Waco’s vibrant housing market, buoyed by a strong economy and the made-for-TV magic of “Fixer Upper,” has produced plenty of winners. But it has left others behind.
Those who work with low-income people say their clients are increasingly feeling the pinch as rents rise, wages stagnate, housing assistance wait lists grow and the stock of affordable housing grows thin.
“It is nonexistent,” said Compassion Ministries executive director Jill McCall, calling affordable housing the No. 1 issue for her clients as they seek to exit homelessness.
“It’s a monumental task to help these people find affordable safe housing for them to live in when they leave here.”
Between 2010 and 2017, the number of Waco households paying more than $1,000 in rent nearly doubled from 6,111 to 11,780, according to the U.S. Census’ American Community Survey.
By 2017, 55.3 percent of rental households in the Waco Metropolitan Statistical Area were paying more than 30 percent of their income on rent — the threshold beyond which housing is considered to no longer be affordable by federal standards. Nationwide, the comparable figure is 46 percent.
That leaves some working families teetering on a ledge of financial insecurity.
Lifelong Waco resident Laura Pecina, 30, a certified nursing assistant at St. Catherine Center’s skilled nursing facility, made a living caring for elderly and disabled patients, until a chronic autoimmune disease left her unable to care for herself.
“I got really, really sick to the point of my husband having to change me, bathe me,” Pecina said. “I just couldn’t move.”
Without Laura’s income, Pecina’s husband Joseph, a full-time inventory specialist at Magnolia Market, struggled financially to afford the family’s $1,000 monthly rental payment, forcing the couple and their four school-aged children to move their family of six into a two-bedroom house with Pecina’s mother-in-law.
After three months in cramped quarters, the Pecina family moved into a temporary two-bedroom apartment at Compassion Ministries, a nonprofit devoted to providing transitional housing for homeless individuals and families.
“You don’t want to be called homeless but basically that’s where we were,” she said.
The apartment at Compassion has given the family time to save money and look for an affordable place to live.
Compassion Ministries was the family’s saving grace once before, she said.
She first learned of the nonprofit during a rough period when her family was living in a two-bed motel room, costing $250 a week.
That situation was the result of a house fire that displaced Pecina, her mother-in-law and their two nephews.
“It was getting very slim and things were not looking up for us,” she said. “I can say right now our car wouldn’t have fit all of us. I thank God that we didn’t have to find out what we would have done without Compassion Ministries.”
Most of Compassion Ministries’ homeless clients are fleeing domestic violence, struggling to live on one income after a divorce or individuals who lost their jobs, Compassion Ministries Case Manager Dianne Martinez said.
“The misconception about the homeless is that they’re all drug addicts, winos or lazy,” Martinez said. “That’s just not the case.”
At Compassion Ministries, unemployed clients must find a full-time job within 30 business days. Once employed, the nonprofit collects a monthly rent payment, a portion of which is returned to the client at the end of their stay to be used as a deposit on a permanent housing situation.
Shortage in Waco
But, increasingly, clients are having trouble finding affordable housing to transition to after their stay at Compassion Ministries.
“What I tell people when people move out of here is that they can’t have everything they want so they have to choose,” said Barbara Bridgewater, a Compassion Ministries caseworker of 17 years. “They cannot all have affordable housing, and a safe place to live, and adequate space. They can’t. It’s very dismal.”
The need for low-income housing has outpaced what affordable housing opportunities Waco offers. Waco’s subsidized apartment complexes have a year-long wait list, she said. Bridgewater said the nonprofit advises all clients to apply for public housing as a backup.
But the Waco Housing Authority’s three public housing complexes are rented at 98 percent capacity and currently the wait list for Waco Section 8 housing is backlogged by roughly 2,600 applicants.
Waco Housing Authority CEO Milet Hopping said it can take up to three years for Section 8 wait list applicants to receive a housing voucher, which can be used at private apartment complexes or rent houses.
The City of Waco is currently in the process of vetting three firms who are interested in building tax credit housing projects in Waco, according to Galen Price, City of Waco interim housing director. Tax-credit housing, such as the Historic Lofts at Waco High in downtown and Barron’s Branch Apartments at 817 Colcord Ave., use federal financing to lower rent payments for lower-income residents.
But any new projects, if approved, wouldn’t likely come to fruition for two years, Price said.
Expensive utility deposits, credit checks and landlords with unrealistic income criteria provide additional housing hurdles, Martinez said.
“Rent has gotten incredibly high,” Martinez said. “Most places want residents to prove their income is three times the rent. We know a couple places that will work with us and do 2 or 2.5 (times the rent), but it’s difficult.”
Martinez said she believes better paying jobs and an increased minimum wage would make a significant difference to those struggling to afford the basic necessities of life.
In order for a person making minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, to secure affordable housing in Waco at 30 percent of his or her monthly earnings, that person would have to find an apartment or house for $348 a month.
“That’s supposed to be what they’re paying,” Bridgewater said. “We don’t know any place that’s doing that in town. This is someone working full time, 40 hours a week, and never missing a day, and that’s gross only. That’s not net. That’s the battle we’re up against.”
A person making $11 an hour would still be at a loss to find an affordable abode for $528 in Waco, she said.
“I am always saying this to the churches when they want to know what to do (about homelessness),” Bridgewater said. “Tell all of your employers in your church to give their folks a raise. That would help homelessness. ... But people aren’t going to do that. They’d rather give food to a food bank.”
The Pecinas are happy to have a safe, affordable home for the holidays. Laura Pecina continues to struggle with the side effects of her autoimmune disorder but she looks forward to a time when her illness is managed, when she can go back to work and her family can find a stable affordable permanent home.
In the meantime, Pecina said she wishes property owners as well as city and county officials would open their hearts and consider meaningful changes in how they treat Waco’s low-income community.
“For me and my husband, we had very rough childhoods,” Pecina said. “My credit was screwed up before I could even get to it, I didn’t even have an opportunity to have good credit because family members used my name for different things. It’s not always our fault. Just think, if this were your family what would you do? Were you always in a position to have a family home? We are all human. Life sometimes knocks you down but everyone deserves a second chance.”