The motel near Interstate 35 doesn’t look like a place where a family would want to raise its children. A base-colored building falling into disrepair, the upstairs walkway leans from the weight of the number of families who have called this place home since long before the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is our first time having to deal with this situation. We’ve always been able to find affordable housing,” one family who wished to remain anonymous because of safety concerns told the Denton Record-Chronicle. “The area where we are is not a good area for our kids. We can’t let them go outside. We have to go to a park because the people who come around here are far-gone drug addicts.”
Crystal “Shorty” Gutierrez’s family has been in survival mode for about five months now since she and her boyfriend split up. A single mother of three children, she had only about $100 to her name and struggled to find an affordable apartment or house because of the lack of availability and the landlords’ requirement for tenants to make three times the rent. Now she’s pouring everything she has financially into keeping a roughly 350-square-foot room at the Studio 6 for $400 a week. She picked this hotel because of the proximity of nearby fast-food restaurants but almost lost her room after a pay dispute and other issues led to her firing at one of the restaurants.
But she was lucky because she landed a job at Sonic a week later and was able to catch up on her motel room bill after taking several extra shifts.
“That is why I came to this hotel. It’s just up under the bridge, and everywhere I go, I walk,” Shorty said. “There are a lot of families here in this hotel.”
In a state once known as “a place where families can live well for less,” the state comptroller pointed out that Texas home prices have been outpacing the nation since 2011. This fact, along with others — explosive population growth, rise in building costs and property taxes, for example — has turned motels and hotels into the new face of affordable housing in Texas, as several news outlets have reported.
It reaffirms United Way’s 2022 Denton County Community Needs Assessment, which found 45% of households in Denton no longer can afford to live here. Some of that number can be found at motel rooms across the area. Gary Henderson, president and CEO of United Way, called it the “front door” to homelessness, just another step on the downward spiral.
Shorty and other families at the motel off Interstate 35 are one step away from joining the homeless, whose numbers have increased 43% from July 2021 to July 2022 in Denton County, according to a new Homeless Point in Time report by the United Way.
“We’ve seen this before, but we have never seen this many households,” Henderson said.
A lack of urgencyA year had passed since the Nunez family moved into its 350-square-foot hotel room. It was a step up the homeless ladder for the family of five, from living out of their Envoy SUV in a Walmart parking lot where they depended on the kindness of strangers to help them scrape together enough money to climb out of it.
They had shared their story with the Record-Chronicle in November 2018 in a report about families who were forced to live in motel rooms due, in part, to the lack of affordable housing in the area. A lack of data made it difficult for agencies to track the number of families living in motel rooms, according to the Nov. 25, 2018, Record-Chronicle report.
“I couldn’t say definitively how many families are living in motels,” Courtney Cross, the then-director of homeless initiatives for United Way, told the Record-Chronicle. “I wouldn’t even want to attempt.”
News outlets have been attempting it. In May 2020, The Texas Tribune dropped a story about students living in cramped hotel rooms, which reporters Aliyya Swaby and Juan Pablo Garnham called the “last resort for struggling families, even more so during the coronavirus pandemic.”
“Officials with the small school district in the northwest corner of Tarrant County estimate that dozens of their students — like hundreds in other districts — live with their families long term in this hotel, so many that when the coronavirus pandemic shut down schools, it set up a regular service handing out free meals and books in the hotel parking lot,” they wrote in the May 2020 Tribune report. “Otherwise, students faced crossing two highways to reach the school for breakfast or lunch, according to Ally Surface, a parent volunteer who distributes meals weekly.”
The Nunez children were part of the 7% of more than 114,000 students who were considered homeless and living in motel and hotel rooms, according to the Tribune report.
Four years after the Record-Chronicle’s report, more and more families like the Nunezes are living in hotel and motel rooms, not only in Denton but across North Texas, because of the lack of affordable housing and increasing rent costs that in several Texas cities “have increased by double digits,” the Tribune reported in February.
“Across the state and country, a combination of social, economic and political forces are driving more people to look for rental housing but limiting the construction of units,” Timia Cobb reported for the Tribune in February. “That imbalance between supply and demand pushes rents upward, putting tenants in financial binds. And in Texas — where laws favor landlords, and rent control is virtually nonexistent — tenants are left to either take on additional jobs, cut other household costs or move out of the communities they prefer.”
Or, as agencies are seeing in Denton County and elsewhere, they’re moving into hotel and motel rooms. They’ve been dubbed the “hidden homeless” by the Center for Transforming Lives, as the Fort Worth Report first reported in a May 23 article.
