The Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness

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Austin, Texas, has been recognized for achieving what few cities had been able to accomplish: ending veteran homelessness. 

While not a literal “end” to the veteran homelessness problem because some can still be found living on the street, the recognition was still fully justified because the city had organized resources and galvanized organizations to eliminate the backlog of veterans seeking a home and those homes are now found faster than new vets appear on the street. 

The Austin Apartment Association (AAA) was one organization involved in the effort to end veteran homelessness, but the effort was not easy and the association risked its reputation and more in trying to serve as a conduit connecting apartment owners and operators with the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) and Austin’s crisis housing agencies. In the process, the AAA used every available resource at the association’s disposal to help the community achieve success.

Overcoming Differences

In late 2014, over the active and organized objection from the AAA, the City of Austin passed an ordinance prohibiting owners from rejecting applicants who utilize the federal Housing Choice Voucher program to pay rent, commonly known as “Source of Income” (SOI) legislation. In response to this new SOI ordinance, the AAA filed legal action against the city.

Soon after the lawsuit was filed, the Texas Apartment Association (TAA) pressed for, and passed, statewide legislation that voided the Austin ordinance and prevented Texas municipalities from passing similar ordinances. Just a few days after the statewide legislation passed, Austin Mayor Steve Adler called the AAA office and requested a meeting. AAA Executive Vice President Kristan Arrona and the newly hired Director of Government Relations Paul Cauduro attended the meeting.

“We just knew that we were going to be taken to task and told that our name was mud at city hall,” Cauduro says.

However, much to their surprise, Mayor Adler suggested that the SOI debates, lawsuit and legislation all be left in the past. He explained that he just returned from an Honor Flight, traveling with World War II veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit their memorial, and how this experience deeply moved him to help end veteran homelessness as part of the nationwide Mayors’ Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. He asked the AAA to work with him in the effort.

Eager to move past the acrimony and legal battles with the city and demonstrate that SOI ordinances and mandates were not necessary to house low-income residents, the AAA Board of Directors accepted a seat on the Austin Mayors Housing Heroes Task Force.

AAA Begins Finding Units for Homeless Veterans

Homeless vets receive funding for housing through the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH, or more commonly known as VASH) program. The program combines Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) rental assistance for homeless vets with case management and clinical services provided by the VA. In Austin, homeless veterans receive a $795 per month VASH housing voucher, and it would not be an easy task to find housing for members of this vulnerable population in this price range. They would be looking for the exact same affordable one-bedroom units that everyone else moving to the city was trying to find. At the task force kick-off meeting held in July 2015, the goal to find housing for homeless veterans was outlined: 234 apartments units would be needed to house homeless vets by Veterans Day, a short five months away. 

In a city with more than 200,000 apartment units, the number of units needed seemed small but was daunting. Austin had become one of the hottest housing markets in the country with more than an estimated 100 people inbound each day. Apartment occupancy rates hovered around 97 percent, and rents were rising. 

The AAA reached out its more than 1,000 members through its website, e-newsletters and direct connections to members that own or manage affordably priced properties. Peer-to-peer meetings were also held at the association’s headquarters to provide members with a forum to simply talk among themselves, ask questions and express concerns. 

The AAA’s initial outreach efforts were successful. Austin’s Ending Community Homelessness Organization (ECHO), the organization responsible for placing homeless veterans in housing units, reported an increase in the number of properties willing to offer housing. 

“Having new properties to talk to was sorely needed,” Bree Williams, ECHO’s Director of Community Housing, says. “We had a list of properties that we normally worked with, but that list had grown old and we knew we couldn’t keep going back to that well. Working with new properties accelerated our efforts, and those contacts are still bearing fruit today in our mission to find housing for those in need.”

Even with the early success of the outreach efforts, the AAA rapidly escalated its efforts to include:

  • Continued interviews on television and radio.
  • Conference calls to explain the veteran voucher program.
  • A free exhibit booth provided to ECHO at the AAA annual trade show attended by more than 1,200 apartment housing professionals.

