Houston, Texas is known for being a diverse and affordable city, especially when compared to cities on the oceanic coasts like New York or Los Angeles. The median home price in Houston, Texas is roughly $227,000, which is less than half of New York City’s median home value of $660,000. Yet, while Houston’s housing market appears to be relatively affordable, growing income inequality has led to a greater concentration of poverty. In Harris County, where Houston is located, 40 percent of household tracts have been characterized by concentrated poverty. As a result, low-income residents are relegated to high-poverty neighborhoods, exacerbating school segregation and preventing low-income students from accessing schools that provide greater opportunities for their students.
NestQuest Houston responds directly to these equity problems, and provides an excellent model for efforts in other areas of the country to follow. As a nonprofit housing mobility program, NestQuest seeks to expand educational opportunities for low-income Houston students by providing access to high-quality housing and educational opportunities to families who receive Housing Choice Vouchers (HCVP). In particular, NestQuest steps in where flaws in the Housing Choice Voucher Program and its related state laws have been leaving many people behind.
NestQuest steps in where flaws in the Housing Choice Voucher Program and its related state laws have been leaving many people behind.
HCVP is a federal government program that assists low-income families, the disabled, and the elderly in finding affordable housing in the private market. The policy can provide families with the financial assistance necessary to move to low-poverty neighborhoods, which can change the course of their child’s life. Harvard economist Raj Chetty found that low-income children whose families moved to lower-poverty neighborhoods before age thirteen were more likely to attend college and increase their expected lifetime earnings by over $300,000, breaking the cycle of generational poverty. However, in Texas, several barriers prevent voucher holders from accessing housing in low-poverty neighborhoods. Texas law allows for legalized discrimination against HCVP holders: landlords cannot be penalized for refusing to accept voucher holders. Consequently, in Houston, one-quarter of families who receive housing assistance are unable to use their vouchers.
Founded in 2017, NestQuest has helped solve this problem by taking out leases in high-opportunity areas and leasing them to Housing Choice Voucher recipients. This approach is different from other housing mobility programs because NestQuest is financially tied to the properties, a factor which has encouraged landlords who do not typically accept voucher holders to do so. NestQuest Houston also pays the difference between the amount covered by the voucher and the monthly rate of the property, allowing voucher recipients to access properties in affluent neighborhoods. By centering educational access and providing extensive pre- and post-move counseling, NestQuest Houston has helped many low-income families access high-quality housing and education.
Centering Educational Access
The core of NestQuest’s mission is improving educational access for students. NestQuest only accepts families with school-aged children. The organization is unique among housing mobility programs in that they guarantee that every student in their program attends a school ranked between A+ and B by Children at Risk, a nonprofit and nonpartisan ranking system. This mission is personal for NestQuest’s leadership team. Executive Director Isabel Lopez joined the founding team because as a child she had lived on government assistance, like many of NestQuest’s clients do. She says that her family “did not have any options,” so she “graduated from a very low-rank high school.” Yet, in part because she had attended higher-ranked schools in elementary and middle school and received a quality education there, she was able to graduate at the top of her class, which opened up opportunities for her.
NestQuest’s definition of a high-ranking school, however, is not just based on students’ grade point averages and standardized exam results. They pay close attention to students’ academic performance, but also to the diversity within the school and the number and quality of resources. Lopez finds that during pre-move counseling with families, many families do not know the difference between a high-quality and low-quality school because they have never seen schools that offer additional services, such as in-house speech therapy, orientation and mobility specialists, a wide range of afterschool programs and sports in their neighborhoods.
Thus, much of their counseling focuses on “opening a lot of parents’ eyes to these opportunities” that exist in other neighborhoods, Lopez explained. Development Manager Hannah Mannion added that families realize the difference in quality once they have made the move. “They have gone, ‘Wow, this school actually has speech therapy, I don’t have to do this externally,’” she recounted. Nicole, one of NestQuest’s clients, echoed Lopez and Mannion’s sentiments. Her three school-aged children have benefited from moving to a high-opportunity area with NestQuest. Nicole and her family were able to move to the Cyprus–Fairbanks Independent School District from Alief, where she found more after-school programs, free summer school, and more resources that have allowed her children to thrive. Nicole noticed that her son, who is in the eleventh grade in the Cyprus school district, has a stronger friend circle, his self-esteem has improved, and “now he talks about going to college,” Nicole described.
