Founder: Inflation creates a barrier to healthy food and affordable housing for Houstonians

Nearly 40 million Americans, including five million Texans, live in food deserts. These are communities with low access to fresh, healthy foods and high access to unhealthy alternatives, where a trip to the grocery store is often a trade-off between convenience, cost, and choice. Everyone deserves (indeed, needs) good access to food, yet current market offerings are not designed to meet demand.

And food is just one part of a tapestry of inequality—which includes among others health and wellness services, digital connectivity, debt and access to credit, and housing insecurity—that disproportionately affect historically marginalized communities and put populations at greater risk. These issues, while long-standing, have become more acute with inflation, as the cost of everything rises and wages lag.

According to the US Department of Labor, the price of food people eat at home has increased by 10 percent in the past year. Meanwhile, the cost of renting in Houston has also gone up 10 percent last year — Houston now ranks among the 50 most expensive cities in America for renters. Across Texas, rents rose 30 percent in Austin, 11 percent in San Antonio, and 17 percent in Dallas-Fort Worth last year. When tenants experience an increase in rent, it hinders their ability to move in, because even if they are working, it can be difficult to pay a lump sum of the new first month’s rent plus a security deposit. This is a big hindrance to our neighbors who live from salary to salary.

Whether it’s rent or the price of eggs, families are being put under pressure, and in order to bridge this widening chasm – the market gap and the stock gap – we need to embrace new solutions for all who live in service deserts. Fortunately, new organizations come to the fore in a meaningful and meaningful way:

Tech startups like Providers and Forage are empowering low-income families with greater access and insight into how and where food stamps can be used.

At the community level, New York-based Wellfare leverages community density and knowledge to operate a direct food subscription model for low-income families. And here in Houston, my organization, Little Red Box Grocery, will soon launch a reimagined community store, designed to bring the benefits of good food access + health to Houston’s food deserts.

However, when it comes to the source of uncertainty, much of the downstream flows of precarious housing are hard to overstate their importance to family stability. If the landlord increases the rent, some tenants can certainly move in, but others have no choice but to pay because they cannot afford the initial costs required to find alternative accommodation. The more one spends on housing, the less are the many other necessities of life… including food.

Access to fresh food and housing insecurity are interlocking challenges that we must face head-on. Fortunately, companies like Rhino help solve one of the biggest financial hurdles for renters — the cash up front required for a security deposit — with a security deposit insurance. This gives renters an affordable low rate policy like $5 per month for a rented apartment for $1,000 per month. Some landlords in Texas are already accepting this as an alternative way to secure an apartment.

It is easy to see the benefits of this type of arrangement. People can put money that would have been put into a security deposit into savings, pay off debts, and buy groceries for their families in a way that improves the health and well-being of the home and community. One can even start a business, or pursue a degree. The point is that it frees up housekeeping to use it in a more efficient way for that household.

Such services should help level the playing field. In a recent survey of renters, renters of color were more likely to pay a security deposit than white renters and paid an average of $150 more in security deposit than white renters. Colored tenants also applied more and paid a higher application fee than white renters.

Equitable access to services is an integral part of the vitality of all societies. Good food, safe housing – it not only nourishes bodies and minds, it can stimulate new investment in our neighborhoods and prove once and for all that man-made deserts do not have to exist if we let imagination and innovation reign. If there was ever a time to prioritize access – and action – now is the time.

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Sam Newman is the founder of Houston-based Little Red Box Grocery, and he’s bringing the benefits of access to quality food to Houston’s Second Ward.

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