Houston’s Market-Driven Housing Solution Is No Triumph

Mayors of large US cities are looking to Houston for inspiration in solving their homelessness problems. But Houston’s “Housing First” policy is designed to clear the streets and buoy landlords rather than provide stable housing for all.

A homeless man seeks shelter from the rain in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, August 27, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images)

In early August 2023, the “Big Four” mayors of the four largest cities in the United States convened in Houston, Texas, to discuss their common problems, chief among them homelessness. This was just over a year after New York’s mayor Eric Adams had imposed a camping ban, using the police to bar homeless people’s access to public spaces, and seven months since Los Angeles’s Karen Bass declared a “state of emergency” to “prioritize bringing unhoused Angelenos inside.” Chicago’s Brandon Johnson, who had only recently taken office, told the Houston Chronicle at the time that he hoped visiting Houston would provide the tools necessary to build “a system that actually works.” They each had reason for optimism.

Throughout his time in office from 2016 to 2024, Houston’s then mayor Sylvester Turner was a tireless booster for the region’s Coalition for the Homeless (CFTH). Between 2011 and 2022, the umbrella nonprofit’s approach had overseen a 64 percent drop in people experiencing homelessness, from about 8,500 people down to just over 3,200. This is small potatoes compared to the sixty-five-thousand-plus homeless Angelenos in need, to say nothing of the ninety-three-thousand-plus homeless New Yorkers. Still, modeling a “Housing First” approach, Houston’s CFTH had centralized the region’s data and linked the local governing apparatus with partnering landlords and over one hundred nonprofits. To house people quickly and efficiently, the program used public-private dollars on vouchers subsidizing the cost of rent. It even offered a nonrefundable “Landlord Incentive Fee” to sweeten the pot.

The New York Times reported in 2022 that CFTH’s streamlined approach had reduced housing wait times to just thirty-two days. Compare that to New York, where the wait time for a similar program is closer to seven months. Contrary to New York and Los Angeles, which primarily use interim housing or shelters to shuffle people off the streets, CFTH grants voucher-holders tenancy in a variety of multifamily apartment complexes from the start, the idea being that people are better able to receive aid when they have a stable home. In a statement leading up to the Big Four meeting, Turner promised to “continue our groundbreaking, successful efforts until every Houstonian is off our streets.”

Meanwhile, in southeast Houston, an uglier reality was roiling to the surface. With the process beginning in late July, nearly 475 tenants — many of whom were supposed to be covered by CFTH vouchers — were served eviction notices at two apartment complexes about half a mile from each other. Conditions had rapidly deteriorated, with tenants reporting mold, broken plumbing and appliances, and even collapsed ceilings. At the same time, they also faced a slew of illegal eviction tactics, including repeated electricity and water shutoffs. Several tenants told Jacobin that sometimes management would board windows and change the locks on peoples’ doors while they were out at work or running errands. One person sent me a video her son had recorded in which private security, while trading insults with her children, forcibly removed her from her home.

The Redford and Cabo San Lucas apartment complexes, owned by investment firms based on the East Coast, were also undergoing foreclosure. The Wall Street Journal reported at the time that increased interest rates had “cooled off” the apartment sector, and investors who had swiped up properties hoping to cash in on sky-high rents were struggling to pay their floating-rate mortgage fees. Tenants bore the brunt of those costs, with landlords engaging in aggressive tactics to force them out.

As legal scholar Kathryn Sabbeth explains, corporate landlords use eviction courts as “a device for routine asset collection and extraction of wealth,” generating additional fees tenants must pay to keep their homes. In recent years, these strategic “serial eviction actions” (one Redford tenant faced four consecutive eviction cases, for instance) have become less the exception than the norm nationwide. From 2000 to 2018, landlords across the country filed twice as many evictions (from 1.159 million in 2000 to 3.6 million in 2018). A small percentage of those proceedings end in an eviction proper. Evictions have become a central disciplinary tool in the landlord’s kit, exacerbating housing costs and hammering in, as Sabbeth describes, the “hierarchy between owners and tenants.”

