For more than a decade, the Urban Institute’s HOST Initiative (Housing Opportunities and Services Together) has partnered with housing authorities—mostly large, well-resourced agencies that serve thousands of households—to develop and test strategies for using housing as a platform for delivering wraparound services for their residents. Through this work, we’ve learned about the value of building on people’s strengths and using approaches that are trauma informed.
But our partnership with BangorHousing, an innovative housing authority in the small city of Bangor, Maine, has highlighted an important lesson: to be effective, agency staff must view themselves not solely as property managers but also as people who serve families in homes.
Challenges and opportunities for small housing agencies
There are approximately 3,300 public housing authorities in the US, and most of them serve just hundreds of households. These small housing agencies fill a critical role—not only as the main source of affordable housing for their communities but often also as a resource for connecting residents to important services like food banks and emergency services.
Because many of these agencies have smaller staffs, they may fear they don’t have the bandwidth to add more formal resident services to an already challenging workload.
If their leadership is entrepreneurial, they may pursue options like applying for Resident Opportunity and Self-Sufficiency or Family Self-Sufficiency (FSS) grants through the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), but there is stiff competition for these resources. And even if they win, the funds may support only a single position (such as a service coordinator) or cover some staff time for crisis intervention and referrals, which wouldn’t be enough to launch a more comprehensive initiative like a HOST-model program.
Most larger housing authorities face the same funding and flexibility challenges. But since 1999, 39 of them have had “Moving to Work (MTW)” status, which allows them more flexibility to use their HUD funds to pay for services. All three of the original HOST demonstration sites were MTW agencies.
Congress has authorized an expansion of the MTW program that is targeted at smaller agencies, so 100 more agencies will soon have this flexibility. But most housing authorities will still have to come up with other strategies to fund supportive services.
How BangorHousing has become a model for serving residents effectively
BangorHousing is an example of what a small housing agency can accomplish through creativity and effective partnerships, even without the flexibility of MTW status.
- The agency prioritizes meaningful services to help its residents improve their economic circumstances.
- It received and leveraged a HUD FSS grant to apply for funds from a local foundation, allowing it to refine and expand its services and increase its visibility.
- It built on its FSS experience to create a new two-generation Families Forward program that aims to help whole families.
- It is intentional about providing on-site space for partners, such as a Boys & Girls Club.
- It created a partnership that includes the local community college, workforce development centers, and agencies that offer home visiting, quality child care, and mental health services.
- Its staff have sought out organizations like Aspen Ascend so they can learn about new and state-of-the-art service models. As a result, their programs incorporate two-generation approaches, trauma-informed care, and intensive community engagement.
- BangorHousing staff have partnered with researchers so they can use data to continuously refine and improve their programming and help their families move toward self-sufficiency.
Last summer, BangorHousing invited Families Forward participants, community members, partner agencies, and their own staff and leadership to participate in a “Data Walk” with the Urban Institute team. A Data Walk is an interactive event where staff walk participants through posters that show findings in an easily digestible format (such as in graphics or quotes) and engage the group in interpreting the information.
Families Forward staff played an active role in the event, leading one station and facilitating conversations with participants around community solutions, access to services, and what future programs could look like. One group included BangorHousing’s executive director, a board member, and some community members.
Throughout the event, the executive director’s response to residents’ comments made clear that he sees his agency as more than a landlord and property manager. He views BangorHousing as an agency that supports families in working toward stability and self-sufficiency—a model for any housing authority seeking to serve their residents effectively.
There are many stories about housing authorities large and small that fail their tenants. BangorHousing’s story offers a different perspective, showing how housing agencies can be important community partners and a positive force in their residents’ lives.