Happily Housed in Houston
While making a point about the role of collaboration and cooperation in the achieving of common goals, the esteemed industrialist Andrew Carnegie once described teamwork as “the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.” This has certainly been demonstrated in Harris County, Texas, where the teamwork helping to fuel affordable assisted housing solutions for area seniors has resulted in environments of uncommon quality, efficiency, service and aesthetic allure.
With passage of The Housing and Community Development Act in 1974, the federal government created a means of allocating funds to eligible communities as well as a resource for housing assistance in the Section 8 program which enables property owners to receive fiscal support when renting housing to lower income families. This legislation evolved from earlier Housing Acts and has undergone reforms over the years to enhance the system. Communities throughout the United States have established housing authorities that assist in providing support to families in need of a home. Since 2003, in Houston, Texas, the Harris County Housing Authority (HCHA) has been authorized to operate as an independent agency and more than 25,000 people have benefitted from its programs as well as its development of more than 1000 affordable, multifamily homes. HCHA, through its Housing Choice Voucher Team, presently manages 4,367 vouchers designed to provide decent, safe and affordable housing solutions. For the last six years, the Harris County Housing Authority has achieved recognition from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as the highest performing housing authority in its region. It has also been honored among America’s Ten Best Public Housing Authorities, and the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials has recognized HCHA with an Award of Excellence for developing programs which provide assistance to homeless veterans.
While such accolades help attest to the capabilities of this agency, one need only review some of the communities it has developed to appreciate what sets the Harris County Housing Authority apart from others. Whereas public housing and affordable assisted developments in many communities often fail to reflect certain high standards of quality or aesthetic that one might want, in Harris County, it would be difficult to discern the assisted housing from any other market rate multifamily community, and in this case, there really isn’t a difference. Through partnerships with the private sector and utilization of federal grants, HCHA has remarkably transitioned beyond the conventional standards associated with affordable housing to create sustainable communities where the quality in the architectural, interior and exterior elements may be only exceeded by the services and programs which ultimately combine to position the communities among the most desirable of places to live.
As Development Director Paula Burns explains, “HCHA has improved on the design concept of affordable assisted housing to make it more aesthetically pleasing and marketable.” While doing so, HCHA has provided communities with jobs, has established neighborhoods and has promoted balance and stability for families, as well as individuals, who might not have access to such social supportive services in the absence of HCHA. Those services have been particularly crucial to area seniors, and to put that in perspective, Burns explains that too many seniors struggle to live on a Social Security check alone. “Our residents are in need of affordable housing and services; most of them are just normal people living on a social security check that never had a connection with a housing authority before… retired teachers, or seniors now single because of death or divorce. They come from all gambits of life and they struggle to pay their rent and afford food and medicine at the same time. It’s an eye opening experience to move into retirement, and many seniors unfortunately are not prepared. Normally, housing authorities only serve very low income households, but HCHA takes pride in knowing that we are also providing housing for families who are working and retired. We are able to help residents over a broader range of income levels,” says Burns.
Excellence in Services and Settings
From 2004, HCHA set out to help area seniors by creating communities that didn’t compromise on quality in terms of the living space or provision of services. This effort all began with development of Louetta Village on a ten-acre site in a suburb north of Houston known as Spring. Comprised of 116 units of garden-style residential units equipped with tiled or carpeted flooring, walk-in closets and a full complement of necessary appliances along with service amenities, Burns says, residents often would approach her to say they prefer to reside in a HCHA community rather than other apartments because. Over the years that have followed, HCHA has developed eight communities throughout Harris County, and whether it is Primrose at Heritage Park, Cornerstone Village, Magnolia Estates or Baybrook Park, all impart quality in construction, interior design, exterior landscaping and lifestyle enrichment. “So often, when touring visitors through our communities, I’ll hear the age 55 and older residents comment on, how happy and comfortable they are with their senior neighborhood and having a property manager that understands their needs,” says Burns.
Community pools, activity rooms and walking trails add to the increased desirability and marketability of HCHA developments. Other developments offer advantages in water and energy efficiency, which not only spares residents from excessive utility costs, but reduces the impact on the environment. For example, HCHA’s master planned Cypresswood Estates achieved LEED Platinum distinction as it was developed to conform to the highest of green standards. Solar panels are deployed at this site which not only supply electricity back to the grid, but also help generate electricity for outside and clubhouse lighting. Storm water drains have been constructed to connect to a central reservoir where the water is collected and used for landscaping irrigation. Energy Star rated appliances and other innovations in water conservation have allowed residents to enjoy drastically reduced utility bills, and in Houston, where electric bills typically run high, HCHA residents in some cases pay less than half of traditional costs.
HCHA communities have been established in close proximity to retail shops, supermarkets and medical centers so residents can better access these resources. At the same time, through the forming of partnerships with local companies, the residents also benefit from transportation services, beauty/barber services, in-home nursing services, and more. Half of HCHA communities are managed through a strategic partnership with the Hettig Management Corporation. While this partnership has imparted valuable operational assistance and property maintenance services, residents also benefit from the range of programs and events routinely staged at the properties, and no two communities are the same. While cooking demonstrations draw the greatest support in one community, bingo nights or water aerobics may be the popular activity at another venue. As Burns explains, each community offers more than shelter, they also offer activities and social supportive services all designed to help residents be self-sufficient and stay socially engaged, healthy and happy. Burns also says that HCHA housing settings are so marketable, her office routinely fields calls and contacts from other families, including young married couples, inquiring as to the feasibility of moving into the communities, but in such cases, these same families earn too much income. Most can’t believe that these are affordable assisted housing developments – that is how well designed the developments are.
In serving area seniors, HCHA has also helped bolster the economic sustainability of its region. Its developments have fostered numerous work opportunities for architects, builders, engineers, landscapers, healthcare professionals and a range of service providers while also supporting retail business and restaurants located near its neighborhoods. “Every time we build a new property, it creates jobs, but we keep creating jobs as we keep bringing the community together,” says Burns. “It takes many people, working together, to keep a community going and growing.”
HCHA is continuing to go, and grow, as additional housing solutions are on the horizon. Burns says HCHA will continue to advance in providing quality affordable assisted housing and social supportive services for those who most need safe and affordable housing. In so doing, HCHA will continue to rely on public and private sector funding and partnerships which help offset its development and operational costs while supporting the creation of jobs and greater economic sustainability within the region. The continued strengthening of HCHA’s affordable housing initiative will keep it at the forefront of assisted housing developed by housing authorities across the country.
For more information, please visit their website at: Harris County Housing
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