Mark Thiele – Housing Commission

Tony Rodriguez: Mark, it’s nice to meet you.  Looking forward to it today.  It was great.  We came here because I was interested in learning about these housing vouchers and how they work, who’s eligible for them, and maybe you can explain it to me a little bit.

Mark Thiele: I’m going to give it a best shot, Tony.

Tony Rodriguez: Okay. <laughs>

Mark Thiele: But I do want to say, I really appreciate you doing this.

Tony Rodriguez: Yeah, thank you.

Mark Thiele: I’m really impressed by you.

Tony Rodriguez: <laughs> Thanks.

Mark Thiele: So Housing Choice Voucher is an opportunity for an eligible family to have their rent subsidized in a unit of their choice, theoretically.  Depending on where you are in the country, it may or may not be allowable for an owner to turn down a voucher.  So here in Houston, you can choose to take a voucher or not to take a voucher if you’re an owner.  What we’re doing is a family will pay roughly about 30 percent of their income towards rent and we’ll pay the balance.  Across the country, there tend to be long waiting lists for vouchers, not enough to serve what is, you know, tremendous need.  So housing authorities are trying to figure out, you know, “Are there ways to address particular segments of the population differently?” and so one of the things we do is try to work on homelessness here in Houston.

Tony Rodriguez: Yeah.  It must be hard to make decision on who gets these vouchers and who doesn’t get them.  How do you reconcile that in your mind?

Mark Thiele: Well, I mean, number one, it tears your heart out, right?

Tony Rodriguez: Yeah.

Mark Thiele: At the end of the day, what I feel like is this country ought to be able to address the needs of its most vulnerable.  We stand on that line and sort of historically, again, we’re doing it by these long lists that are open for a short period of time, and then we serve that list over what can be an extended period of time.  Just a quick example.  Last time we opened our list, we opened it in September of 2016, 68,000 families applied.  We put 30,000 families on the list and our estimation was that would take five years to serve.  So, you know, you hear those numbers and you just go, “Wow.  It’s not enough,” and we know that we have to be tactical about it.  So as a community, you know, we really decided we wanted to make a difference relative to those folks who are homeless in Houston, and so we put forth a preference to allow us to serve up to 200 homeless a year and that would be individuals or families as determined by the coalition and partnership of VR Coordinated Access Program.  So we have that, for example.  We also have a VASH program, one of the larger VASH programs in the country.  So that’s for veterans, and so here we have 1,152 of those vouchers, in addition to our regular vouchers, and so those are all for formerly homeless veterans, and we’re right at about 1100 of those used.  So we really started our effort related to veteran homelessness, but I think, you know, again, the approach within the housing authority is, the feeling would be, we want to house them all.  Right.  We really want to house everybody who’s in need in Houston and Harris County, and we’re constantly looking for ways to do that, to find additional funding to do that.

Tony Rodriguez: A voucher seems to me to be just like a promise from the government to pay this amount of money to a landlord.  Are they transferrable?  Say the person who has one gets a job, doesn’t need it anymore.  Do you lose that voucher or is it transferred to another family in need?  Do they expire?  How does that work?

Mark Thiele: We’re always excited when a family succeeds and doesn’t need a voucher anymore.  That doesn’t happen frequently enough.  But we do have, and across the country, so housing authorities have a certain amount of vouchers.  They were historically distributed many years ago, and you have a certain amount and then over time you may have opportunity to apply for more, right, so– and I think most housing authorities are fairly aggressive when opportunity presents.  The VASH program, I mentioned earlier, when I got here we had 595 I believe vouchers in the VASH program and that has grown to 1152.  Every year I’ve been here we were able to apply for some amount of additional VASH vouchers and basically, you know, what you’re trying to do is prove need, and then, you know, apply for them and then take the opportunity to fill them, right.  So folks are paying attention to whether you use them or not, so to the question of is it possible to lose them, I mean, essentially, right?  You’re given a certain amount of money and it costs an average amount of money.  In our case right now, about $640 per month.  You asked earlier what the voucher was worth.  It varies from community-community, depending on how expensive rents are in the community.  The other thing is that sometimes there’s situational things that happen.  For example, New Orleans, Houston, are more likely than some communities to have hurricanes, and because of Katrina/Rita in New Orleans and then later Ike and Gustav over here near Houston, there were disaster vouchers that ended up in some cases adding permanently to the amount of vouchers folks had, because of those devastating storms, so–

Tony Rodriguez: Yeah, and naturally so you need them.  Were the people that were housed in the last five years or so, were they housed using these vouchers?

