Despite repeatedly promising to address Houston's affordable housing needs, city officials sat for years on more than $30 million in voter-approved housing bonds.
Three times in the last 16 years, voters have agreed to let the city take on new debt to demolish blighted buildings, repair seniors' homes or build new subsidized apartments.
Of the $53 million they approved, however, Houston issued and spent just $21 million, while the number of low-income families facing housing burdens grew by tens of thousands.
As of this month, some 44,000 families were on a waiting list for subsidized housing through the Houston Housing Authority alone.
Meanwhile, city officials have left roughly $3 million in housing bond proceeds furnished by local economic development zones unspent, allowing millions in interest to accumulate on the balance.
Even the bond money from those zones that Houston did spend often went to initiatives that lacked guarantees homes would remain affordable for low-income families for any period of time, let alone the decades it would take the zones to pay off their debt.
"It's a failure of the city to invest in affordable housing," Washington, D.C., lawyer and former federal housing official Sara Pratt said.
Those practices unfolded as Houston lost track of tens of millions in other local housing dollars, a Chronicle investigation revealed earlier this year, while spending much of the rest of that money on administration, office rent, federal fines or other expenses.
Houston barely allocates any general tax revenue for affordable homes, so city officials have looked to bond debt to supplement federal funding and annual payments from local economic development zones.
Interest in using that money to expand housing opportunities has been limited, though.
Despite receiving voter approval to issue $53 million in housing bonds since 2001, roughly 40 percent of the bonds approved 16 years ago remain unused, along with half of those authorized in 2006.
Five years ago, with millions left in bond authority, Mayor Annise Parker again asked voters to sign off on housing bonds with little intention of spending them, she said.
"You need to have affordable housing on there as part of the package so that it's sellable out in the community," said Parker, recalling the political pressure she received from lawmakers and community leaders. "I don't want to say that we did it with the expectation of not using it, but that's in essence what we did."
Walter Moreau, executive director of the Austin-based affordable housing nonprofit Foundation Communities, was floored that the city had not taken advantage of the bonds.
"That's shocking to me," he said. "Was nobody watching this?"
Moreau questioned why local housing advocates had not tracked expenditures more closely, while University of Texas at Austin government Professor Sherri Greenberg called on Houston to improve its planning and tracking.
"Certainly going to the voters with general obligation bonds for affordable housing is laudable," said Greenberg, who previously oversaw Austin's debt management and capital budgeting. "But it's necessary to then have a process in place ... for people then to apply for those funds and to actually use them and track them."
Housing bonds were among the five types of bonds voters approved in 2012, the last time city bonds were on the ballot. Mayor Sylvester Turner plans to ask Houstonians to support another bond package this fall, but has not decided whether to include housing.
Parker said Houston has not issued more housing debt in large part because it devoted most of its limited borrowing capacity to parks, police stations and community centers.
"We had higher priorities," she said. "If you ask a district council member, 'Do you want a new roof on your library, do you need new bathrooms in your community center in your park, or do you want more affordable housing' what do you think they're going to ask for?"
That approach frustrated Betty Gregory, who lives in Kashmere Gardens and recalled voting for the city's latest bond package.
"If you're going to put bonds on the ballot, you've got to have some idea of what you would use the money for," said Gregory, who is 66 and partially retired. "I would like to see a real interest, a real effort, a real concern for equality in housing."
Mayor Sylvester Turner took office last year pledging to focus on inequities in Houston's neighborhoods, but he has taken few steps to ramp up housing investments.
Turner has not allocated any additional money to housing under his signature program, Complete Communities, and has shown little intention of using the city's housing bonds more quickly.
The five-year capital improvement plan City Council is set to approve Wednesday envisions spending just $1.1 million in housing bonds annually on unspecified projects.
"That's nuts," Pratt said. "How many units do you get with a million dollars? Not so many."
City Council often has adopted similarly vague spending plans over the last decade, and actual spending from housing bonds repeatedly has fallen short of five-year targets.
Housing Director Tom McCasland, who was appointed last year, said he initially asked about issuing more debt in the coming years, but switched gears after a Chronicle investigation helped the city discover $46 million was sitting in an account, available for new projects, tens of millions more than officials thought.
"Our first priority is to spend the money we already have before we go asking for more," McCasland said.
City Finance Director Kelly Dowe said the mayor has not decided whether to ask voters to approve additional housing bonds this fall when he plans to place a bond package on the ballot.
Voters at least can find information on the housing bonds they have approved by checking the city's capital plans and monthly financial reports. The same cannot be said for $13 million in bond proceeds economic development zones sent to the city housing department between 2001 and 2004. Even city officials appear to have lost track of these funds, allowing roughly $3 million to sit in a bank account for four years collecting interest.
"If you've sold the bonds but you're not using the proceeds, you're paying interest and you have nothing to show for it," Greenberg said.
By the time Uptown's tax increment reinvestment zone, which covers the Galleria area, retires its share of that debt in 2026, it will have paid nearly $10 million in interest charges.
Uptown TIRZ Administrator John Breeding recently abandoned an effort to refinance the zone's housing debt because the city's spending records were inadequate.
"You have to be able to document clearly what those funds were spent on," Breeding said, "and the information was less than perfect to the point where we didn't think we could refinance those bonds."
Asked about the unspent TIRZ bond money, Parker and former Housing Director Neal Rackleff said they had no recollection of the funds. Chief Development Officer Andy Icken, whose department oversees development zones and keeps records on the housing bonds they issue, was on city business in Europe and deferred comment to McCasland.
Although Houston generally invested its voter-approved housing bond proceeds in longer-term initiatives, city records show more than two-thirds of the $8 million in economic development bond funds spent over the last decade went to programs that lacked requirements that homes remain affordable.
About $3 million went to the city's Land Assemblage Redevelopment Authority, which is designed to acquire tax-delinquent properties and sell them to developers, who cannot sell the homes for more than $212,000.
Despite being billed as an affordable housing program, however, that maximum price is just $27,000 below Houston's median home price, and anyone can buy a LARA home, not just low-income families.
Of roughly 1,400 lots LARA acquired in the last decade, some 800 remained vacant as of February.
Other initiatives funded with the TIRZ bond money, such as emergency home repairs and developer reimbursements, similarly lacked requirements that homes remain affordable for low-income families.
Federal rules and Houston's own financial policies dictate that projects financed with bonds should match the life of the debt, since taxpayers will be paying interest over two decades.
"In general, long-term bond debt should be used for long-term capital investments," Moreau said.
City Council is set to vote this week on spending most of the remaining $3 million in housing bonds from local development zones, to extend a program that repairs roofs for low-income families.
In a late-June email to City Controller Chris Brown, McCasland sought clarity on the balances left in the bond accounts, hoping to empty each of them.
"The urgency in understanding this comes both from the Chronicle's continued research for an upcoming story, but more importantly, from the need to immediately allocate these, some of which are 15-plus years old," McCasland wrote. "I hope (we) can zero out as many of these old TIRZ bond funds as possible."
Homeowners who receive repairs under $10,000 will not face any affordability restrictions, but those who get more work done will need to stay in their homes for five to 20 years, depending on the extent of city investment.
For Gregory, the Kashmere Gardens retiree, that plan was welcome news. Gregory and her husband own their home, but find it difficult to maintain on an income of just $25,000 a year.
"You should be able to afford the right to stay," she said. "Make that right to stay real, and for many residents it's not real."