King County, Washington: A Portfolio of Programs to Assist Households with Special Needs in Suburban Seattle

King County, Washington: A Portfolio of Programs to Assist Households with Special Needs in Suburban Seattle

Pacific Court Community Center: Supportive Public Housing in King County, Washington. Willliam Wright Photography

Stephen Norman is the Executive Director of the King County Housing Authority (KCHA), located just outside of Seattle, Washington.  He described three programs administered by KCHA that play a key role in King County’s efforts to end homelessness. 

The Housing Access and Services Program (HASP)

The Housing Access and Services Program (HASP) is a scattered-site, tenant-based Section 8 voucher program for residents with a disability, including mental health disabilities.  Approximately 1,800 vouchers are set aside for this program, which has been in operation for over a decade and has a very good track record of success.

Keys to Success

The various public agencies involved in this program – including KCHA and some of the major human service and behavioral healthcare systems (e.g. the County Mental Health Division, Aging and Disability Services, the Veterans Administration, and Division of Developmental Disabilities) - met to design a supportive housing program targeted to those at greatest risk of homelessness.  The group realized they needed services and housing to be well coordinated, and that they needed to identify a lead entity to ensure accountability and make this happen.  The multiple systems agreed to pool resources to contract with a non-profit to coordinate the process and work with the individual non-profit service providers that are referring households to the program.  They chose the YWCA based on its proposal and its extensive experience working with the most vulnerable households in King County. 

“With programs like this, failure is not an option,” said Norman.  “If you do not have the trust of the landlords you work with, the program falls apart and that failure can spill over into your other voucher programs.  But this doesn’t mean that you don’t create programs to target the most in need; it means you incorporate safeguards to ensure that programs don’t fail.”  For HASP, the YWCA helps keep the voucher termination rate at less than one percent a year. They help voucher holders handle paperwork and assist with housing searches.  They troubleshoot issues between tenants, service providers, and landlords.  If a problem arises, they can respond nearly immediately to make sure that things are resolved quickly and satisfactorily. 

Measurable Results

According to Norman, approximately half of the voucher holders in this program were experiencing homelessness prior to entry.  The “shopping success” rate is very high, which means that the voucher holders have been able to find the housing they want in the region of the county where they want to live in a reasonable amount of time.  This program was in place prior to KCHA’s Moving to Work (MTW) designation, so it is a replicable program for almost any PHA. 
Read more about Moving to Work

Sponsor-based Supportive Housing for Individuals Experiencing Homelessness

KCHA also operates a sponsor-based supportive housing program for homeless King County residents.  The program targets both individuals with mental illness experiencing chronic homelessness and homeless young adults by pairing rental subsidies with supportive service funds in programs uniquely designed to serve the needs of these hard to house homeless populations.  This program addresses the challenge of housing clients who would not pass private landlord screening criteria.  KCHA provides funding to participating non-profit sponsors, primarily behavioral health agencies to master lease units from private market landlords.  Clients sign month-to-month occupancy agreements or sub-leases with the provider agencies.  KCHA may allocate additional funding to cover the costs of vacancies, setting up new units, and other housing-related needs such as security deposits.  Specific program elements are described in each contract between KCHA and the sponsor agencies.

Keys to Success

For this program, KCHA partnered with several experienced service providers to target and reach out to the most vulnerable, hard-to-house individuals in the community.  According to Norman, these individuals may not typically be able to find willing landlords to rent to them, given their criminal backgrounds or poor rental histories.  However, because of KCHA’s MTW designation, they were able to design a program where experienced nonprofit agencies administer the services, engage with landlords, and manage the leases.  The lease agreement is between the nonprofit and the landlord, and the nonprofits provide case management and support for the residents.  In addition, the agencies serve as an intermediary between landlords and residents to ensure housing stability and successful tenancy.

 Measurable Results

Under the sponsor-based program, KCHA has five contracts with service providers for a total of 160 units of master leased housing throughout the County, all of which are paired with intensive, community-based services to serve formerly homelessness individuals, many of who have a mental illness or multiple disabilities.

Supportive Public Housing

Finally, KCHA administers 50 units of extremely low-barrier permanent supportive housing with on-site supportive services, including recovery-based mental health treatment. This housing supports chronically homeless individuals cycling through different systems.  Known as Pacific Court, the project houses tenants in one- and two-bedroom units at one property.   KCHA acquired the building debt-free and was able to “turn on” banked public housing subsidy and incorporate the property management functions into an existing public housing portfolio to minimize incremental operational costs.  An MOU was executed with a behavioral health agency to make referrals to the property and to provide services on-site to those residents.  The agency’s existing service funds for programs targeting homeless individuals with mental illness covers the costs of the on-site services.  MTW flexibility was used to transfer the initial screening and referral process to the provider agency, and to apply minimal, alternative screening criteria, consisting of lifetime sex offender registration, production of methamphetamine in federally assisted housing, and arson convictions.

Keys to Success

This program has been successful because it partners existing mainstream resources that fund intensive support service programs with public housing subsidies to house individuals with mental illness who are experiencing chronic homelessness.  Residents who are housed through this program were extensive users of public systems prior to moving in.  The behavioral health agency engages with the client, enrolls them in an intensive service program designed to address their mental health and other disabilities, and provides independent, yet supported, housing in safe and decent apartment units in a congregate setting with services available on a daily basis to residents. 

Measureable Results

Pacific Court was designed to increase the supply of affordable, supportive housing to individuals who are high utilizers of jails and institutions, while addressing the myriad needs of these individuals and support recovery and housing stability.  Additionally, KCHA has housed existing public housing tenants who are at risk of eviction and need the mental health care and higher level of services offered on-site.  Having an extremely low-barrier permanent housing option is extremely helpful at keeping eviction rates low and for making sure that eviction or voucher program failure does not lead to street homelessness.  In the first year of operation, the program documented significant cost savings from the mental health and criminal justice systems.

Overall Lessons Learned

Plan Strategically

Strategically planning in advance of the project start is critical.  A sufficient level of resources to start and maintain a project needs to be lined up ahead of time.  An engaged service provider is not sufficient to build a successful long-term program.  It is critical to assure that the underlying systems (e.g. the mental health system) are engaged and that funding and service commitments are sustainable over the long-term.  It is also critical to assure that everybody, including developers, property managers, and service providers are clear on roles and responsibilities.

Get Involved with Local Planning to End Homelessness

Helping people at-risk of or experiencing homelessness should be a core part of the public housing mission.  Ending homelessness is also something that has a growing level of political and community traction in many jurisdictions.  Being an active partner in the community’s plan to end homelessness can improve the PHA’s relations with local political jurisdictions that are invested in these issues.  When KCHA became involved in the ten-year plan to end homelessness in King County, it deepened KCHA’s partnership with the local government and assisted in discussions on a host of issues and programs – not just those related to homelessness.  The programs that help the most vulnerable people in a community do not need to cost more than other public housing programs.  One of the key ways in which housing authorities can partner is through project-basing Section 8 vouchers in supportive housing projects. In King County, project-based Section 8 in supportive housing has been, if anything, less costly because of the reduced cost in inspection fees when compared to scattered site programs.

What resources would benefit other PHAs?

According to Norman, the flexibility allowed through King County’s MTW designation has been important to the success of KCHA’s programs.   While only a small percentage of PHAs have that designation, HUD can consider waivers on issues that are not defined by statute. (In other words, PHAs can, for good cause, request waivers of regulatory provisions.)  Agencies that have a solid track record administering their housing choice voucher programs, strong partnerships, and project proposals that are well-integrated into community strategic planning efforts will be better positioned to make the case.