Mark Thiele: I’d say that the housing voucher has been the most significant resource, so I think we’re up to now talking about homeless veterans since January of 2012, about 5200 and their families have been housed, and the Houston Housing Authority has housed about a third of those.  There are two major housing authorities in Houston-Harris County.  We also have the Harris County Housing Authority, and they have also housed a significant amount through that period.  It is a tremendous example of city-county partnership.  You know, trying to maximize scarce resources, and I would say the vouchers are a particularly precious resource because it can last as long as you qualify, and it really depends on an individual’s situation.  You know, about 35 percent of our head of households are elderly or disabled.  The balance of our head of households, single moms with kids.  That’s across our program.  A number of those folks in both categories have been homeless.  In the case of most of the homeless veterans, male, many of them homeless since Vietnam, right.  So what would make them elderly and disabled now.  The likelihood, if they can remain eligible and properly supported, is that that voucher will last, you know, as long as they live, right.  I was growing up when we were reacting to Vietnam.  That was a national travesty.  We owe it to those men and women to do better.  We owe it to the men and women coming back now from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to do better, to try to ensure that we don’t end up in a similar situation 30 or 40 years down the road.  While that for us was an impetus, I do also think that what clearly happens is you look around and you go, “Man, I want to help everybody in that situation.”

Tony Rodriguez: Yeah, even more.

Mark Thiele: Veteran status is one thing, but really what we’re looking at is folks who need help and we want to be there to provide that subsidy for them.

Tony Rodriguez: Yeah.  There’s a lot of compassion here in Houston.  I guess it’s that Southern charm you guys all have, the hospitality, I mean.  Yeah.  There’s a lot of passionate people in the decision-making seats, which is probably why you’ve lowered your numbers so, so much and there’s still work to do.

Mark Thiele: That’s veterans.  The number of chronic, mm, is 3800, I want to say.  Let me look here, 3648 now.  That’s through January.  Now, veterans, some, you know, there’s some cross-over in that, right, that some of the chronics were veterans, and so you don’t just add the numbers together.  But yeah.  In terms of what you just said, you know, I would say this.  I think we’ve been unusually fortunate in terms of the team here.  I would say this is yet another example in life where one person can make a difference, that there have been some critical folks that I would, you know, say, but for that person we wouldn’t have gotten as far as we did.  We’ve had tremendous support from our mayors which, you know, in terms of political support, it does take money to get things done and I think what you always owe the taxpayer is, you know, a responsible accounting of what you use their money for, right?  So we want to be sure that we’re as clear as we possibly can be about the value that the taxpayer’s getting for what they’re spending here, but we’re, you know, we’re true believers on housing first, right.  I mean, we really are trying to move folks straight into permanent supportive housing and make sure we make a difference.

Tony Rodriguez: What’s your perspective on the role of the county in this, in this issue?

Mark Thiele: Well, you know, here in Houston what I would say is that the city and the county have worked tremendously together.  We had an opportunity, there was a federal initiative that included a boot camp.  They brought a bunch of folks they felt like would be leaders together and I think they ended up getting a lot of bang for their buck.  In the case of Houston and Harris County, our group sat at two different tables initially and very early in that couple-day, three-day session, the group said, “We have to sit together,” and it was interesting because there was a little bit of resistance from just a logistical point of view.  The moderator sort of suggested that it was too many people to facilitate and that group really said, “So what?” right?  “We’re going to be one team on this,” and really has acted as one team since.  There have been, I think, some historical challenges, city-county, and, you know, different jurisdictions, different interests sometimes.  But I would say in Houston and Harris County, as long as I’ve been involved, they’ve been tremendous partnership, and, you know, so I mentioned earlier, the Harris County Housing Authority works hand-in-hand with us to try to house as many homeless as possible and the Harris County Community Services Department was really a leader.  They were there at the table from the very beginning.

Tony Rodriguez: What kinds of things do you do to get the landlords to accept these vouchers?