Nicole has also witnessed the academic progress in her younger daughter and her son, who now attend second and third grade, respectively, at a nearby charter school. Her daughter, who has a learning disability, came to her new school not reading on grade level and struggling in math. After two years at her new school, she can now read on grade level and is often excited to sit down and read the books she borrows from school. “For me it’s awesome…just seeing her go from barely being able to pronounce words to now reading a book,” Nicole remarked.
Every year, NestQuest tracks each child’s attendance and grade point average and has discussions with parents about how their child is doing in school. NestQuest has even helped connect students to internships, scholarships, and mentorship opportunities. The tight-knit relationship that the staff have with their families allows them to take notice of each student’s interest. Lopez cited the example of when a “recent graduate showed an interest in the medical field before beginning his senior year in high school.” From there, Lopez explained, “we were able to arrange an internship at a local clinic in Tomball with our former board chair. It has always been important that we provide the support for our students. That is why we also make our staff available to assist students with submissions of scholarship applications, drafting resumes/cover letters, and letters of recommendation if necessary.” Since they began accepting families in 2018, NestQuest has provided safe and stable housing to sixty-six families and over 225 people. While they previously served twenty-five to thirty families per year, they are currently providing housing to forty families per month, and anticipate that, with greater funding, they can continue to increase the number of families they support.
Tackling Housing Barriers through Counseling
When families receive a voucher, they often envision the voucher to be a golden ticket to living in a higher opportunity neighborhood with schools that provide a wider range of supports and experiences. Yet, while working for the housing authority, Lopez was surprised that despite many families waiting over five years to receive a voucher, many were giving it up. She found that because housing authorities are often unable to assist their clients with the search process, clients would both have to find a landlord who would be willing to accept a voucher and a property that they were comfortable living in with their children. Instead, many voucher holders found that landlords would refuse to take their vouchers because of their income, credit history, or rental history. Other voucher holders would find that properties were not well maintained and were located in neighborhoods that did not feel as safe.
Nicole had been a voucher recipient for several years before learning about NestQuest during the recertification process. Nicole considers herself lucky that she had learned about the organization just after a drive-by shooting sent bullets into her house. When she reached out to the Housing Authority about feeling unsafe and wanting to move to a new neighborhood, she was told that “because nobody got hurt, we do not consider that as a dangerous situation,” Nicole recounted. Nicole is “so grateful to be in this area,” she says of her new neighborhood, which has allowed her and her children to focus on work and school and not worry about their safety.
When working with NestQuest Houston, landlords no longer have to worry about the red tape, not being able to pay for damages on their property, or whether the housing authority will approve their rent.
Executive Director Isabel Lopez joined the founding team to truly give families in the Housing Choice Voucher Program choice and not just the illusion of choice. NestQuest does this by working with landlords who typically do not accept vouchers. At these properties, many landlords have worked with housing authority clients in the past, and sometimes have concerns about the process. NestQuest addresses these concerns by taking financial responsibility for the unit, taking responsibility for any damages, ensuring that the client complies with the community rules of the property, and coordinating with the housing authority. When working with NestQuest Houston, landlords no longer have to worry about the red tape, not being able to pay for damages on their property, or whether the housing authority will approve their rent.
NestQuest’s team does more than just provide financial assistance to their clients. While some housing mobility programs just cover the difference for clients to access higher rents in affluent areas, NestQuest continues to stay involved with their clients through counseling. Staff do not just concern themselves with the finances but work to ensure that all of their beneficiaries are “thriving where they live,” Development Manager Hannah Mannion asserts.
NestQuest Houston’s Process
This mission to ensure all clients become integrated into the fabric of their new community is evident in NestQuest’s process of working with families. Once a family has applied and provides documentation, the staff works on matching them to schools with the resources their children need and starts providing them with a list of referrals—apartments that meet their criteria. The case manager schedules tours with the client of every property that the client wants to visit. Then the client is given time to decide whether they want to move forward with an application to a property. Since they are searching for properties in an open market, there must be a quick turnaround for the client’s decision. However, if the client takes longer, NestQuest searches for additional properties and begins the process once more. Nicole cited the ease and the choice that NestQuest provided in finding housing. “It was less stressful than being on your own, with the housing program that I was with before, you pretty much do everything on your own,” she explained.
NestQuest covers the application fee, administrative fees, and security deposit for clients who cannot afford them and other times property managers waive these costs. Once the lease starts, NestQuest goes into the unit and performs a full inspection. In order to ensure the family can move in as quickly as possible and children can adjust to their new home before starting school, they perform the inspection as quickly as possible then coordinate with the housing authority for them to perform their inspection.
