How a voucher program sparked community interest in housing homeless veterans
Featuring energy-efficient materials, private patios, a community garden, and a chicken coop, a new 25-unit apartment complex called Patriot Place makes an impressive addition to its neighborhood outside downtown Columbia, Missouri.
At first glance, one might not realize Patriot Place is part of a growing number of housing developments for formerly homeless veterans. These developments are supported by project-based HUD-VASH (US Department of Housing and Urban Development Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing) vouchers from HUD and the US Department of Veterans Affairs.
Unlike tenant-based vouchers, which are used to rent housing in the private market, project-based vouchers are attached to specific housing developments. Our evaluation of Patriot Place shows that using vouchers this way can dramatically boost HUD-VASH’s visibility within a community. This increased visibility can benefit tenants and the larger HUD-VASH program, but complications may arise.
Housing with a higher profile
The Columbia Housing Authority received 143 new HUD-VASH vouchers since 2008, including 25 project-based vouchers to support Patriot Place’s development. Before Patriot Place was constructed, the Columbia community was largely unaware of the program, as the vouchers were used throughout Columbia and the program lacked a physical presence. Patriot Place, Columbia’s first project-based-voucher development, provided an outlet for the community to show its support for homeless veterans.
Among other sources of support, the Columbia Housing Authority received $150,000 in donations to pay for beds, couches, chairs, flat-screen televisions, and other furnishings for Patriot Place apartments. Volunteers also installed a community garden, made possible through donations from Lowe’s. This profound community interest prompted local landlords to ask Veterans Affairs staff how they can work with the HUD-VASH vouchers, increasing veterans’ pool of apartments available to rent.
Patriot Place’s high visibility also posed some challenges. Program staff had to negotiate with corporate supporters who wished to brand certain elements of the development. Some tenants felt that the frequency of visitors created a “fishbowl effect” as they adjusted to their new homes. Some tenants also feared that when negative incidents occurred at Patriot Place, a stigma could easily be associated with the development.
Lessons for similar projects
Fortunately, the local HUD-VASH program staff promoted a positive culture among residents early on, and staff has helped ensure that all the veterans who entered the project remain stably housed. While staff decided not to alter the screening process to favor tenants who might be a “good fit” for Patriot Place, they did adjust the move-in process to move in five veterans at a time, rather than all 25 at once. This process helped build a community where older tenants offer advice and support to newer ones. Staff also include tenants in the decisionmaking processes, like establishing and enforcing program rules.
Other communities planning to use HUD-VASH vouchers to develop housing for formerly homeless veterans should be aware of these projects’ distinct challenges and opportunities. Thoughtful planning can help partners design projects that provide a welcome home for veterans and help build community support for addressing veteran homelessness.