Mark Thiele: We have here on staff two folks whose title is landlord liaison, and they do regular landlord outreach, and that’ll be everything from monthly meetings with landlords to a newsletter that tries to explain things to meetings with the Houston Apartment Association or other landlord groups to try to communicate about it.  I think the first thing is information, you know, to try to provide information to folks.  You know, and then we do have a variety of sort of individual things that’ll happen when it’s navigators.  Folks who are working with the coalition team to try to make sure that landlords really understand what’s going on, so it’s more one-to-one rather than sort of group or something you’d read about in a newsletter.  I think another thing is trying to pay attention to customer service.  That remains a challenge, but we added a call center some time ago.  You know, one of those things where we’re trying to figure out how to deliver better customer service, because part of the way that you attract anybody is to lower complaints, right?  I mean, to have folks feel like and believe and experience good customer service when they’re working with you.  Given funding constraints, it remains a challenge across a lot of government and across a lot of industry, frankly.  Another thing is, Harris County has long supported a system formerly called Socialserve, now a subset of Emphasys, which is a organization that does software.  But they’re a national provider of a rental database, so folks can go online and if you’re an owner you can list your unit, and if you’re a tenant you can go search for units that meet your qualifications.  What we have done there is outreach.  We’ve had folks from Socialserve call owners and add owners to that listing and then recently the county and the city and the two housing authorities have agreed that we’re going to do a much broader outreach using the Socialserve again.  With the idea that what ultimately, for most folks, you’re going to want to have the information in your phone, and that’s not true of everybody.  But I mentioned earlier that we did our wait list in September.  That was done entirely online, and some 70 percent of the applicants used their phones to apply for the wait list, and those who didn’t used a variety of other means, including the libraries.  So even if you’re homeless, you could go to the library and apply, and so what we know long-term is that folks will have more and more access to the internet and the ability to find information at your fingertips is really what we want to provide.  Because I was touched by what you were describing before and I know it remains a challenge for everybody to figure out how to live in difficult circumstances, and part of what we’re trying to figure out is, you know, how to make that simpler.  You know, how to put it at your fingertips rather than you have to do all this work, travel around a lot.  So we’re not there yet but it’s one of those things that we continue to work toward.

Tony Rodriguez: Is there any other thing that you give them to try to coax them to accept the vouchers?

Mark Thiele: Yeah.  Not so much.  You know, the key is once we start paying, we’re going to pay.

Tony Rodriguez: Yeah, and I think that’s a good thing.

Mark Thiele: And your free market tenant may not do that, right.

Tony Rodriguez: That’s right, yeah, that’s a good–

Mark Thiele: You just, you don’t have any guarantees.  Related to the question, the units do have to be decent, safe and sanitary.  We have switched, so we do an inspection before somebody moves in, and then now instead of doing inspections annually we’ve taken advantage of a recent regulatory change that allows us to do them once every two years.  You could argue that a little bit both ways.  Some people like the inspections.  Some people consider them a burden.  Clearly if you weren’t on the program and you were renting, no one would be coming to inspect your unit on a regular basis.  Whether or not an owner likes it or dislikes it sort of depends on their, you know, personal preferences.  I’m just saying that some people considered the inspection an advantage or an enticement, so to speak, particularly if they’re in another state, perhaps, and they don’t have somebody going by their unit that often, just to make sure at least somebody’s checking it with some frequency.

Tony Rodriguez: Yeah.  The guaranteed payment is a good incentive. <laughs>

Mark Thiele: Without doubt.  Without a doubt.

Tony Rodriguez: What is a rental vacancy rate in Houston?

Mark Thiele: So the Houston market has tightened considerably.  It depends a little bit on the class of unit.  Probably about five percent now, and the A’s and B’s vacant, and with the C’s and D’s, closer to 12 or 13 percent.

Mark Thiele: Oh, a brand-new unit would be an A unit.  You know, B would be more recently built.  C’s and D’s are going to be older units.

Tony Rodriguez: When you explain the differences between the A and B, C <laughs> apartments, what kind of a apartment would you get with a voucher?

Mark Thiele: We have a range, and so what we’re currently doing is we have three different payment standards, depending on whether or not the area’s considered an opportunity neighborhood.  So an opportunity neighborhood would be a low-poverty, low-minority neighborhood, and there has been some research to suggest that the children who grow up in those neighborhoods have better outcomes, so we’re willing to pay a little bit more there.  So we have these three-tiered payment standards.

Tony Rodriguez: I see.

