Q&A: David A. Northern, Sr., President and CEO of Houston Housing Authority, on the organization’s work to address the city’s affordable housing crisis

The Houston Housing Authority (HHA) was recently featured in the New York Times for its efforts in Houston that have provided housing to thousands of homeless individuals. Their work is being hailed as a model for addressing the nation’s affordable housing crisis. The Houston Housing Authority is committed to providing support to low-income, elderly, and disabled residents by offering assistance in child care, health care, adult education, and more. State of Reform spoke to Northern about the importance of addressing the needs of the unhoused. 

 

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State of Reform: Can you speak to the housing efforts that were featured in the New York Times article? How did your program have success where so many others have failed?

David A. Northern, Sr.: “HHA provides affordable homes and services to more than 60,000 low-income Houstonians, including over 17,000 families housed through the Housing Choice Voucher Program (HCV) as well as another 5,700 living in 25 public housing and tax credit developments around the city. HHA also administers one of the nation’s largest voucher programs exclusively serving homeless veterans. We are dedicated to our mission to improve lives by providing quality, affordable housing options and promoting education and economic self-sufficiency.

While public housing and HCV are making a difference for many families, fulfilling our mission also requires innovative solutions to evolving challenges. Mixed-income housing is an innovative urban development model that provides a fresh approach to 2 pressing problems: displacement in gentrifying urban neighborhoods, and the lack of affordable housing in prosperous metropolitan areas. They can prevent displacement amid gentrification and rising rent and home prices. Employment gains among low-income families are also among the benefits of mixed-income developments according to the Urban Institute.”

SOR: How do you plan to address the city’s affordable housing crisis?

DN: “Affordable housing shortages began well-prior to the pandemic, but they have since intensified to an alarming level. There isn’t one state with an adequate supply of affordable rental housing for the lowest income renters. The US has only 36 affordable units for every 100 families that need one, and there are 11 million extremely low-income renter households in the US, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. However, all is not lost. By subsidizing housing, [the US Department of Housing and Urban Development] strengthens neighborhoods and communities, creating valuable opportunities for those who need the most help, while also bringing an economic benefit to the community. Moreover, one study showed that subsidized housing is associated with a small, positive increase in neighboring property values.”

SOR: Can you speak to the conversations that you are having with community partners that will continue to house and give support to those in need?

DN: “We continue to work with our elected officials and community members to arrive at innovative, community-minded solutions. Affordable housing should be a priority. It is not merely a matter of charity or politics;  it is about long-term planning for our community. Affordable housing can provide an opportunity for everyone to work and live together, irrespective of their income bracket. For this aim to be achieved, as a community we must look at different ideas and realize the merit of pro-housing policies.

We should not just stick to the old conventional methods when it comes to financing such projects. We must ensure innovative approaches are adopted so that each generation has a chance to live with dignity and security. We have taken some steps in this regard, but there is still more work to be done. Affordable housing doesn’t just happen, it requires a community-based effort. It is important to communicate with policy makers and stakeholders, otherwise our community may not get the affordable housing they deserve.”

SOR: “What policy reforms are you advocating for and what conversations are you continuing to have with elected officials?”

DN: “We need to build a coalition of citizens, organized at the local and national levels to advocate for fair housing policies. The affordable housing crisis is deeply rooted in our social, economic, and political systems that are based on racial, class, and gender inequalities. To solve the crisis, we must adopt public policies that reflect our nation’s core values of fairness and equal opportunity. By working together, we can win the fight to end housing discrimination, seek federal funding for affordable housing initiatives, and build an inclusive democracy that works for everyone.”

This interview was edited for clarity and length.