Tight rental market increasing wait times for city’s efforts to house the homeless

Photo taken by the City of Austin. Photo of a HEAL Initiative effort.

Monday, April 18, 2022 by Chad Swiatecki

The city’s tight rental market is causing delays in efforts to find homes for people who were recently removed from homeless encampments under a program launched last year targeting congregation areas around the city.

At last week’s meeting of the city council’s public health committee, Dianna Gray, head of homelessness strategy revealed that the typical registration time for those participating in the Housing-Focused Encampment Assistance Link (HEAL) initiative exceeded 90 days due to difficulty in finding available housing at reasonable rental rates. As area rents jumped 35% in the 12 months to January 2022, Gray said property managers had their pick of tenants and were less likely to accept applicants with poor credit and other obstacles. encountered by the homeless recently.

“It’s been quite a challenge because our tenants come with non-traditional backgrounds in terms of work history, credit, and obviously their incomes are very low. Recent changes in the rental market have had a very big impact on how long it takes us to find homes,” Gray said. “We’re moving funds around to help landlords get extra incentives for double deposits and that sort of thing, but that’s a huge challenge we’re having now.”

Gray also said that in recent months the city has emptied encampments at West Bouldin Creek and near St. Johns Neighborhood Park. The HEAL program then attempts to move people into transitional shelters and possibly permanent housing options such as apartments or permanent supportive housing subsidized in whole or in part by the city.

Meanwhile, Gray said, more than 65 people have been moved to deck shelters and another 26 have been moved to permanent accommodation.

Through the end of March, the HEAL program has served 99 people, putting it ahead of the goal of helping 200 people, with 247 people assisted since its launch last year.

Gray said the city is expected to receive $38 million in U.S. bailout funds in the coming months that will be used for rapid rehousing and the HEAL program, with contracts to be finalized with local homeless service providers. shelter by July.

Council member Kathie Tovo asked Gray to work with Parks and Recreation and the Austin Fire Department to improve coordination around clearing HEAL-targeted encampments. She pointed to a fire that broke out near the Bouldin Creek camp because the area was not quickly cleared after its residents left.

After questions from Mayor Steve Adler about the problem of quickly repopulating other encampments after city crews dispersed them, Gray said the HEAL program could only help a limited number of encampments at a time. This means that other demined areas do not have the coordination and resources readily available to help find shelter and accommodation for those living in the camps.

“HEAL is only involved in a small minority of them, so most settlements that have been cleared have been without direct access to housing and shelter,” she said. “It’s a conversation we have with our public space partners, sort of looking at the resources and personnel available to do the work and how we balance entering new encampments to respond.”

Speaking about pricing pressures related to the rental market, Adler said Gray and other city employees must continue to do everything they can to deliver results so the city can meet its three-year goal to improve significantly reduce homelessness.

“What you are trying to do is difficult, especially in a market where property prices are rising rapidly and supply is limited. But that’s why homelessness is a challenge for us that if we don’t address it now, it’s going to overwhelm us in six to eight years.

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