Identifying & Responding to Indicators of Housing Distress
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.
Our current efforts are striving to promote a renewed focus on 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 families to whom they are not related. Still others move from motel room to motel room for months and sometimes years at a time.
While research provides ongoing and strong evidence of the all-encompassing impact of housing instability and substandard and overcrowded housing conditions on children, youth and families, government appears to have little incentive to truly address the issue with strategies that would help to alleviate the problem.
We cannot “build” enough affordable rental housing to provide the numbers of new units that our nation requires. There is still much, however, that we can do. Because most staff at schools, healthcare facilities, and child and family services programs do not make home visits and generally lack knowledge about where and how the families and children they serve live, it is vital to ask housing-related questions upon intake and/or enrollment, during the provision of services, and when something appears to be wrong. It is possible to conduct surveys with heads-of-household, make home visits to assess living conditions, and respond directly when heads-of-household or children and youth indicate that they might need help during 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 sometimes creative, cross-sector and collaborative solutions to specific family housing needs. In other words, local programs can often provide timely and often life-changing housing-related interventions for families and their children – helping to resolve a housing-related crisis before it escalates.
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.
There are many ways in which community-based services systems can provide assistance to families experiencing housing distress. For example, a family might be able to remain in current housing with assistance resolving roommate or shared housing conflicts; negotiating or advocating with a landlord (e.g., for more time to pay rent, lower rent, more time to relocate); informal advocacy and mediation support; and formal mediation services to address landlord-tenant or tenant-tenant/neighbor issues; and legal assistance to prevent an eviction. At the same time, legal assistance programs should work closely with social workers and housing staff to prevent evictions and negotiate with landlords to improve poor housing conditions.
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.