In 2018, Houston City Council unanimously passed an ordinance to regulate reentry housing for people on parole, despite significant opposition. Five years later, the ordinance not only regulates existing facilities, but it also effectively prevents new housing. Just like activists said it would.
The ordinance addresses alternate housing facilities (AHFs), which are for-profit entities that provide rental housing to people on parole. While it makes sense for AHFs to be licensed by the state and regulated by the city, the 2018 ordinance includes a sneaky provision—a distance requirement that prohibits new AHFs from being located within 1,000 feet of a school, park, or daycare facility.
On a city map, this distance restriction covers a significant amount of land. Despite activists presenting this fact to the city council, the ordinance was still unanimously passed.
As a result, there has been a 23% decrease in the number of AHF facilities. The distance requirement has hindered growth, leading to the denial of 73 permit applications that could have effectively doubled the housing capacity.
Houston needs more housing for returning citizens
The pressing issue is that Houston needs more reentry housing options. Last year alone, 3,471 people released on parole had originally been convicted in Harris County. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) requires people to secure approved housing before they are released on parole. AHFs play a vital role in filling this housing gap by providing stable support systems and assisting tenants in meeting parole conditions, developing independent life skills, and accessing additional support and treatment tailored to formerly incarcerated individuals.
It’s worth noting that when the 2018 ordinance was passed, AHFs were bundled together with boarding homes in the conversation around regulation. The mayor and council were prompted to act due to a fatal fire in a boarding home, resulting in three ordinances that included regulations for Boarding Homes, Lodging Facilities, and Correctional Facilities/AHFs.
And while most agree that some type of regulation was needed, it seems that lawmakers used boarding homes as an excuse to regulate AHFs out of existence.
The map above shows where the ordinance prohibits AHF development across Houston. The red areas represent parts of the city where you cannot get an AHF permit.
- The first scenario shows available real estate with the current 1,000 foot distance requirement. There are very few locations in the city that qualify for a permit under these conditions.
- The second scenario shows available real estate with a reduced, 300 foot distance requirement. This shows the significant impact of the number of feet, echoing public comment about the distance being too restrictive.
- The last scenario shows what only following state regulations would look like. TDCJ still requires at least 1,000 feet between AHFs.
Without location restrictions, Houston could have doubled its re-entry housing capacity
I wanted to know more about the impact of this ordinance five years later, so I downloaded the data and took a close look at it. Here are the key points:
- In 2018, Houston 88 AHF locations, with a few sites having multiple permits for adjacent buildings.
- As of April 2023, this number declined by 23% to 68 AHF locations that were either approved or in the approval process.
- During this period, the City denied 73 AHF applications based on location.
- Additionally, 32 facilities had their accounts closed due to inactivity, and 11 applications were withdrawn, potentially due to the additional regulatory burdens associated with obtaining permits.
- Based on information from the City of Houston, the total AHF capacity in the city is approximately 1,374 beds.
Why we need to reevaluate this ordinance
It’s time to revisit the distance requirement. When the ordinance originally passed, the Mayor and City Council agreed to revisit its terms after one year.
But that was five years ago. Since then, the distance requirement has not changed, despite “location” being the most common reason for denying a permit. The impact of the distance requirement is that AHF inventory is declining and growth is constrained.
Houston needs to prioritize the well-being and successful reintegration of returning citizens. Revising the distance requirement is a good first step, and it’s achievable.
If you agree, let Houston City Council know.