Aiming to challenge this hierarchy, Redford and Cabo San Lucas tenants organized. They formed the Southeast Tenant Information Organization (SETIO) with the support of Texas Housers, a statewide nonprofit, and the Houston Tenants Union. Among their demands was to receive Permanent Supportive Housing vouchers from CFTH, the highest-tier voucher available, reserved by federal restrictions for “chronically homeless” people with a mental or physical disability. Though not all SETIO members were voucher-holders at that time, many had previously participated in similar voucher programs and were still considered housing insecure. Together, they took their monthslong fight to the press, the courts, and City Hall.

In the end, SETIO achieved its goals — at least, for a few of its members. After negotiating with the Houston Housing Authority and CFTH, fifteen tenants who qualified for permanent housing were placed on other properties, dispersing them across the city. And what about the 450-plus other tenants? Before an official eviction could permanently mark their rental history, some self-evicted or reached a settlement with their respective property owners, agreeing to move within a certain timeframe. Others were formally evicted, including many of the lower-tiered voucher holders who had been placed at the Redford or Cabo by CFTH.

Indeed, it was CFTH — not the landlord — with whom SETIO members negotiated. SETIO tenants were outraged when they realized CTFH wanted each tenant to reapply to secure housing, essentially getting back in line to begin the process all over again.

“I was hopeful when I got into the program. All I needed was some help getting balanced,” said SETIO member Natishia Myles, age forty-six. Myles was evicted from the Redford, and the last time we spoke was living out of a motel in Baytown, east of the Houston Ship Channel. “Now I try not to fall back in my hole and just — and just sleep.”

With cities across the country turning to Houston for answers to “solve” their respective homelessness crises, it’s worth bringing to the fore how Houston’s crisis perpetuates itself on several fronts. Just give people housing has become an inescapable slogan among housing justice advocates. It’s undeniable in its simplicity — everyone deserves housing, after all — and this is where Houston’s program often excels. But how and where people get housing, and for how long, are equally important questions without the same consensus, and are facing escalating attacks from the Right.

In this respect, CFTH and other similar programs nationwide attempt to combine antithetical views on housing. As bipartisan “common sense” dissolves and more punitive policies take hold, what remains of Housing First is a buffer against more holistic measures aimed at freezing the violent churn of the housing market. SETIO’s story is instructive not only for tenants in Houston, or for others in the South who likely also lack the nominally stronger tenant protections held in New York or Los Angeles, but for those across the country who see Housing First policies as a catchall for combating displacement. With homelessness policy hinging on what the Supreme Court decides this summer, the future may look something like Houston, which blurs the feel-good guise of the technocrat with the unyielding presence of the police. Combined, these two forces continually disperse Houston’s homeless population, a shell game with tenants moving from place to place, courtroom to courtroom, and few chances for long-lasting relief.

A “Dumping Zone”

Samantha Moody was a tenant at the Redford, and like Myles, she had high hopes for her time there. A CFTH affiliate had paired her with a social worker who promised to help her secure mental health treatment and find work. “None of that happened,” Moody told Jacobin.

To Moody, the Redford felt like “a dumping zone to get people off city grounds.” Houston’s other priorities include policing the homeless out of wealthy areas and shuttering the city’s already-dwindling public housing. In this context, Houston’s “Housing First” program, which works within the bounds of the housing market to pair individual people with vacant units, is an elegant logistical solution. It allows the city to avoid disrupting the private housing market while also justifying encampment clearances before anyone has time to register a problem. Why tolerate camps in public spaces if a vacant unit is just an application away?

As a result, the city is putting its most vulnerable residents at the mercy of profit-hungry, often absentee landlords (although sometimes attending landlords are bad enough: one Houston landlord admitted to using his dogs to forcibly evict his low-income tenants). The units are subject to little effective quality control, and tenants’ housing is precarious. They must navigate a maze of paperwork and algorithms, with only the assistance of underpaid and stretched-thin nonprofit workers, in order to continue proving their homeless status and to prevent displacements and evictions.

The original Housing First program began in New York in 1992, the same year Bill Clinton signed legislation decimating what was left of public housing. By then, the federal government had been cannibalizing its housing stock for over a decade. As a quasi-replacement, Housing First became a national policy under George W. Bush. He boasted a 30 percent decline in homelessness nationally from 2005 to 2007, attracting attention from commentators like Matthew Yglesias and David Frum. (What happened in 2008? Don’t ask.)

