By Jason Reece, Rachel Kleit & Amy Klaben (Click here to view the entire P&R issue)
Escalating affordability problems, limited housing resources, lack of access to high-opportunity communities and federal retrenchment from fair housing goals has spurred a unique local housing mobility initiative in Columbus, OH. Move to PROSPER (MTP) is a pilot initiative seeking to provide affordable rental opportunities in highly desirable neighborhoods in the Columbus region. The program is distinctively the product of local organizing and action by community stakeholders, with no direct involvement from traditional affordable housing providers, such as the housing authority or HUD.
Program participants receive a small, privately financed rental subsidy and coaching from the Move to PROSPER program team. The program assists participants in locating healthy and safe housing in high opportunity neighborhoods in the Columbus, OH region. All housing units are located in public school districts which are high performing and participants are required to enroll their children in these high performing schools.
Move to PROSPER is unique in two distinct ways. First, the program does not use any traditional affordable housing funding sources. The program is a nonprofit/private partnership, with two large realty companies providing internal subsidy for rental units within their developments. These internal subsidies are matched with philanthropic support, which further reduces rental unit cost and provides coaching assistance to participating families. Housing support and coaching are provided for three years for each participating family.
Second, the Move to PROSPER program assists lower-income single female-headed households who qualify but do not receive housing assistance as only 25% of those eligible are able to access it in central Ohio. Program participants are single women, over age 18, with 1 to 3 children age 13 and under. Children must be eligible for Medicaid. Participants cannot be currently receiving housing assistance from the Housing Choice Voucher program. Participants must be experiencing housing instability, be very low income with incomes between $23,000 and $37,200, based on family size.
Given the challenging federal leadership at HUD and limited resources for housing mobility (or expansion of the Housing Choice Voucher program) when we began this program, we felt that “local” fair housing solutions could become more important in the near future. Now that Congress has approved a new $25 million Housing Mobility Demonstration in the 2019 budget, we are hopeful that some of the lessons we learn can inform public housing agencies that decide to participate in the demonstration. The following article, discusses our experience of “Going Local” to establish a unique housing mobility program in Columbus. We explore the lessons learned from initiating Move to Prosper, exploring the engagement, relationship building, capacity building and resource development needed to launch the program.
The Columbus Context and Motivation
Columbus has several successful on-going place-based community development efforts.1 However, exclusionary zoning, lack of regulations prohibiting discrimination based on source of income and no organized housing mobility programs have increased the regional patterns of segregation and opportunity isolation have remained pronounced. The Columbus region is the second most economically segregated region in the nation and despite a strong economy has experienced a substantial rise in poverty and housing affordability challenges since the 2008 recession.2 The Columbus region is estimated to have a shortage of more than 54,000 affordable housing units and has one of the highest eviction rates in the nation.3
Establishing Move to PROSPER was motivated by these challenging local conditions, the retrenchment of federal affordable housing delivery systems and the extensive literature documenting the impacts of housing instability and the benefits to children of living in high opportunity communities. While programs such as Move to PROSPER cannot address these structural challenges, it can find new sources of affordable housing NOW by creating mixed-income neighborhoods so kids can receive as much support as they can to do well in school and live in good quality homes in safe communities.
Learning What Mothers Want: Engaging Potential Participants
All elements of the program’s design were informed by three rounds of focus groups of potentially eligible single female-headed households in Columbus, OH. More than thirty potential program applicants were engaged to understand neighborhood and housing preferences. These initial engagements directly influenced the program’s design. Several consistent themes emerged from our focus group experiences.
- The primary concerns among focus group participants were community safety and access to educational opportunities for their children. Many participants did not see renting as a long term goal, but as a stepping stone to achieve homeownership in the future.
- Many expressed a desire to relocate to higher opportunity areas, but also desired some existing diversity in the neighborhoods they would consider moving too. Racial bias in homogeneously White neighborhoods were common concerns. Neighborhoods which were somewhat diverse and opportunity-rich were ideal.
- Our focus population desired being closer to jobs, food and services, but the population was not as transit dependent as we had anticipated. Participants didn’t necessarily need access to public transit lines, but were commuting long distances by car to reach jobs in the distant suburbs and exurbs. However, being near transit was desired due to unreliable personal transportation.
- Coaching resources were viewed as a positive aspect of the program, and participants expressed a desire for assistance in achieving personal goals and expanding resources for their children. Most expressed a desire for financial coaching and being held accountable for meeting their financial goals. Many women expressed frustration of the intense time demands from work and parenting; ideally coaches would need to be flexible, culturally competent and non-judgmental.
From Idea to Action: Relationships, Capacity & Funding
Relationship building was essential to moving the program forward. Relationship building started with two owners of rental property in high opportunity communities who collectively own more than 10,000 rental homes. They were willing to open their doors, provide some reduced rent, modify their rental criteria and allow MTP to provide implicit bias training. After bringing property owners on board, the next goal was to develop relationships with social service providers as potential program partners.
