06/21/2012 - Why PHAs?

At the end of May, USICH, HUD, and the Corporation for Supportive Housing hosted representatives from 45 communities in Washington, DC for a day-long convening on the important topic of Public Housing Agency (PHA) engagement in local efforts to prevent and end homelessness.  Over 110 PHA and Continuum of Care (CoC) representatives joined with Federal staff and other partners to learn more about innovative work already underway in communities, as well as to discuss common policy, regulatory, and political challenges that sometimes inhibit PHAs’ ability to better serve individuals and families experiencing homelessness.  Earlier this year, we hosted a similar convening on the West Coast.

As clearly articulated in Opening Doors, ending homelessness in this country will require communities to leverage mainstream resources—like public housing and housing choice vouchers—in unprecedented ways. Consider the following facts:

  1. CoC renewal burden.To achieve the goals of Opening Doors, hundreds of thousands of additional housing units and subsidies will be required.  However, HUD’s CoC program—the largest targeted homeless assistance program in the country—provides limited opportunity for incremental housing opportunities because the majority of funds are used to renew contracts of existing programs. In the FY 2011 competition, approximately 90 percent of funds went to renewals, and in FY 2012 the percentage is expected to be even greater.
  2. Growing poverty and increasing pressure on local systems. The nation’s poverty rate climbed to 15.1 percent in 2010 – the fourth increase in four years and the largest number in the 52 years that the Census Bureau has been publishing the estimates.  Unemployment remains stubbornly high, hitting Americans with the least education the hardest. At the same time, rental housing costs also remain high, in large part because of a shrinking stock relative to the growing need.
  3. Homelessness is expensive. Hospitalization, medical treatment, police intervention, and emergency shelter expenses add up quickly, making homelessness surprisingly expensive for municipalities and taxpayers. A growing body of research demonstrates that it is more cost-effective to house people than to allow them to cycle through costly public systems. 

Simply put, need is greater than ever. Quite literally, we cannot afford to wait.  Communities will need all of the tools at their disposal to get the job done. As such, supporting PHAs in becoming champions in local efforts to end homelessness is a key priority for the Obama administration. 

For most people, the threat of homelessness stems from the gap between their current income and the cost of housing. Accordingly, PHAs are key partners in Opening Doors implementation because they are the largest recipient of Federal affordable housing resources.  At existing funding levels, public housing, tenant-based vouchers, and project-based vouchers assist over four million households.  Each year, a certain percentage of these units and vouchers turn over and become available for new households.  This is where opportunity exists.  Through more strategic use of these turnover opportunities, PHAs can have a significant impact on homelessness in their community.

While PHAs are an important part of the solution, it is important to recognize that they are not the entire solution. PHAs are housing providers; thus, they are required to establish and enforce admissions and occupancy policies that preserve a safe and stable living environment for all tenants while also ensuring the financial viability of their agency.  They are not resourced to be service providers, and when we expect them to function as such, it can create a clear conflict of interest. So while PHAs can bring important resources to the table to get vulnerable members of the community housed, they may be more willing to do so if other agencies are committed to providing the services needed to keep people housed.

The addition of PHA resources will have the greatest impact if administered strategically under the umbrella of the community’s local plan to end homelessness.  Likewise, in this environment of ever-growing need, CoCs will also be challenged to examine their portfolio of programs and consider whether changes are needed to improve outcomes. In the coming months, HUD will be releasing a local planning tool designed to help communities determine the number and type of housing opportunities needed to end homelessness within their community. The tool will help communities understand not only how many new units or subsidies are needed in the community, but also how performance improvements and program design changes within existing programs can impact progress. Once finalized, we think this planning tool will be a great starting point for conversations between PHAs, CoCs, and Ten Year Plan representatives.

The convenings held this spring were intended to begin the conversation, but much work remains. In addition to the planning tool mentioned above, HUD has already begun working on guidance to help clarify some of the most common questions raised at the convenings. At USICH, we are working on a dedicated web portal to provide our PHA partners with one-stop access to guidance and technical assistance resources.  Our partners at the Corporation for Supportive Housing are working on a toolkit to help supply communities with information on best practices, sample forms, and sample administrative plan language needed to implement changes in PHA programs without having to recreate the wheel. Field staff from USICH, HUD, and other partner organizations will also be reaching out to communities to determine what other types of support can be offered.

Last and certainly not least, HUD is conducting a study to learn more about the ways in which PHAs are currently engaged in serving households experiencing homelessness. The survey, which will go to all PHA Directors nationwide, opens later this month. Data is key to our ability to shape smart and responsive policy, and it’s also key to our efforts to advocate for needed resources. Accordingly, I want to encourage all PHAs to participate in this important study. 

As one PHA Director at the West Coast convening said, “How can you consider yourself the housing authority if you’re not the authority on housing all people in your community?” I loved that observation, and I want to issue that as a personal challenge to PHA Directors across the country. PHA Directors are known to be strong leaders and problem-solvers.  We need you to be at the table, helping your community think about how to get those most in need more appropriately housed.

More information on how PHAs can help end homelessness 

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