Mark Thiele: If I were to quote them I’d have to bust out the numbers, but there are different payment standards by bedroom size and by whether or not it’s an opportunity area.  At a high level, what happens, you know, this gets very technical but I’ll do it really quickly, is HUD publishes a fair market rent for a jurisdiction, basically, right, and then what you do is you set your payment standard between 90 and 110 percent of that.  In our case, we have a 97 percent, a 107 percent and a 117 percent and we’re allowed to have that 117 percent because HUD gave us a waiver.  We requested and asked for a waiver for high-opportunity neighborhoods.  I think the biggest challenge is looking somebody in the eye and knowing you can’t help them.  You don’t ever get over that, but I do think it keeps you coming back every day.  You know, at the end of the day we all have decisions to make.  We only get a certain amount of time in this thing, and think everybody has a personal decision to make about how to make that time matter, and for housers, we want to house everybody, right.  I can’t say how much I appreciate your perspective and, you know, that’s what I’m always looking for.  I’m looking for input on how to do this better and on where we’re letting the side down, and, you know, you can’t do it all, and you just have to be real about that.  But, you know, there’s a great quote that says if the goal for your lifetime can be accomplished in a lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough, and so I think I’ve come to grips with it’s okay if I don’t get it done, but somebody has to, right?

Tony Rodriguez: Yeah.  Yeah.

Mark Thiele: So what you want to do is work to make it matter and have other people build upon that, and I think in Houston and Harris County we have a tremendous team that’s trying to do that.  There’s some great people in San Diego.  You know, I keep in touch with Rick and Jeff and some of the folks working, you know, there were really trying to make sure that they bring, you know, every innovation to bear.  Really thoughtful, smart people, and I’ve met a number out in California and up the West Coast in Seattle and Portland who are really trying to figure out ways to really move the ball on this.  Conservatives tend to hear deregulation and that potentially plays to a strength, right.  If you can eliminate some of the hurdles, and we had this in a– I wouldn’t have named the bill this.  The short name is HOTMA.  Maybe you’ve heard of it.  Housing Opportunities Through Modernization Act.  It was passed in the middle of last year.  One of the things that, you know, it said was that the unit doesn’t have to necessarily pass the inspection for somebody to move in, it just has to not have an emergency fail, right.  So there’s some items that are considered more critical than others, and you would agree probably that having no power is more critical than having a crack in a window perhaps, right?

Tony Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly.

Mark Thiele: And I’m talking about a razor-thin crack.  You could argue about if it’s a hole.  The point being, if you can move somebody in right away, then that saves some time and puts money into a owner’s pocket a little bit earlier, you know, rather than waiting for the unit to pass all the way, because owners have limited resources and then say you fail the inspection on the first of the month.  You might not get back there until the 15th of the month, so the owner’s lost 14 days of potential rent, and so obviously that’s not an incentive.  That’s not attractive, right?

Tony Rodriguez: Yeah, right.

Mark Thiele: As we were talking about earlier.  If it didn’t pass for something, it might never pass.  Then you have to move them out.  So it’s one of those things where you look at it and you go, “I can see this might work, and it also might not work,” right.  But it is an effort to do things a little bit differently and I think it’s an effort with its heart in the right place.  I mean, let’s see.  I mean, end of the day, I think everybody wants the unit to be decent, safe and sanitary.  The owner wants reduced liability, you know, tenant wants a good, safe home, but we all want them to move in faster.  Owner wants to get paid; tenant wants someplace to live.  So, I mean, you look at that and you go, “I think that’s worth trying,” and I applaud them for trying that and it’s one of those things where it’s just become clear how to do it, so we’ll implement it and then we’ll see over time and, you know, end of the day, proof is in the pudding, what are the outcomes you have?  That’s just a little example, but when you think about regulations, it was there for a reason, right.  We didn’t want to move anybody into a dangerous situation, right.  Now we’ve said, “Okay.  Well, some of these things maybe are not as dangerous as others and after all, if you’re not subsidized, if you’re not on a voucher, you can move in and there could be a cracked window or there might be now power and you can be okay with it.”

Tony Rodriguez: That’s right, yeah.

Mark Thiele: So we have been treating, you know, folks on subsidy different from folks in the free market.

Tony Rodriguez: Yeah, you have some flexibility.

Mark Thiele: And I think people can make decisions about that.

Tony Rodriguez: Sure.  You have some flexibility to think there.  I remember once I worked for a meat company and I delivered meat, a big pallet of frozen pork loins to the military, and their standards are, “It has to reach a certain amount of, be a certain amount of cold for them to accept it.”  Well, we got it really cold.  We wanted to be able to pass it.  They couldn’t get the thermometer in the meat, so they rejected the whole pallet of meat.

Mark Thiele: <laughs>

Tony Rodriguez: They were–

[recording ends abruptly]

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