Phyllis Snodgrass is dedicated to upholding Austin’s uniqueness by providing housing for all in need.
By Katherine Powell, Photos courtesy of Austin Habitat for Humanity
Phyllis Snodgrass has an extensive background in business and the public domain through her role as the chief operating officer for the Austin Chamber of Commerce, president and CEO of Chambers of Commerce in San Marcos, Victoria and Athens, TX, and her leadership position in the Texas Association of Businesses. Her compassion and commitment to the Austin community is evident. Her vibrancy for Austin’s unique mixture of people is why, in her opinion, accessible and affordable housing is of paramount importance to the community as a whole. Austin is comprised of a population dedicated to ingenuity, art and individuality; housing should never stand in their way.
You have been CEO of Austin Habitat for Humanity for many years. In your opinion, what is the greatest barrier to affordable housing in the community?
I was just testifying in front of a Senate committee this week on this very thing. There are a lot of different pieces to the puzzle, and there is always a need for housing. When Habitat for Humanity started 37 years ago here in Austin, for a lot of folks in the community, affordable housing became attainable for them. More recently, not just here but across the country, the split between incomes rising and cost of living has grown so exponentially. It’s just diverged so much and the gap has grown wider and wider. More people now fall into a space where they actually qualify for [our]housing; folks who would never previously qualify for Habitat for Humanity housing back when the program was founded are.
It’s the reality of the world we are in today. It costs a lot to reduce housing, for rental or ownership, and we are a home ownership organization. Income levels are just rising across the board, as fast as the cost of home ownership. We are serving people we have never served before, and we are using all available tools through partnerships, collaborations and trying to affect policy. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to produce and more needed than ever. Recently, we just advertised available housing on a track of land that used to be owned by the Austin Independent School District this spring. We put out that we were building these homes, and within two days, we had over 1,000 applications for 30 homes. That was with one press release, no advertising at all. The need is just extraordinary.
How has the pandemic increased the need for housing?
The pandemic has fundamentally changed the way things were. There are more people who are now able to work from home. Remote work has become more of a “thing” [since]before the pandemic, and if people don’t have a space to do it, it’s not feasible. People are also trying to work in more crowded conditions. Mom is sleeping on a couch, with several kids in one bedroom; you’re trying to work from home and homeschool. It was a struggle for a lot of families. For those of us that had a space to spread out, it’s a luxury. [The pandemic] drove up demand, and at the same time supply went down. We were building less during the pandemic, and expenses started going up, so there was not enough production with additional supply-chain issues.
It was just a perfect storm. There was less being produced, costs and demand went up and more people were moving here. We saw a flood of business coming to Austin right on top of the pandemic. The demand is higher than ever, and I don’t see the prices dropping for any reason. There is a big gap between what the median income in Austin for a family of four—between $110,000 to $300,000—can afford versus what is being produced in the market. We are really the only builder in that range, that $175,000 to $275,000 range of affordability. This is not a place we ever anticipated being.
What can Austinites do to help remove barriers to affordable housing?
We need more housing at all levels. We need more housing, period, but when it comes to affordable housing, all we need to be successful is simply land and money. I’ve always said that jokingly, but it’s true. We also need that heart issue to be addressed. We need people to understand who it is that needs housing and welcome them into our neighborhoods. The people on building sites or residents need to be okay with it if we’re building affordable housing behind [them]. That’s so critical. The next portion of that is we’ve become a very gated community across the country. We have a lot of people who live behind gates and laws, people who have become secluded. As we self-exclude ourselves from the community, people tend to become afraid of what they don’t know.
The truth of the matter is people who are renting or buying affordable housing are dental hygienists, people who work at the City of Austin, at the University of Texas, at our hospitals and our schools. All those [businesses]are employers of the people we serve. We also have musical artists and graphic design artists. A band who travels around the world just bought one of our homes. They’re wonderful. These people are the fabric of our community; we have to make room. They are what make Austin special.
Do you have any advice for women in the nonprofit sector?
I’d tell them two things. One, you can make a difference no matter where you are in life. You don’t have to be in nonprofits to make that difference. For example, you can run businesses well that take care of the community. I do encourage people to lean into whatever space they currently are. If you’re not growing, you’re dying. I’m also a part of a CEO advising faith-based group, C12. It’s been great to have a community that will hold me accountable. That has been tremendously helpful for me. You cannot run a business well if you don’t take good care of yourself as a leader to set a good example for your people. This has been a journey and a joy for me.