While we cannot “build” enough affordable rental housing to provide the numbers of new units that our nation requires, there is still much that we can do….
Tanya Tull, Founder – Partnering for Change
Partnering for Change advocates for policy change at federal, state, and local levels of government in which there is a renewed focus on family housing security and stability. This change in focus will require new protocols and practices for cross-system collaboration at the local level.
Because “substandard, overcrowded, and poor housing conditions” are not readily visible to the public at-large, we are currently striving to illuminate how families actually live when adequate housing is not affordable.
Rather than sleep on the streets or enter into a shelter program, heads-of-household in families with children are often at the mercy of landlords who charge exorbitant rents for deteriorating and substandard housing conditions. Other families share overcrowded and substandard rental units with other families to whom they are not related. Still others move from motel room to motel room for months and sometimes years at a time.
From the outside, there is nothing to indicate the squalor and decay of the overcrowded rental units in this apartment building catering to families with children.
Because most staff at schools, healthcare providers, and child and family services programs generally do not make home visits, it is vital to ask the right questions upon intake and/or enrollment, during the provision of services, or when something appears to be wrong. Housing-focused surveys can be conducted with heads-of-household, home visits to assess living conditions can be scheduled, and immediate interventions can be provided when parents, caregivers, or children ask for help when they are experiencing a housing crisis.
One of the most strategic approaches to the challenge of housing distress once identified is to work together with families to develop individualized and specific strategies to address family housing needs. The addition of staff with specialized knowledge of housing issues has become increasingly the norm at community-based social services systems across the country. In this new paradigm, social workers and housing specialists work together as a team, with social workers providing support to families on personal and economic issues that may have affected the family housing stability or housing conditions, while housing specialists focus on issues that are primarily related to the actual housing.
Challenges are simply stepping-stones…. If one is wobbly, just step around it and keep on going!
There are many ways in which community-based services systems can provide assistance to families experiencing housing distress. Following are some examples of housing-based interventions: assistance resolving roommate or shared housing conflicts; assistance in negotiating or advocating with a landlord (e.g., for more time to pay rent, lower rent, more time to relocate); the provision of informal advocacy and mediation support or formal mediation services to address landlord-tenant issues and prevent an eviction; assistance in expunging an eviction record or improving poor credit; assistance in advocating with a landlord to improve poor rental housing conditions; and assistance in relocating to more adequate rental housing (including financial assistance, housing search assistance, access to rent subsidies d(including temporary subsidies), and negotiation with landlords to overcome barriers to obtaining a lease).
Flexible funding should be available for back rent to enable a family to remain in their current housing or for moving costs and deposits to relocate to more appropriate and/or more affordable housing. In comparison to the high costs of maintaining homeless families in shelters and transitional housing, these one-time costs are negligible. When families must relocate from their current housing, including temporary housing with relatives and/or friends, housing-related services should include referrals to specific landlords with available rental units; transportation assistance; access to a computer and assistance in seeking rentals online; advocacy with prospective landlords to lease to a family with rental barriers (e.g., past evictions, poor credit, criminal history, low income, etc.); credit repair; assistance completing rental applications; assistance paying application fees (e.g., credit check fees); in addition to financial assistance for move-in costs.
The greatest challenge is, of course, accessing housing that is affordable to families with limited incomes. Where feasible and because housing issues have become so complex to address, it is recommended that housing specialists be embedded within community-based social services systems, with different configurations of services that flexibly fit various community needs. Additionally, the same protocols and practices that have shown to be successful in engaging low-income homeless families with multiple problems and stabilizing their housing should be made available to low-income families in the community at-large.