Housing Assistance Corporation Blog

Rick Presbrey's Editorial: A 10-Year Plan to Reduce Homelessness

Posted by Laura Reckford on Wed, Dec 11, 2013 @ 08:32 AM

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For 30 years, I have been in favor of rental assistance being time-limited.

That was a based on my belief that in the long view—back when Reagan was president—that continued increases in funding were not sustainable.

I think that as each family is deemed eligible for assistance in the state Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program and the federal Section 8 programs they should have a choice: a large monthly subsidy for a short time, say three years, a medium rental subsidy each month for up to 10 years, or a smaller amount each month for up to 20 years.

In this way participants would know what to expect and could plan for it. As assistance for existing participants expires, funds would be available to help those with current needs and crises. I know it sounds generous, and it is, but it isn’t as generous as the system we have now.

To give some background to how I reached this conclusion, you need only look at the present state of housing affairs in the commonwealth.

It should come as no surprise that with high rental housing costs, relatively high unemployment particularly among lower income people, and low paying jobs, thousands of families can’t afford to pay market rent.

In tight economic times, no new comprehensive publicly funded initiative to solve this problem can be realistically expected.

Instead, in Boston and Washington various amounts of money have been appropriated for a variety of piecemeal and often complicated solutions designed to keep families without housing or at risk of losing housing safe.

These programs, which include HomeBASE (Building Alternatives to Shelter) and now RAFT (Residential Assistance for Families in Transition), just haven’t worked or at least haven’t been able to keep up with the persistent demand.

Massachusetts is a "right to shelter" state and therefore, no one can be denied the right to a place to sleep each night. One of the high priority goals of the Patrick administration has been to eliminate the use of motels, paid for by the commonwealth, to shelter homeless families. Through no lack of effort this goal has not been reached to date. There are now more than 2,000 homeless households in motels being paid by the commonwealth and another 2,000 more families in state-funded shelters.

The added crisis in Massachusetts since July is that families have begun "timing out" on two years of rental assistance under the HomeBASE program with no further rental assistance being offered.

Two years looked pretty good in the beginning but unless major changes took place within the two years to either the economy, availability of good paying jobs, or the family itself, the cycle of homelessness for many would just begin again in the 25

th month.

In anticipation of families "timing-out" of the program, the HomeBASE program offers families up to $4,000 to help make the transition to independence, and the family can still go into a state-funded shelter.

When a similar timing out occurred in New York a couple of years ago, it showed that many did not immediately ask for further ongoing help after their rental assistance ran out.

Massachusetts, so far, is taking a wait and see attitude to see how people fare here.

Dire predictions of what would happen to families losing this assistance have so far not come true, with about 20% of the households returning to shelter at the expiration of their two years of state assistance in paying the rent. But in time many more may find the need to seek further help.

The state’s plan now is to issue 500 "new" Mass Rental Housing Vouchers (MRVP) to offer help to those with the greatest need.

Hopefully that won’t send the wrong message and unduly raise expectations. That message, in the minds of those in need, may be that if you tough it out, more subsidies are on the way.

That could cause many to seek access to a system that does not have the funds to help everyone in need. The problem

with traditional state and federal rental assistance is that as long as a tenant remains income-eligible they can continue receiving monthly assistance paying the rent for the rest of their lives.

Rental assistance does resolve their housing woes once and for all and the findings from years of experience have been that it benefits families in several key ways that improve families’ health and well being.

Once a household begins receiving monthly rental assistance, it goes on forever as long as the voucher holder remains income-eligible, making the aid a disincentive for some, perhaps many, to increase their income to the point that they become ineligible for continued assistance.

People become dependent on the assistance and fear giving it up.

Several steps have been taken over the years to reduce the sense of dependence, such as reserving or holding your subsidy for a period of time after your income makes you ineligible in case you lose your job and need assistance again. But still, few willingly give up the financial help each year.

One result is that if each year new families need help, the public funding of these programs must continue to increase. Since that isn’t happening, those now in need do not get the help they need. One result is that we have 4,000 households in Massachusetts crowded into shelters and motels being paid for out of the state budget.

There are lots of efforts to try to solve the problem but there is no real master plan that legislators, advocates and state officials can agree on.

I think it is a mistake now to issue new "lifetime" MRVP vouchers to those timing out of HomeBASE because it enables a lifetime of dependency, because it feeds the expectation to those entering the system now that a lifetime of help may be available if they show a great enough need and hang on long enough, and because the lifetime subsidy prevents others in need from getting any meaningful financial help for years into the future.

At the present time the Department of Housing and Community Development’s Section 8 program, managed by regional non-profits like Housing Assistance Corporation, have about 20,000 families receiving monthly subsidies with approximately 100,000 households statewide on waiting lists for help that most will never get.

To be clear, people come in, they apply for something they need, and they leave hoping help will come. And it never will for most of them. Help is not on the way.

We need a fresh approach. Let’s try the following:

1) End lifetime rental subsidies at both the federal and state levels.

2) Create a simple homeless prevention program which provides one-time limited financial help to households with a crisis to keep them from becoming homeless in the first place. Income eligibility needs to be higher than past efforts in order to be able to effectively intervene before it is too late to avoid the crisis.

3) Create a standardized curriculum and fund teachers in state-funded shelters with an emphasis on using the resident time productively in learning family life skills, academic skills and job-readiness skills to help people move towards educational and vocational achievement.

4) Fund case managers for every 30 households who are in their first year of receiving rental assistance and a case manager for every 250 after one year in order to monitor and aid their progress towards independence.

5 ) Increase the minimum wage substantially in Massachusetts so that those qualifying for entry-level positions have some hope of being able to support themselves.

If people can’t live on what they earn our system isn’t working.

The patchwork of help we now provide isn’t working either.

Tags: Homeless on Cape Cod, housing assistance corporation, Rick Presbrey