Curbing substandard housing in rural Texas

IRT hearing

Watch John Henneberger’s testimony before the Texas Seante International Relations and Trade Committee on substandard rural housing.  Read my written testimony presented to the committee.

On June 17 I presented invited testimony before the Texas Senate Committee on International Relations and Trade on the committee interim charge:

Review state and local policies relating to development and growth in rural and unincorporated regions of the state. Work with housing advocates, county organizations and appropriate officials to assess the proliferation of substandard housing in rural and unincorporated areas.

Rural substandard housing and blight receives far less attention than these conditions do in urban areas. Low rural population densities have the effect of masking this type of blighted housing.

Increasingly, Texas has seen a proliferation of low density, blighted residential developments in the far exurban areas of Texas major cities. When urban housing costs get too high the poor are forced into exurban areas. The poor pay a significant price for moving out of urban areas. They are further from affordable health care and public services. The lack of public transportation increases their cost of living significantly. Taxpayers pay a price for providing the public infrastructure to accommodate this sprawling, low-density population of low income families.

When low income families move to  exurban and rural areas they must often create housing for themselves by buying or renting a parcel of land and acquiring some form of housing.  Most often that is a house they build for themselves as best they can afford or a mobile home.  Often times these mobile homes are old and in substandard condition.

Some in the building industry have argued that the application minimum housing standards in rural areas is undesirable because it will drive up the cost of housing, making it impossible for lower income families to be able to afford a home. Yet minimum building standards are just that. They set minimum levels of state standards to ensure the habitability of a residential structure. Minimum standards are not unnecessary frills. As a direct consequence of living in substandard housing people can and sometimes do die. The State’s interest in protecting the public by imposing and adequately enforcing minimum habitability standards should not end at the city limits.

Rural specific federal housing programs, administered by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Rural Housing Service, have sustained enormous cuts over last 20 years to the point where the programs are producing only a small number of new housing units in Texas each year.

These cuts have made maintaining Texas’ existing housing stock of rural rental housing in decent condition almost impossible. Landlords have increasingly turned to the state housing agency for assistance in rehabilitating and modernizing 30 year old plus apartment developments originally funded by the Rural Housing Service. But Texas state housing programs are massively oversubscribed, meaning that there is not enough money to meet anything but a small share of the rural housing maintenance needs.

Cuts in single-family construction subsidies at the federal level have virtually shut down the production of government subsidized owner occupied single-family housing across rural Texas with the notable exception of a few outstanding nonprofit organizations.

The principal cause of substandard rural housing is the inability of families to afford decent housing where they prefer to live. There is no painless answer to this problem. The need is for more funding to produce more affordable housing.  We strongly urge the Texas Legislature to increase state funding for the Texas Housing Trust Fund. This fund has been used to leverage private and federal dollars to fund rural rental housing. It is been especially effective in rural areas in establishing self-help, owner-builder housing programs under the highly successful Texas Bootstrap loan program.

I offered the following recommendations to the committee.

  1. Extend to rural counties the local option to adopt building codes and to enforce those codes with local county inspectors in order to prevent the proliferation of substandard housing.
  2. Expand the Economically Distressed Areas Program (EDAP) and provide adequate funding for the program to allow county governments to both prevent the proliferation of substandard rural housing developments and to access funds to extend public services to substandard rural developments.
  3. Prohibit the resale and relocation of substandard manufactured housing units intended to be used for residential purposes.
  4. Provide $50 million per year in funding for the Texas Housing Trust Fund to increase the supply of housing in both urban and rural Texas.

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