Founder: Inflation is creating a barrier to healthy food access, affordable housing for Houstonians
Approximately 40 million Americans, including five million Texans, live in food deserts. These are communities with low access to fresh and healthy foods and high access to unhealthy alternatives, where a trip to the grocery store is oftentimes a tradeoff between convenience, cost, and choice. Everyone deserves (indeed, needs) good food access, yet current market offerings are not designed to satisfy demand.
And food is but one part of a tapestry of disparity – which includes among other things health and wellness services, digital connectivity, debt and access to credit, and housing insecurity – that disproportionately impacts historically marginalized communities and leaves residents vulnerable to greater risks. These issues, long-standing though they are, have become more acute with inflation, as the cost of everything goes up and wages lag.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the price of food that people eat at home rose 10 percent in the last year. At the same time, the cost of rent in Houston also increased 10 percent last year - Houston now ranks in the top 50 most expensive cities in America for renters. Across Texas, rents are up 30 percent in Austin, 11 percent in San Antonio, and 17 percent in Dallas-Fort Worth last year. When tenants face a rent increase it hampers their ability to move, because even if they are working, it can be a challenge to pay the lump sum of a new first month’s rent plus a security deposit. This is a huge barrier for our neighbors living paycheck to paycheck.
Whether it’s rent or the price of eggs, families are being squeezed, and in order to bridge this widening chasm – the Market Gap and Equity Gap – we need to embrace fresh solutions for all who live in service deserts. Fortunately, new organizations are coming to the fore in a targeted and meaningful way:
Tech start-ups such as Providers and Forage are empowering low-income households with greater access and insight on how and where to use food stamps.
At the community level, New York-based Wellfare is leveraging density and community knowledge to run a direct-to-door food subscription model for low-income households. And here in Houston, my organization, Little Red Box Grocery, will soon be launching a reimagined community store, designed to bring the benefits of good food access + health to Houston’s Food Deserts.
Yet when it comes to the wellspring of uncertainty, so much flows downstream from unstable housing it is hard to overstate its importance on family stability. If a landlord increases the rent, some renters can certainly move, but others have no choice but to pay up as they cannot afford the upfront costs required to find alternative housing. And the more one spends on housing, the less there is for life’s other many necessities… including food.
Fresh food access and housing insecurity are intertwined challenges that we must meet head on. Fortunately, companies like Rhino are helping solve one of renters’ biggest financial hurdles – the up-front cash required for a security deposit – with security deposit insurance. This gives renters a low-rate policy as affordable as $5 per month for an apartment renting for $1,000 per month. Some property owners in Texas are already accepting it as an alternative way to secure an apartment.
The benefits of this kind of arrangement are easy to see. People can put money that would otherwise be locked away in a security deposit into savings, pay down debt, buy groceries for their family in a manner that improves home and community health and well-being. One could even start a business, or pursue a degree. The point is that it frees up home economics to be used in a manner most efficient for that family.
And services such as this should help level the playing field. In a recently released survey of renters, renters of color were more likely to pay a security deposit than white renters and they paid $150 more on average in the security deposit than white renters. Renters of color also submitted more applications and paid higher application fees than white renters.
Equitable access to services is integral to the vitality of all communities. Good food, secure housing – it doesn’t just nourish bodies and minds, it can spur new investment into our neighborhoods and prove once and for all that manmade deserts of any kind do not have to exist if we let imagination and innovation prevail. If there was ever a time to prioritize access – and action – it is now.
Sam Newman is the founder of Houston-based Little Red Box Grocery bringing the benefits of good food access to Houston’s Second Ward.