In its infancy the program had significant need for expertise and capacity. A project facilitator with 30 years of affordable housing experience was essential to coordinate activities, seek funding and foster relationship building. A local and national advisory committee was formed to guide program design. Coaching resources and a “coaching toolbox” were developed in partnership with the OSU College of Social Work. Volunteer capacity was also donated by local professionals in serving the marketing needs of the program. Move to PROSPER engages aspects of collective impact models, in working with (and aligning) a wide set of stakeholders to serve program goals and families.
Program leaders began fundraising and realized that the effort was not established enough to receive grants from national foundations. The concept needed to be proven locally and demonstrate the program’s capacity for implementation. Funding began with planning grants from four local funders, one statewide organization and one national organization. Donations from partner landlords were essential for rental support, and local fundraising events were utilized to generate resources for housing support, program design and coaching activities. Evaluation activities are being supported separately through a research grant from the Ohio Housing Finance Agency.
Challenges & Opportunities
Many of the political challenges facing housing mobility programs were experienced in establishing Move to PROSPER. Public officials express concerns about funding short-term subsidies because they fear making people homeless at the end of it. Additionally, local government and corporate funding has been used for place-based efforts due to the issues inherent in areas of concentrated poverty. Helping these community leaders understand the need for two strategies, both place based and people based has been a challenge. Some public officials have expressed concern for providing funding so that families could move to better school districts. The local branch of the NAACP expressed concern that the program would encourage their membership base to exit Columbus City Schools (where the organizations relationships are strongest) for suburban schools, where children of color are more likely to be labeled as learning disabled and harshly disciplined. To engage this concern the program will use school discipline data to better understand challenges in suburban schools and will work with coaches to support student advocacy in schools.
Funders supporting place-based redevelopment efforts were less likely to support the effort. Some potential funders stated that they do not support a start-up program, or a program that is being evaluated. Many funders expressed interest but adopted a “wait and see” approach to gauge effectiveness before investing. The program has emphasized evaluation activities to document effectiveness for future funders.
Working outside of traditional affordable housing programs and funding streams presents both a challenge and an opportunity. Substantial fundraising time is needed to support rental subsidies and the program had to develop a sustainable strategy for housing support. Local fundraising among individuals, foundations (and charitable donations) has been critical to bridging this funding gap. Local stakeholders (and potential participants) can be confused about eligibility because the program doesn’t have to follow the same existing rules as traditional assisted housing.
The opportunity of not using federal funding is that MTP can be creative in problem-solving. Flexibility in eligibility guidelines aids recruiting efforts. MTP can also have different program requirements, such as not reducing the rental support as incomes increase so that there is no disincentive from getting a higher wage job or promotion. Additionally, the limit of three years of support and the use of coaches creates not only a different relational dynamic with the participants than what is found in traditional housing programs but also different incentives for the participants as they know the support is time limited.
Project Launch and Implications
In July 2018, the first pilot participant moved into their housing unit as part of the program launch. After reviewing more than 300 initial applicants, the pilot will house a total of ten families in the next two months. Evaluation activities will commence with these ten pilot families, to gauge the impact of the initiative on participant families and sustainability of its unique nonprofit-private partnership model. Following the pilot phase the program will expand to a demonstration project of 100 additional families.
Move to PROSPER seeks to achieve three primary goals: (1) develop a sustainable, locally resourced opportunity based housing program, (2) directly expand access to opportunity to foster family stability, enhanced wellbeing and prosperity and (3) to generate regional dialogue on the impact of developing affordable housing opportunities in high opportunity areas.
While Move to PROSPER serves a relatively small number of families, we see it as exponentially important in fostering a larger regional dialogue about the benefits of fair housing to families, neighborhoods and to our region. We anticipate the outcomes of Move to PROSPER to be important in providing a counter-narrative to local NIMBY concerns in the region.
While the barriers to establishing a local program will vary in different communities, we feel some elements of the program are critical to replication. The role of the facilitator in negotiating all the moving parts is very important. The facilitator is needed to address ongoing political challenges and the constant networking required to support relationships.
Building relationships with landlords first was important to demonstrating capacity, fostering trust and finding resources. MTP studied best practices for serving families and determined that collaboration and coaching were key. To best serve the participants and utilize the talent and expertise of existing nonprofits, MTP then developed a network of partnerships to meet the needs of participant families. Finally, communication and fundraising for the program have been most effective when they identify the regional economic benefits of providing housing opportunity to families.
By going “local” in establishing the program outside of traditional affordable housing channels, we have been enabled to expand fair housing opportunities in the face of federal retrenchment. Larger federal advocacy, activism and structural reforms are critical to supporting Fair Housing. While these ongoing advocacy efforts are being fought, we hope our local actions provide inspiration to other communities looking to act quickly in expanding fair housing opportunities.
Jason Reece (email@example.com) is an Assistant Professor in the City & Regional Planning program at The Ohio State University and serves as program evaluator for Move to PROSPER. Rachel Kleit (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an Associate Dean in the College of Engineering and Professor of City & Regional Planning at The Ohio State University. Rachel is a founder of Move to Prosper and is chair of the Move to PROSPER steering committee. Amy Klaben is the former CEO of Homeport, a large nonprofit creator of affordable housing, and is a founder and project facilitator for Move to PROSPER.