Solutions Brief | March 8, 2011
An eviction can have a devastating impact on a family or individual’s housing stability; in fact, studies have found that over 20 percent of families and individuals in shelter directly attribute their shelter entry to an eviction. Housing subsidies have been shown to be highly effective in preventing homelessness among low-income families and second homeless episodes are rare among families that exit shelter with a subsidy. Therefore, an eviction is even more destructive when it is coupled with the loss of a housing subsidy.
The King County (Washington) Housing Authority (KCHA) has been notably successful in preventing evictions and reducing the risk of homelessness. Fewer than six households a year are evicted from over 3,500 public housing units supported by KCHA. This low eviction rate has been achieved through a concerted effort, begun in 2007, to reach out earlier to at-risk households and deploy Resident Services staff to preserve tenancies. Not only have the number of evictions declined substantially, each eviction prevented resulted in an estimated savings of $3,550 for KCHA. More importantly, the effort has prevented families and children from experiencing the dislocation of eviction and homelessness.
KCHA delivers affordable housing and supportive services to low-income public housing residents in King County, WA, the 12th most populous county in the nation. KCHA operates over 8,000 units of public and supportive housing, and assists an additional 8,000 families through Section 8 vouchers. Through providing housing and related services, the Authority serves more than 42,000 county residents.
KCHA is a Moving to Work (MTW) Housing Authority. The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) MTW program provides 30 housing authorities additional flexibility in how they deliver housing assistance to low-income households. KCHA uses this flexibility to provide supportive services to residents through its Resident Services Department, which is comprised of 30 staff members. In addition, KCHA has partnerships with 25 local agencies who deliver a range of services to Housing Authority clients. Housing authorities without dedicated services staff may be able to provide the same level of services provided by KCHA through partnerships with direct service providers in the community.
The Housing Management and Resident Services departments at KCHA felt compelled to reduce the number of preventable evictions among its subsidized housing tenants. KCHA tracks these evictions and has consistently found that few are the result of a serious offense. Prior to the eviction prevention initiative, tenants were most often evicted for missing rent payments or paperwork errors. With the strong support of the Authority’s executive director, the two departments agreed to work together to reduce the number of evictions.
Targeting and Process
The Housing Authority has found that property managers— who have frequent contact with tenants— are uniquely positioned to identify the households who are at risk of eviction and could benefit from eviction prevention services. Before this initiative, however, this information was not shared with Resident Services staff. Instead, eviction notices were issued to public housing tenants without the involvement of the Resident Services Department, creating missed opportunities to intervene. Given the potential to reduce evictions and the central role of property managers in identifying at-risk households, KCHA instituted a policy requiring that property managers inform Resident Services as soon as they recognize that a tenant is at risk of eviction. The notification occurs early in the eviction process, before formal legal notice has been issued to a tenant. The cooperation of property managers to identify and appropriately refer at-risk households has been crucial to the effort’s success.
Once an at-risk household is identified, KCHA Resident Services staff attempts to visit the tenant within 48 hours to assess the situation. If staff determines that they can address the problem on the spot, they will do so. For more challenging cases, the Resident Services staff will make the appropriate referrals to service providers or to the Authority’s urgent mental health service provider who responds onsite within 24 hours and can assess and manage the mental health care process. After an at-risk household has been identified, KCHA will continue to work with them until a sustainable solution has been reached for both the tenant and the Authority.
Both the KCHA Housing Management and Resident Services Departments are committed to reducing evictions. Under the program guidelines, an eviction must be approved by the directors of both departments before it can be finalized. The directors use this opportunity to ensure that every possible step to prevent an eviction has been taken. Given this high level of oversight and commitment to provide an intervention early in the eviction process, the Authority has found that evictions can be avoided in almost every case.
If a client needs limited financial help with rent or utility payments, KCHA often provides a list of local direct service providers who can provide financial assistance. In addition, KCHA has a “client assistance fund” operated by the local YWCA which is used to assist tenants with emergency expenses. A client is eligible to receive assistance through the fund once a year. The amount of assistance cannot exceed $2,500 and on average, a client receives $566.
Once an eviction is prevented, the Authority considers the eviction case to be closed. However, the client often continues to receive ongoing support from Resident Services or from other community-based providers as needed.