Once the family is ready to move in, Lopez describes their role as “similar to every other landlord.” They require their clients to provide renter’s insurance, cover fees for pest control and trash along with their portion of rent. Once the client has their keys, they are given a few days to move in and get situated, periodically checking on them to ensure they have what they need, including if their keys are working and if they need support enrolling their children in school. In some cases, NestQuest visits the school with the parent. Other times, when families do not have enough furniture, including Nicole’s family, NestQuest has been able to make connections with the Houston Furniture Bank. Within thirty to forty-five days after their move, NestQuest conducts the initial home visit.
As part of the initial home visit, NestQuest conducts a financial assessment to determine what the family’s expenses are, how far they are stretching their income, other needs they have, and whether the head of household is able to shift their income to cover those additional needs. From there, the NestQuest team walks them through how to budget. Every month after the first month, the case manager checks in with the family to confirm if they are doing well financially and if their children are adjusting to school. “Some people are put off by you coming into their home every three months. But for me, I’m like, great, this holds me accountable, the property manager accountable, and the blessing is that we get to be in a high-performing school district,” Nicole explained.
Lopez and Mannion attribute much of their success to having a strong team. There are only three staff members, including senior case manager Sade Carr in addition to Lopez and Mannion. Yet, “because we have the team and the right people, we have seen huge increases in people wanting to join the program,” Mannion asserted.
As a new nonprofit, NestQuest’s has experienced several challenges from its founding in 2017. When they started, they wanted to be an “anything to everything sort of organization” Lopez explained, meaning that they planned to support low-income families to move to any home they wanted. One lesson they learned early on during their pilot period is that as much as clients may want a house, some are not ready for it. During their two-year pilot, they leased single-family homes, which became a challenge for them and the client. Among the issues they experienced was the difficulty of maintenance; households struggled with expenses including higher utility costs. “It is really hard to tell a family that until they go through it,” Lopez lamented.
Another costly challenge was that NestQuest was initially an all-bills-paid program. They paid the full cost of what was used by the client in any type of unit they were in. Yet, the team realized that in order for the program to be sustainable long-term, they needed to be more focused on what they could afford for each family. Lopez explained the shift this way: “For us, it’s always been about the quality of assistance that we can provide. And if our only focus was just on reaching numbers, obviously other things will not necessarily be the focus. And we did not want to be that way. So we have slowly made adjustments.”
NestQuest’s funding structure has allowed them to make these adjustments and increase the families they can support. The Public Housing Authority provides the most significant funding by reimbursing 85 percent of rent, which is determined by the beneficiary. CDBG-DR funding for Hurricane Harvey disaster recovery program provides 10 percent of NestQuest’s overall monthly costs. Both corporate and foundation grants supply 5 percent each of NestQuest’s annual budget. Lastly, individual donors provide 1 percent of NestQuest’s annual budget. This combination of public and private funding has allowed NestQuest to expand the program over the past year and serve the greatest number of families in the program’s history, while maintaining the quality of assistance that they are known for.
Although NestQuest has transformed the lives of the sixty-six families they have served, there are over 17,000 voucher recipients in the Houston area that do not have access to these services, highlighting the need for systemic reform. Currently, only 1 in 3 voucher households are protected by state and local non-discrimmination laws that prevent private landlords from refusing to rent to voucher holders. The federal government should enact non-discrimmination law that allows voucher recipients in and outside of Texas to access high-opportunity neighborhoods.
In the absence of much needed systemic reform, housing mobility programs can have an impactful role in low-income children’s lives and future livelihood. Nicole urges other programs to offer the same opportunities that her family has received. For other housing mobility programs that hope to provide similar opportunities for their clients, Isabel Lopez and Hannah Mannion stress the following best practices:
- Understand government agencies’ processes. “If working with government agencies such as a housing authority, make sure to understand their processes. In many cases, knowing the agency’s process will be helpful in creating your own procedures and timelines,” Lopez offered.
- Provide extensive counseling to clients. Many families receiving housing vouchers are often left without support to navigate a difficult housing market. Therefore “it is important to understand the community being served, setting realistic expectations for your clients and being consistent with your process and requirements,” Lopez said.
- Help families access high-performing schools. Housing mobility programs can play a unique role in changing the trajectory of a child’s life by providing high-quality educational opportunities and helping to combat school segregation. By taking into account school resources and school quality during pre-move counseling, housing mobility programs can improve educational outcomes for students.