The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
September 23, 2016

Moving to Work, staying in your lane

Throughout September, Urban Institute scholars will offer evidence-based ideas for programs and policies public housing agencies can test through HUD’s Moving to Work Demonstration.

The expansion of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Moving to Work (MTW) Demonstration will allow more public housing authorities (PHAs) to test innovative strategies for supporting residents. But while PHAs might choose to support residents by offering social services, it’s important that they not try to do everything themselves.

MTW designation provides PHAs the flexibility to use funding to test innovative strategies related to cost savings, self-sufficiency, and housing choice. While MTW status does not come with additional funding, PHAs can choose to support their residents with more than housing, so residents can pursue goals related to well-being and self-sufficiency.

Several PHAs that participated in the Housing Opportunity and Services Together (HOST) Demonstration offer innovative ideas and lessons that could help other PHAs seeking MTW status. HOST partners support their residents by designing innovative approaches to supportive services, including trauma-informed case management, clinical mental health counseling, workforce programming, and targeted services for youth. The one thing they all have in common? They partnered with service experts and leveraged existing resources rather than turning their housing authorities into human services providers and spreading resources too thin.

  • Home Forward, the housing authority of Portland, Oregon, is seeking to test a “service hub model” to reach voucher holders in the suburbs, where services are harder to access. The plan is to locate service coordinators and mental health providers in community space in existing Home Forward properties and conduct outreach to voucher families who have children under age 5 to link them to existing services like Head Start.
  • The DC Housing Authority is partnering with a leading social service agency, the East River Family Strengthening Collaborative (ERFSC), to provide intensive case management and coordinated service referrals for residents of Benning Terrace, a public housing development. ERFSC has a long history serving the Benning community and was able to access funding from the Children and Families Services Agency, a DC government agency responsible for child welfare, to ensure longer-term sustainability.
  • The Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) is better funded than most PHAs because of its Plan for Transformation, which attracted many outside donors and leveraged other government resources. CHA has dedicated substantial resources to building a robust resident services department that oversees providers serving all its residents, from young children to seniors. CHA’s model involves contracting with local providers and requiring them to submit data that allows CHA’s staff to continuously monitor their performance. In addition, CHA partners with other city and state agencies such as the City Colleges to ensure they are serving public housing residents.

MTW gives housing authorities an opportunity to ensure residents receive high-quality services in their communities. Partnering with local providers means PHAs do not have to hire and manage social service providers, and taps into existing local resources rather than recreating the wheel.

At the end of the day, PHAs are housing providers. They have to focus on being good landlords and effective developers of low-income housing. Partnering with external providers—and especially other city agencies—enables PHAs to make their limited dollars go further and ensures that their efforts to bring high-quality services to their residents are sustainable. The MTW expansion offers a unique opportunity to support PHAs in creating effective models that leverage the value of housing as a platform for improving residents’ lives and helping families move toward self-sufficiency.

Ta'Janique Simmons, 8, left, Makio Smith, 5, front center, and Cashette McKenzie, 3, top center - play after school in Benning Terrace Apartments on Wednesday, April 17, 2013, in Washington, DC. Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images


As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.