Around this time, Wall Street firms ran rampant through foreclosure auctions, taking tenants to eviction court with increasing impunity. Barack Obama’s adoption and expansion of Housing First solidified its status as bipartisan “common sense” — that is, until around 2017, when homelessness numbers began creeping back up. More recently, the Right — from J. D. Vance to the Texas-based Cicero Institute — has condemned Housing First as a “Marxist” initiative because it implies capitalism failed to house people (even though its “solution” is to provide a springboard of sorts back into the private housing market).

Bucking this trend is Houston, with results that still titillate right-wingers like Christopher Rufo and the sober-minded liberals at the New York Times alike. In a 2021 explainer video on PragerU, a right-wing education nonprofit, Rufo praised Houston’s “tough love approach,” referring to the region’s accessible drug rehabilitation programs on one hand and its strict camping ban on the other. In Houston, you can even be ticketed for distributing food to more than five homeless people without permission from property owners, even on public property (currently, the local Food Not Bombs chapter is facing $80,000 in fines for distributing food outside the public library).

The city claims that its strict enforcement is a means of driving homeless people to CFTH affiliates that provide aid. In practice, it seems to be the other way around, with banishing homeless people being the priority and the Housing First program an accessory to accomplish that. Case in point is Houston’s irregular enforcement of its camping ban. The Houston Chronicle found that ticketing for camping is clustered mainly in wealthy areas, indicating that the city’s cleanup policy, as with practically any other homelessness program in the United States, is primarily driven by the mentality of pushing the problem out of sight.

An Eviction Crisis

“Here we are, being strong-armed, treated inhumanely, and at times hopeless,” said Jonnie Jara, a mother and then–CFTH voucher-holder, during public comment at a city council meeting last November. Jara had been homeless since fleeing domestic abuse in 2016 and thought her fight was over after being matched with an apartment at the Redford. “But no matter what, we’ll continue,” she said as her voice broke. “I will never give up.”

Mayor Turner responded to Jara’s comment by listing out the program’s successes, namely that the city was in the process of “decommissioning” Houston’s largest homeless encampment. (When it comes to homelessness, Houston’s new conservative mayor John Whitmire — who has elsewhere taken great pains to distance himself from Mayor Turner’s legacy — appears to be in lockstep with his Bloomberg-esque predecessor; in addition to backing encampment policing to the hilt, he also appointed a longtime CFTH executive to lead the Houston Housing Authority.)

When I caught up with Jara in mid-March, two months after her eviction, she and her fourteen-year-old daughter were living on the street. Others I spoke to were sleeping on friends’ couches or, like Myles, staying in a motel. SETIO was no more.

At its most basic level, tenant organizing aims to keep communities intact. When tenants choose to work together, they do so to remain where they live. Tenants’ fights are always an uphill battle, but in Texas, it’s illegal to withhold rent individually or collectively. Meanwhile, Houston-area tenants are slammed in and out of housing court. The eviction filing rate in Houston has exceeded the national average since at least 2008, according to Eviction Lab, and last year one in ten renters in the area faced losing their home. The rate of serial filings among Houston eviction defendants is nearly one in four.

Compared to the rest of the country, Houston has the second-most severe shortage of rental homes affordable to extremely low-income households, and those lucky enough to live in one aren’t exactly paying for quality. In 2021, Houston’s median age of rental housing stock was thirty-six years old — slightly older than the region’s owner-occupied single-family homes — and nearly 20 percent of all rental housing stock was graded “below average.” From the landlord’s perspective, the social scientists Eric Seymour and Joshua Akers have written, “The cost of evicting tenants, on balance, is less than bringing their substandard properties up to code.” In other words, tenants are tossed out to ensure landlords receive the greatest return on investment.

