Rural housing programs serve Texas’ elderly and disabled. This federal bill could make the process easier.

Homes under construction in a future neighborhood Wednesday, April. 26, 2023, near Wolfforth in Lubbock County. (Justin Rex For The Texas Tribune, Justin Rex For The Texas Tribune)

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LUBBOCK — As Texans spend more of their income on paying their rent than essentials like health care, food, and transportation, several bills filed this congressional session aim to make it easier for people in rural communities to continue living there.

Last week, Texas Congresswoman Jasmine Crockett, a Dallas Democrat, introduced House Bill 7412. It would address administrative issues in the Rural Housing Voucher program that prevent people in rural communities from using critical benefits like housing vouchers.

The bill would clean up some of the hurdles, such as making official notices about housing assistance more readable and informing landlords of the program so they are more likely to accept vouchers from tenants. It would also direct the Rural Housing Service office to develop a plan identifying at-risk tenants and ensure they have a fast approval process for vouchers.

Crockett’s bill, along with a package of bills under the Rural Housing Service Reform Act, stand to update the housing landscape for people in far-flung areas around the country.

The federal bills address Section 515, a program through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Rural Development. It provides loans to individuals, nonprofit organizations or corporations to build, improve or purchase rural multifamily housing. People who live in rural communities can also receive a housing voucher through the 515 program that can be used toward rent where it is accepted.

Texas, the second most populous state, has 646 Section 515 properties — the largest number of any state — which serve more than 20,000 families.

How far the rural housing bills go depends on action from Congress. Aside from narrowly dodging government shutdowns, political strife has so far caused legislation to be done at a snail’s pace. This includes the new Farm Bill, which continues to be kicked down the road through extensions.

Advocates say the program is vital to keep rural housing affordable for those living paycheck to paycheck — they cater to families with low and moderate incomes, the elderly, and people with disabilities. According to a national report, 92% of Section 515 tenants have incomes that are less than half of the area median income. More than half of households are elderly people or people with disabilities.

“We’re talking about really critical and important housing,” said Natalie Maxwell, managing attorney at the National Housing Law Project. “They are providing housing to the lowest income folks in rural communities, and there’s still a need.”

Still, the notices informing people they are eligible for assistance or renewal can be hard to read for the people the vouchers are supposed to serve. One change is making the notices more readable — in size and language.

Crockett was partially motivated to work on the bill after hearing from residents in her district about the issue. Constituents have called her office, she said, on the verge of losing their home because they misunderstood an official notice and didn’t take action that was required for assistance. While she has resolved these issues for some, Crockett said she wonders about the ones who don’t call.

“These notices are filled with dense legal language that would be difficult to understand even under ideal circumstances,” Crockett said.

She said some shared their struggles to find a place to live that accepts the voucher, or being denied assistance before a rent increase.

“Even in an urban district like mine, people have families that have been devastated by rural housing instability,” Crockett said.

In some cases, this can force people to move away from their roots — leaving behind family, friends and their entire support network in hopes of finding more affordable housing. Maxwell said if the voucher program is working, this can be avoided.

“Part of the program working is that we have options for renters to stay in their communities, and that housing is affordable,” Maxwell said.

To address this, the bill proposes a more proactive approach by reaching out to landlords in areas where vouchers are needed. This would inform them of the program ahead of time, rather than when prospective tenants are trying to use it.

“It’s what we see in urban markets, a list of possible places where people can utilize their voucher,” Maxwell said. “And have the program already explained to those landlords.”

Two other members of Congress, Reps. Jonathan Jackson of Illinois and Andrea Salinas in Oregon, are cosponsors for Crockett’s bill. It has been referred to the House Committee on Financial Services for consideration.

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