How Government Can Lead Housing Progress

The FWD #G22• 869 Words

by Lark Washington

To make lasting housing progress, state and local governments may want to rethink how they lead.

Where Should State and Local Governments Lead in Housing? 

  • Coordination
  • Including best practices in standards for programs
  • Ensuring that all people at risk of housing instability are served

As a recent state employee, I learned just how large of a role the government plays in the housing world as a funder. But given the acute housing challenges we face today, it may no longer be enough for the public sector to merely disburse funds; they must be leaders in ensuring that best practices are followed so that anyone facing housing instability is served.

When the General Assembly passes bills to address our affordable housing problems, state and/or local government agencies are sometimes left with ambiguous language to establish programs. What are the objectives—and how should they be carried out?

The agency implementing the law has a lot of influence on shaping what the actual government response is. Administrators write the scope, program guidelines, and often determine whom the program serves. Both state and local governments can best serve the public if they are leading with coordination, including best practices in program standards, and ensuring that anyone at risk of housing instability is served. 

Virginia’s housing agencies can expand their smart program planning efforts.

For people at the precipice of homelessness, continuums of care and the Balance of State ensure there is a standard of coordinated response across the state. These efforts have contributed to the steadily lower numbers of persons experiencing homeless across the Commonwealth in the last decade. However, when it comes to the rest of the housing continuum in the state, coordination—or lack thereof—depends on one’s ZIP code.

Public sector efforts to support new affordable rentals or homeownership opportunities have largely taken the shape of tax credit or grant programs. These subsidies are demonstrably effective, but can also be used to foster greater coordination among services to make public funds more effective and impactful. 

For example, the HB854 Statewide Housing Study recommended additional coordination between state agencies and Black organizations and institutions to ensure their audiences fully tap into homeownership assistance programs. Similar “quarterbacking” efforts were also recommended to maximize success of state programs in home repair, community revitalization, homelessness prevention

Support providers need support, too.

Since many service providers are usually focused on a specific mission or service area, public agencies have a unique opportunity to ensure that housing programs are highly accessible by those dealing with housing instability. It should not entirely depend on the person in crisis to seek out assistance; rather, state and local agencies should be proactively seeking out those in crisis.

A good example of a coordinated network is the Community Assistance Network hosted by the United Way of the Virginia Peninsula. It is a centralized intake for a network of local service providers that match a variety of services (including housing programs) for anyone in need. 

The process starts with someone calling or visiting any of the service providers in the network and the person receives assistance from programs that they are eligible for. For instance, if a person who loses employment contacts their line, they would be set up for rental and utility assistance, given available grant funding. They would also be offered job search assistance and asked if they need any other support to reach stability. Case management is encouraged in cases where households are facing multiple, longer term challenges towards housing stability.

It is common and usually expected for many service providers and practitioners to look towards state and local governments to be explicit on the goals and guidelines for programs. However, many providers are so busy addressing housing needs—and riding the cycle of grant applications and reporting—that they do not have the capacity to stay on top of best practices.

For instance, agencies can explicitly include a housing-first standard in their programs since research has shown that it is an effective low-barrier approach in offering assistance. It makes sense for agencies to lead on providing guidance on creating accessible points of entry for assistance and ensuring timely responses for assistance. 

Proactive coordination can be the key to more permanent impacts. 

In a reality where many housing services are a patchwork response to crises, state and local agencies should be proactive in working towards ensuring that all people at risk of housing instability are served. This may seem very intuitive, but the reality in many areas is that some at-risk populations are not served.

It is the role of the agencies not only to keep track of who is left out of being served, but also to target efforts to address those gaps in services. For instance, there may be a homeless service response that targets families, but in an area that is experiencing a rise of homeless individuals, it would be prudent for agencies to target support for these homeless individuals. 

It may feel overwhelming for administrators at agencies to step up these ways, but they must remember that they can leverage their partnerships with service providers to strengthen existing programs. This work takes time, but with intentional goal-setting, it could greatly transform the government’s role in housing programs.

Lark Washington is a Senior Associate at HDAdvisors.

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