housing crisis.
“There’s nothing more fundamental than having a home to call your own,” Obama said. “It’s not just a place to live or raise your kids or return after a hard day’s work. It’s the cornerstone of a family’s financial security. … We can’t keep throwing money at the problem hoping for a different result.”
To obtain different results, the nation might look to create innovative housing programs. The country might seek to institute public/private partnerships and repeatable solutions. It might look for ways to make Americans self-sufficient.
The nation just might look to HCHA to lead the way.
|© Harris County Housing Authority 2009-2010 All Rights Reserved.||