By the time SETIO tenants began organizing, they were already in crisis, and many justifiably only wished to leave the property and find someplace new. This is a central problem for housing organizers in Houston and all through the South. With shuffling from apartment to apartment the norm, tenants may not be as deeply tied to their immediate neighbors as in places with decades-long residents. And with fewer rights, tenants are constantly vulnerable and living under some of the worst conditions imaginable. In 2021, I covered Houston’s first rent strike in recent memory, which started shortly after Winter Storm Uri had caused statewide power outages. People’s walls were covered in mold, and their plumbing hadn’t worked in ages after the freeze damaged their pipes. The rent strike lasted months, but by the end of the campaign many tenants had opted to move. And who could blame them? They all had their families to think about.

But what happens to tenant organizing when organized tenants scatter to the wind? What power remains when the campaign disbands?

Texas Housers does its best to plug organic leaders like Moody into its Academy program, which provides tools to do future organizing work. “The spirit of SETIO is still around,” said Taylor Laredo, a staffer with Texas Housers. Still, tenants who have been thrust back out into the streets are left wondering: Where is the accountability?

“Law Creates Evictions”

“We are not here to solve poverty. We aren’t here to fix the affordable housing problem,” Ana Rausch, CFTH’s vice president, told the New York Times in 2022. CFTH has no control over the laws, the courts, or, for that matter, labor laws and the minimum wage. But this siloing of responsibilities is by design, permitting the housing market and policing systems to proceed apace while CFTH tends to the externalities.

A recent scathing Houston Chronicle report explained how CFTH “[does] not keep statistics on how many of the people they house are eventually evicted for nonpayment of rent.” Even if you receive a Permanent Supportive Housing voucher, you might still be evicted. A nationally touted system that doesn’t keep track of its failures is not a system interested in fixing them. If the organization isn’t here to solve poverty, it would be more accurate to say that the voucher system obscures it, flinging surplus, “less-productive” people into various property owners’ market schemes, with few protections therein. Ultimately, Housing First policies ensure a maximum number of people are paying rent, keeping an ailing apartment sector afloat but never presuming to guarantee homes for all.

It’s common for formerly homeless tenants to avoid complaining about things like mold or infestations for fear of ending up back on the street. (One tenant told Jacobin he lived with broken plumbing for two years, with mold blooming on the walls; he didn’t report it for fear of retaliation — that is, until he was hospitalized, at which point his home was officially deemed “uninhabitable.”) Only when tenants come together does it seem “safe” for these tenants to speak out. As such, the voucher system ends up opposing tenant organizing whether it intends to or not. Tenants with CFTH vouchers represent some of the most vulnerable among those being evicted. Like all tenants, their strength is in numbers, but by dispersing them across the region the voucher system only further atomizes them and dilutes their power.

For a 2021 story in the New Republic, I spoke with a number of well-meaning CFTH staff members who are using the tools the state offers to try and provide a stopgap for tenants. Once you have a home, you can begin rebuilding your life with a greater sense of permanency, and we shouldn’t totally discount the time people have in an apartment, fleeting as it might be. But with average rents increasing in the Houston area, one staffer told me a central worry was that the number of available properties could decline. Landlords could simply ask for too much to house homeless people, and the amount of money available might not cover the same number of vouchers. Meanwhile, eviction courts show no signs of slowing down.

CFTH does not have any control over the private housing market. It is, fundamentally, at the whim of landlords. With the backing of CFTH, “problem” tenants in effect have a guarantor, someone who picks up the bill if the tenant falls through, but CFTH also acts as the mediator: an entity tenants and landlords look to for support in times of conflict. From this managerial role, whose side would you choose: the isolated tenant, or the so-called housing provider who maintains the power to reject all future applicants, making your job that much harder?

“None of this ever stops because nobody ever does anything about it,” Jara told me from her camp outside a Family Dollar store. “That’s the worst part.”

How do you keep people in one place long enough to build power for a protracted fight? If push comes to shove, how do you maintain ties with tenants after a dispersal, which can occur at a lightning-fast pace here? Where, and under what conditions, can tenants afford to dig in their heels? A right to counsel begins to address these questions, but as case studies in places like New York City have shown, this system can be easily overwhelmed if there are more eviction filings than available defense attorneys.

“To put it simply,” writes Kathryn Sabbeth, “law creates evictions.” We can start there.