The AAA also made a sizable contribution to the mayor’s Housing Heroes fund. This fund was established so local businesses and others without housing units to offer could help to mitigate any perceived risk associated with housing the homeless. The fund is used to offset the cost of making repairs to units in preparation to house a veteran or to repair any damage caused by a veteran housed in the effort.

The broader AAA efforts again proved fruitful as ECHO reported that the volume of calls and inquiries about housing veterans increased. Austin-based Roscoe Properties was one of the companies that responded to the outreach effort by offering multiple units.

“Working with ECHO in the effort to end veteran homelessness was an opportunity to express our company values where we operate with integrity and treat all individuals as we would like to be treated,” Angelique Montgomery Goodnough, CPM, Executive Vice President at Roscoe Properties, says. “There have been a few bumps along the way, but federal housing programs like VASH are nothing to fear and our participation has simply become part of our daily effort to offer quality living environments for all.”

As Veterans Day approached, it became clear that finding units for all 234 veterans was not going to be accomplished. With all of the interest and units offered up to this point, the task force decided to hold a press conference on Veterans Day to celebrate the milestones reached and to make a final push to house the remaining veterans by the end of 2015.

The Final Push and Christmas Miracle 

As part of the final push, the AAA produced a public service announcement aimed at all rental property owners and purchased air time to run the ads on local television. The ad featured an AAA property manager member and a veteran housed at the member property. In addition to the marketing push, Mayor Adler hosted his Veterans’ Day press conference at the apartment community featured in the video and the same resident, a previously homeless veteran, spoke glowingly of her new apartment and the efforts made by the property to make her feel welcome. 

The PSA was effective, and apartment units for veterans continued to trickle in, but what was really needed to achieve success was a bulk of units. That need was met by Jimmy K. Arnold at Eureka Multifamily, headquartered in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. 

As an affordable housing provider with more than 5,000 apartment homes under management, Eureka was set to open a newly constructed tax-credit property in central Austin adjacent to more than 60 existing occupied units. Junior Trevino, a staff member of Eureka who had just moved to Austin to manage the project and unaware of the effort to end veteran homelessness, attended an association event and casually mentioned the pending opening to AAA Board member Sandy Eckhardt, Regional Manager, Milestone Management. During his conversation with Eckhardt, he explained how residents in the occupied units were to be moved into the new units. Eckhardt quickly realized the opportunity that the vacated units presented and tasked him with calling AAA the very next day.

Soon thereafter, Arnold found himself at Austin City Hall talking with the mayor’s task force members about his 60 now-vacant apartment homes.

“There is an old saying that luck happens when preparation meets opportunity, and I believe it applies in this situation,” Arnold says. “We are specialists in affordable and workforce apartment communities, and so working with ECHO and other service providers to move veterans into the vacated units was not difficult. In fact, the site allowed for a full-time social service provider to locate onsite to give the veterans the best chance of success. The use of the site meshed perfectly with our plans for the property and our corporate experience.”

At the end of 2015, ECHO announced they had reached several benchmarks used by the VA to measure community success in ending veteran homelessness. The VA and other federal agencies concurred with ECHO’s assessment and the official announcement was made: Austin had met the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. At the time of the announcement, of the 690 cities nationwide that signed on to the Mayors Challenge to End Veterans Homelessness, only 21 cities had reached success. 

Austin’s effort to end veteran homelessness can be directly linked to actions taken by the AAA, its Board of Directors and members. The issue was discussed at nearly every AAA meeting and event, and members took it upon themselves to encourage those in their professional networks to offer units to veterans in need. Mayor Adler praised the actions taken by the AAA, calling it a model of public-private partnership and cooperation. 

“This was a big challenge and there was a tremendous amount of hard work put into this effort, but our members have never shied away from hard work and big challenges,” Arrona says. 

“About the only things bigger than meeting this challenge are the hearts of our members.”