According to a new report by the Center for Transforming Lives, “A significant proportion of children experiencing homelessness live in motels. What further limits our ability to assess the needs of families living in motels is knowing how many families this represents in our community. Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) does not consider families living in motels as ‘homeless’ and, as a result, these families are largely ineligible for most housing programs. But because of the detrimental impacts of unstable housing on child outcomes, the U.S. Department of Education considers children living in motels to be homeless based on the McKinney-Vento Act.”
But even if HUD did consider families living in motels and hotels as homeless, trying to qualify for a housing voucher in Denton won’t help them get out of their situation anytime soon.
Denton Housing Authority is closing the housing choice voucher waiting list on Sept. 30 because of HUD’s guidelines regarding the length of waiting lists. The closure won’t affect applicants who get their names on the waiting list before Sept. 30. However, according to a DHA flyer, “current applicants can expect a wait of 5 years or longer.”
New hope goneAll day and all night, the refrigerator in Sparkle’s motel room makes a clunking noise as if the fan is going out. She has had several issues with the motel room, but the manager, she said, hasn’t been addressing them.
A mother of three daughters, “Sparkle,” who is disabled and declined to give her full name out of concern for her safety, and her husband have been living at the motel off Interstate 35 since September, paying $420 per week on a single income.
Like other families living at the motel, they struggle to find affordable housing or to meet the three-times income marker to qualify if they did find one they could afford.
“I don’t understand why in Texas we need to make three times more than what our rent is,” Sparkle said. “I’ve never heard of that before. The person taking my application doesn’t make that much. Why is it so high? We barely make enough to get the rent paid and get food and still have things like personal hygiene items and school projects. It is a struggle.”
Last year, they moved to Texas from the Memphis area to lay a foundation and offer stability for their children. The motel room was a short-term plan that has turned into a long-term one, as it has for many families. Just last week, she said, a family of seven was forced out of their motel room because they could no longer afford to pay the weekly bill. Their 3-month-old infant was still in a Fort Worth hospital.
Sparkle has two beds in her motel room and has two inflatable mattresses for her daughters — between the ages of 11 and 15 — to sleep on. Her children don’t attend public school since she chooses to homeschool them, so they don’t receive free and reduced lunches like the increased number of children at Denton ISD, which saw a 3.24% increase from January 2020 until January 2021, according to a Jan. 31, 2021, Record-Chronicle report.
“I have never experienced anything like this,” Sparkle said. “It seems like it is worse than it was during the pandemic.”
And there’s little relief in sight. A few projects are currently in development, and in February, the Denton City Council approved resolutions for seven more affordable housing projects that were seeking a 9% housing tax credit from the federal government. All would charge rent on a scale depending on income, the Record-Chronicle reported in a Feb. 4 report.
The city hasn’t had that many developers seeking the 9% housing tax credit to be able to offer the affordable housing in several years because of the competitiveness of other North Texas cities seeking the limited housing credit, said Danielle Shaw, the director of community services for Denton.
But only two so far have been approved for the housing credit, and it will probably take a couple of years before their affordable housing projects become available for people like Sparkle, Shorty and the others.
Shaw said the way developers achieve affordability is by bringing down the cost of development and referred to it like playing a game of chess.
“A lot of chess pieces,” she said. “They need the right financing mix and right land costs and tax credits.”
Sparkle, who also claimed many families were living at the motel, could contact the Denton Affordable Housing Corporation, a community housing development nonprofit, for help. To qualify, she would need to make a certain percentage — between 30% and 80% depending on a number of factors — under the median area income, which for Denton County is $90,354, according to July 2021 estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau.
DAHC Executive Director Jacob Moses said they manage 91 properties in Denton but have only one vacancy currently available.
“It’s because our rent homeowners usually stay there,” Moses said.
In the meantime, Sparkle and others will have to continue their juggling act to make their weekly rent or end up on the street.
Yet the economy’s expected impact on their family income isn’t bright. According to the 2022 National Community Survey of Denton, residents’ scores have all significantly declined for Denton as a place to work, its economic health of the city and the cost of living. Residents felt much less optimistic about the economy’s expected impact on their family income, from only 15% in 2022 compared with 36% in 2018.
In other words, Texas no longer has the reputation as “a place where families can live well for less,” as the state comptroller pointed out.
“It is getting hard,” Sparkle said. “I feel like it is being a bit too much. It’s been a year. We’ve been surviving, not living — just surviving.”