Every month, 52-year-old Zolanda Cravin is faced with the same question: What will she have to cut out this month to ensure she can pay her bills?
Cravin, who works in Fort Worth ISD’s security and safety department and rents an apartment downtown, makes $24,000 a year and brings home $1,653 each month.
That money doesn’t stay in her account for long. Every cent is already budgeted: her rent costs $1,190 each month; her car payment is $478; and electricity costs her an average of $300 each month. Her bills cost more than she’s bringing in — forcing her to make difficult choices.
“I’m actually not paying [one bill] to pay something else,” Cravin said. “I’m stressed out.”
Like Cravin, over half of renters in Fort Worth — nearly 55% — spend more than 30% of their income on rent, according to the latest numbers released by the U.S. Census Bureau. Most financial experts agree people should not spend more than 30% of their income on housing.
Mary-Margaret Lemons, president of Fort Worth Housing Solutions, blames a housing stock that has not kept pace with the city’s population growth. Combined with wages that have remained stagnant for years, people are forced to live paycheck to paycheck.
“We’re behind on both single-family and multifamily production. We have people competing at all different income levels for the same units,” Lemons said.
Being cost-burdened means many of these renters are locked in a vicious cycle, unable to move up the ladder and become homeowners.
Cravin was making $20,000 before a pay raise in September, but the $4,000 income boost still isn’t enough to make her homeownership dream a reality.
Not all cost-burdened renters feel equal pressure
While housing costs are a serious problem, Amy Connolly, assistant director for Fort Worth’s neighborhood services, cautioned that the census numbers are a bit more complicated than they initially appear.
When the city looks at populations that are cost-burdened with rent, staff must take students, voucher holders and those who make above a certain income out of the equation — granular populations that aren’t represented in census cost-burden data.
“Theoretically, if you have a higher income, even though you’re rent-burdened, you may be rent-burdened because you just have a nicer apartment, right?” she said. “You just decided to live in a particular area of town where your rent is higher, and so you’re willing to make that sacrifice.”
Excluding the groups Connolly mentioned, the city of Fort Worth estimated that about 32,000 residents were truly housing cost-burdened in 2021.
Mortgages, interest rates put Fort Worth homeowners on the ropes
Homeowners are also affected by housing cost burdens, albeit in a different way than renters. About 24% of Fort Worth homeowners spend more than 30% of their income on housing costs like mortgage payments, according to census data.
“We used to say all the time that homeownership was cheaper than renting. We can’t say that anymore,” said Donna VanNess, president of Housing Channel, a nonprofit agency that helps people build wealth through homeownership.
The average price of a home in Fort Worth in August was about $335,000, according to the Greater Fort Worth Association of Realtors.
High down payments, high interest rates and mortgages are some of the factors making homeownership unattainable.
Trying to close the housing gap with new construction alone would be too expensive, Connolly said. For example, if the city wanted to build 32,000 new units, the public cost would range between $1.1 billion and $2.9 billion.
“We have to make investments that are strategic because there’s just not enough public money to get the private market to do it. And it has to come with a subsidy,” Connolly said.
Across Tarrant County, affordable housing is disappearing. Join us Dec. 6 – we’ll explore solutions at our next event.
Fort Worth’s response
In response to the growing affordability crisis, the city released its Neighborhood Conservation Plan and Housing Affordability Strategy, which lays out strategies to tackle the lack of affordable housing in the city over the next five years.
“This is something that is a big endeavor for Fort Worth,” Lemons said. “We haven’t really gotten to this granular level since I’ve been in the seat.”
Despite housing advocates applauding the plan, some opponents were able to delay City Council’s vote to adopt it over specific concerns about one of the plan’s recommendations. The City Council ultimately adopted the plan at its Oct. 17 meeting.
The city is exploring other ways to address housing affordability beyond just density. Those include creating a land bank, a community land trust, mixed-use developments and finding other ways to help developers with the cost of building affordable housing.
“The biggest issue that this plan showed was that the biggest need is for capital,” Connolly said.
Staff is also looking to increase its Homebuyer Assistance Program from $20,000 to $25,000 per individual, which helps low-income families with down payment and closing costs.
For residents like Cravin, change needs to come sooner rather than later. After she spoke with the Report about her struggles, Cravin received notice that her electricity is in danger of being turned off for failure to pay. She’s now seeking a second job to help pay her bills.
“I’m just making do with what I can,” she said. “I’m living off noodles and water and whatever I can get.”