Range of Assistance
The services provided to at-risk tenants vary and are scaled to fit the need; the Authority will provide “just enough” assistance to prevent an eviction. If a one-time visit is sufficient to prevent an eviction, that is all that is provided. Often, very minimal assistance is required to prevent an eviction. For example, if a tenant did not submit paperwork required to renew his or her subsidy, Resident Services staff or social services agency staff will often complete the paperwork with the family on the spot. This is perhaps the easiest type of intervention and the most successful. KCHA has not conducted a single paperwork-related eviction since the program was implemented. If families in crisis require more intensive and frequent support, it is provided and scaled back when appropriate.
KCHA feels strongly that providing the appropriate services to a resident in need is central to preventing an eviction. The flexibility of the MTW program has enabled them to more easily implement tailored interventions. For example, to better serve tenants, KCHA has partnered with a local mental health services agency to create supportive housing specifically tailored to households that include individuals with mental health service needs. As a result of this partnership, tenants who require more specialized support to remain stably housed can be transferred to a permanent supportive housing development run by their partner that offers more intensive support to tenants. Without the MTW designation, KCHA could only transfer tenants within the same type of housing, thereby hindering the Authority’s ability to provide a tailored intervention.
Since the initiative has been implemented, KCHA’s number of annual evictions from public housing has not exceeded six. The Authority has not had to perform evictions for paperwork issues and very rarely conducts evictions for non-payment of rent.
The program has been so successful among public housing residents that in early 2010, KCHA began to pilot a version of the initiative to KCHA’s Section 8 voucher holders with 30 participants currently being served. The Authority hopes to make the pilot program permanent soon.
Lessons Learned and Recommendations
KCHA recommends starting with tenants living in public housing, as opposed to tenant-based voucher holders, as it is easier to identify problems early on if tenants are living in units managed by the housing authority.
Initially, KCHA experienced some resistance from property managers who were hesitant to delay eviction proceedings. In the case of a challenging tenancy, it can be easier to move forward with an eviction than to find a sustainable solution that works for both the tenant and the Authority. Moreover, property managers have a commitment to comply with the existing rules and ensure a safe living environment for all of their tenants. Many property managers initially expressed concern that participating in this program would compromise their ability to meet these goals.
KCHA found that in order to gain support from key partners such as property managers, it was essential to make clear why the KCHA chose to reduce evictions from subsidized housing units. It was also important to quantify the extent of the problem and the proportion of evictions that are preventable. KCHA was successful in building support from property managers and other stakeholders through trainings and by publicizing success stories of prevented evictions.
KCHA found that it is critical that the resident services and housing management functions of the Authority are housed in two separate departments. KCHA also emphasizes that the directors of these two departments should be of equal status—in other words, one department director should not be above the other in the organizational chain of command. Furthermore, it is very important that these two director positions report directly to the executive director. For the initiative to be successful, it must be a priority for the Housing Authority leaders.
Relationship with Service Providers
KCHA has long-standing partnerships with 25 direct service providers in the community and attributes these sustained relationships to several factors. KCHA takes care to engage with local agencies by soliciting feedback on proposed regulatory changes, partnering with the local human services coalition, attending coalition meetings, and encouraging social service agencies to conduct outreach and provide services on-site at the Authority, which they often do. This engagement demonstrates respect and cooperation with the direct service provider community.
Through the flexibility provided by its MTW designation, KCHA is able to provide local social service agencies with some funding to serve Housing Authority clients. KCHA also helps local service agencies apply for grants that could allow the agencies to expand the range of services they provide to KCHA tenants and other vulnerable households. In addition, KCHA has established a non-profit organization for fundraising.
While the MTW designation has provided KCHA with a unique opportunity to experiment with new strategies, the lessons learned from the eviction prevention initiative can be transferred to other communities. The reciprocal relationship between property managers and the Resident Services Department has been instrumental in reducing evictions and preventing homelessness, according to KCHA staff. Public housing authorities without resident services staff can forge new relationships with local social service agencies to provide support to tenants at risk of eviction. Small pilot demonstrations may be all that are required to show program effectiveness, and encourage larger-scale adoption of eviction prevention initiatives.