Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority: A Commitment to Supportive Housing

Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority: A Commitment to Supportive Housing

St. Clair Aparments: Supportive Housing in Columbus

The Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA), located in Columbus, OH, manages over 2,209 public housing units and 12,970 Section 8 units. HUD currently allows PHAs to use up to 20 percent of their housing choice vouchers for project-based vouchers.  CMHA has fully exercised that authority, providing 996 units of permanent supportive housing to non-elderly individuals with special needs and another 457 units of permanent supportive housing to elderly individuals. The project-based vouchers are then connected to supportive services through partnership with a variety of service providers in the community.  Two particular projects of note include the following:

  • Commons at Grant, founded in 2002, is a 100-unit permanent supportive housing residence that houses people who have experienced chronic homelessness. This development began CMHA’s relationship with National Church Residences, which provides the supportive services for the tenants. National Church Residences has been a strong partner with CMHA, fully committed to using their resources to develop housing units for those who need supportive housing. NCR worked with CMHA again to develop the first facility for low-income Veterans and those who have experienced homelessness, the Commons at Livingston, which opened in July 2011.
  • Sunshine Terrace is another 100-unit residence that houses families identified by the  Community Shelter Board, the agency leading the implementation of Franklin County’s strategic plan to end homelessness, Rebuilding Lives.  CMHA provides rental subsidies for this project while supportive services are provided by the YMCA of Central Ohio. This collaboration is noteworthy because of its commitment to house families in a supportive environment, a population not often connected with supportive services but still in need.

It is important to note that CMHA does not have Moving to Work (MTW) designation. 
Read more about the “Moving to Work” designation
While MTW certainly allows PHAs flexibility that makes project-basing easier, our friends at CMHA prove that lack of MTW status should not hinder a PHA from using its resources for supportive housing ventures.

What is pivotal in making these projects work?

According to CMHA President and CEO Charles Hillman, there are at least three key ingredients to making these projects work.  The first is community commitment.  There has to be a community desire and an acknowledgement of the need in order to get these projects off the ground.  Without that community support, there is little impetus for such projects to be developed.  “In Columbus, the entire city and metropolitan area have such a strong commitment to ending homelessness. It is a pleasure to work in a community that supports our efforts.  Our Continuum of Care, the CMHA board of commissioners, and local government all recognize that housing the most vulnerable members of our community is not just an option - it is our responsibility.”

Second, a PHA has to have it in its mission to target deeply and to provide rental subsidy funding for permanent supportive housing projects.  CMHA has successfully met these objectives by converting tenant-based vouchers to project-based vouchers for permanent supportive housing units. As mentioned above, CMHA does not have MTW designation, but non-MTW PHAs can request a set-aside of vouchers for households that need supportive housing without disrupting the PHA waitlist structure.  Once approved by HUD (in the PHA’s administrative plan), this will allow a PHA to give preference for project-based vouchers to individuals on the waitlist who require intensive supportive services. 

Finally, a PHA has to have a sound voucher program to begin with.  In order to understand how to creatively and effectively work within regulations and to attract a higher quality of supportive service providers, a housing authority needs to be in compliance with other administrative aspects of the standard voucher program.  In Hillman’s experience, a PHA has to “be good to get good” – that is, a PHA with a good reputation and administrative structure will be better able to attract solid partners and will then be able to best administer this program.

Overcoming Challenges

According to Hillman, for many the first challenge is for PHAs who are not used to this type of project to first make the resource commitment (i.e., a percentage of their tenant-based vouchers) to project-basing if that is the right fit for that community. Then, it is also extremely important to spend time training staff on administering project-based vouchers because a different set of regulations apply.  In addition, the PHA must have adequate data to be able to accurately predict the timing and volume of voucher turnover.  Several years ago, CMHA had to freeze issuance of any new project-based vouchers because it did not have an adequate leasing forecasting system.  Due to the inability to accurately forecast turnover, CMHA did not have enough vouchers to maintain its commitment.  Since then, Hillman says, they’ve gotten much better at lease forecasting, which is pivotal in ensuring that they use their entire allocation of vouchers as effectively as possible.

Hillman notes that it is important for PHAs to realize that they currently have the resources to make a significant impact on ending homelessness. None of the challenges associated with administering project-based vouchers warrants not providing them for supportive housing. The benefits far outweigh the challenges. Developing adequate permanent supportive housing capacity in the community is a much more strategic, cost effective approach in the long run:  for those households identified as needing extra support to remain housed, the traditional housing voucher program may not provide enough support to prevent recidivism back into homelessness. This becomes costly not only for the PHA, but for the entire community.

Collaboration is Key

According to Hillman, CMHA’s partnerships with the CoC in Columbus, National Church Residences, the YMCA, and other providers have enabled them to increase the number of quality PSH units available. Creating a system of vouchers rather than individualizing them has allowed CMHA to become a more attractive partner in development ventures as well.  Hillman noted, “When we pool 100 vouchers together, that’s a $9 million commitment we bring to a development; a funding pool that looks much more attractive to supportive service providers.  At no extra cost to the housing authority, we can successfully house individuals that need more help and decrease the risk they will fall back into homelessness. You have to have great partners, and we are so incredibly proud of the work we can do with their partnership. It works in Columbus.”