Promising Practices: Housing Families, Inc./Malden Housing Authority


Solutions Brief | March 8, 2011

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Nothing has proven more effective at preventing homelessness for low-income families than a permanent rent subsidy. Studies have found that second homeless episodes among families that exit shelter with a subsidy are uncommon, even among families with significant challenges. On the other hand, families that do lose their subsidies may experience greater difficulties in finding new housing, leading to longer shelter stays and greater costs to homeless shelter systems and to the well-being of parents and children. As a result, it is critically important for families that are fortunate enough to obtain a housing subsidy to retain it and avoid homelessness.

Since July 2008, Housing Families Inc. (HFI), a nonprofit housing and social services provider, has partnered with the Malden (Massachusetts) Housing Authority (MHA) to prevent evictions and provide tailored services for at-risk families residing in subsidized housing. To date, all of the families who participated in the program have remained housed.

The initiative started as a pilot between HFI and MHA utilizing funding that an anonymous donor provided to prevent evictions from public housing. Successful completion of the pilot resulted in new funding being made available to continue the program, and indeed to expand it to include Section 8 tenants. Success also attracted the involvement of another housing authority in Everett, Massachusetts (EHA).

HFI was founded in 1986 by community members concerned about the troubling number of families experiencing homelessness in the cities of Everett, Malden, and Medford, Massachusetts. HFI is one of the largest operators of affordable housing for homeless and very low-income families in Massachusetts. Its mission is to end family homelessness in the communities it serves by providing safe, temporary shelter, creating affordable housing, and offering individualized supportive services. HFI operates nearly 100 units of affordable housing and transitional shelter, provides housing assistance to families living in shelter, and gives academic and emotional support to children.

As the current economic downturn began, HFI began observe that an increasing number of families were at risk of homelessness. Likewise, MHA found that tenants who were normally financially stable were struggling to make regular, timely rental payments, often due to a job loss or other economic hurdle. Both groups concluded that such families could avoid homelessness with limited financial and/or case management assistance at the onset of their problems. The timing of assistance was critical: in Massachusetts, once a family is evicted from subsidized housing it is not eligible for state-funded shelter for three years and faces extreme difficulty in accessing subsidized housing in the future.

In 2008, HFI started a pilot project with eight families at risk of eviction who were referred to it by MHA. The partnership was not without challenges, but the two organizations succeeded through perseverance and a mutual willingness to compromise in order to reach a common goal of reducing evictions and promoting housing stability. By the time the project ended its pilot status, HFI and the MHA had found funding to continue the effort and were looking for new ways to work together.

Program Description
Referral Sources and Eligibility

Families are eligible for the program if they are behind on their rent and are at risk of being evicted (single person households are also eligible). Eligible tenants can directly request assistance from the program, or be referred by MHA or by HFI staff. MHA and HFI outreach to potential clients in several ways:

  • MHA refers clients who are in arrears but who have not yet progressed to court proceedings;
  • Fliers advertising the program are included with late payment notices mailed to MHA tenants;
  • HFI conducts outreach at the community space at MHA and at tenant association meetings;
  • HFI case managers deliver notices to tenants in the family developments;
  • HFI also identifies clients through outreach efforts and by referral from current program participants.

Once identified, clients are referred to HFI for assistance.

When HFI receives a referral or request for assistance, a HFI case manager conducts an intake assessment to better understand the household’s current situation and identify any underlying issues. One primary aim is to find out if a tenant is behind on payments because of economic circumstances such as job loss or whether there is a persistent pattern of instability. The case manager identifies whether the household has experienced homelessness before and for how long it has had a housing subsidy. Tenants are required to bring proof of income and the caseworker reviews documentation of payment history provided either by the client or by the housing authority. If it is clear from the outset that a tenancy cannot be preserved, HFI will work with households to identify new housing and to help them preserve access to their housing subsidy.

The HFI staff meets weekly to review new cases, assess how sustainable the tenancy would be with eviction prevention assistance, and determine the minimum amount of assistance required to stabilize a family. Afterward, a case manager may have to go back to the family for more information.

Families can receive assistance from HFI in several forms.

  • Financial assistance (exclusively). For a handful of families one-time cash assistance is enough to prevent eviction and resume regular rental payments.
  • Case management services. Services offered include parenting and budgeting skills. For some families, services alone are sufficient for a family to avoid eviction. In some cases, case managers help tenants increase their incomes. For example where families are eligible for, but not receiving, resources such as food stamps or child support, case management assistance in obtaining these generates enough additional income for families to recover and get back on track with their payments.
  • A combination of financial assistance and case management services. The majority of program participants receive both types of assistance. Typically, a family receives interventions and services from HFI for a year.

If HFI determines that a family would benefit from financial assistance, the agency and housing authority generally agree to pay a portion of the arrearage every month for several months, with the tenant also paying a portion. This encourages the family to demonstrate their ability to keep up their financial obligations in a timely manner. HFI has found that this practice of making families stakeholders helps keep clients invested in a lasting solution.

On average, families receive approximately $1,000 in financial assistance. Typically, assistance is used to repay rental arrears but has also been used to assist with security deposits, utility payments, and moving expenses for those families that need to seek another unit.

The pilot program was funded with a grant from an anonymous donor. The program was expanded to include MHA Section 8 vouchers holders and EHA tenants with funding from the Massachusetts Interagency Council on Housing and Homelessness. Recently, funds from the federal Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-housing Program (HPRP) have been utilized.

HFI has provided eviction prevention services to 38 housing authority households in the past year. Of these families, 24 received financial assistance and case management, and the remainder received case management only. Some of the families served elected to participate in other HFI programs, including enrolling their school-age children in HFI’s out-of-school time program, which enabled several families to obtain needed child evaluations and special educational supports. None of the clients who received eviction prevention assistance has entered shelter to date.

Lessons Learned
Of the many lessons learned from this partnership between public housing authorities and a nonprofit, the most important is that while the two share many similar goals, there are also significant differences. Both parties must have a genuine willingness to listen and compromise in order to meet their mutual ends.

HFI had an advantage in partnering with MHA as trust had already been developed through a previous joint effort. All stakeholders interviewed agreed, however, that this type of partnership can be replicated as long as parties enter discussions with open minds and flexibility. Ground rules should also be established early in the process. It is also important to agree on a set of realistic outcomes for the partnership. In this case, HFI and MHA agreed that while every family seeking assistance would be served by the project, it was possible that they might not succeed in saving the tenancy of every family. This common understanding was absolutely critical for trust to develop. Moreover, the partners noted that such common understanding should permeate every layer of an organization, from executive staff to line staff. For a program to be fully successful, organizations need all members of their staff to be invested in the goals and parameters of the program. Staff must understand and genuinely respect the mission and culture of each other’s organization and agree to work together to achieve mutually beneficial solutions. A strong partnership is critical to achieving strong program outcomes.