Breaking the Cycle of Poverty Through Empowerment
In response to the housing crisis in the United States, nonprofit organizations have emerged as major players. Because many of these new developers have emanated from efforts to address social problems, such as family violence, substance abuse, and homelessness, they often provide supportive services for residents of the housing that they build. Others – perhaps believing that affordable housing and social services play different roles and do not necessarily mix, or that services are only necessary for “special needs” populations, or that they are too costly to provide – develop affordable housing in the context of economic and community development, with no services mechanisms whatsoever. In-between are modified versions of each, with the players (developers, service providers, the community) all trying to define their roles and relationships. Caught in the middle, sometimes, are the residents of affordable housing.
In a field that is still evolving, confusion over relationships and terms is understandable. The term supportive housing is used to describe many different kinds of housing in which supportive services are provided. Special needs housing, usually describing permanent housing developed for special needs populations, such as those with chronic mental illness, victims of domestic violence, or recovering substance abusers, has also become a popular term. At times the term has been used to describe housing for low-income families. Both terms, supportive housing and special needs housing, essentially define housing that provides a supportive and responsive environment for at risk and/or special needs populations.
Recognizing the many overlaps and similarities between supportive housing and special needs housing, Beyond Shelter has promoted the term “service-enriched housing” to help differentiate what is essentially basic rental housing for the low income population-at-large – not necessarily at risk and not necessarily with special needs. All three housing types incorporate social services into the operation and management of the housing. In service-enriched housing, however, services and assistance are available to residents, but are not a requirement for tenancy. But there is a mechanism for immediate support and assistance when residents appear to need – or specifically request – assistance.
An Enhanced Quality of Life
Common among service-enriched housing projects is the ability to provide an enhanced quality of life for individuals and families struggling to survive in communities that are often detrimental to their well-being. Residents of such communities are often isolated, with few of the resources, services, enrichment, and recreational facilities available in other communities. Essentials such as decent affordable housing, child care, employment at livable wages, educational opportunities, health and welfare resources, and recreational activities are either difficult to access, fragmented, or completely nonexistent in some areas. Exacerbating the problem for many families and individuals may also be cultural and language barriers. In addition, residents of many inner-city neighborhoods must also deal with the daily occurrence of gang violence, drug trafficking, substance abuse, open space and parks often overrun by the drug trade and the homeless, and other anti-social behavior. With little control over the neighborhood environment, as renters they must also depend on the landlord of their building for repairs, resolution of disputes (between residents and between residents and management), building regulations, health and safety issues, and use of common space, etc.
Service-enriched housing represents an innovative and systemic change in confronting the long-term needs of families and individuals caught in the cycle of chronic poverty. Service-enriched housing allows residents to identify their own needs and issues of concern, within a housing structure and a community-oriented infrastructure. With mechanisms that provide for significant resident involvement in issues that affect their lives and their environment, residents themselves develop programs, services, recreational and social activitiesÑoften assisted by, but not necessarily emanating from, an outside source.
Service-enriched housing also respects the rights of individuals to privacy and autonomy; advocates of such housing often view housing as a human right, rather than as a reward for good behavior. In service-enriched housing, residents, management and service providers work together as a team. Residents who maintain their rent and abide by basic landlord-tenant agreements do not risk losing their housing if they choose to bypass involvement in social services or other activities.
The service-enriched housing model can vary dramatically, from multi-family to single-family to SRO housing. It may be owned by a non-profit organization or by a private landlord. Increasingly, non-profit developers are contracting with social service agencies to provide services to residents in their buildings. In some cases, for-profit landlords or developers are doing the same – contracting for support to residents of their buildings. Depending on size, service-enriched developments may have both on-site management and a full-time services coordinator, or one services coordinator may split his or her time each week among various sites. Although not always possible, space may be provided for programs and activities on-site, including office space and/or classroom space, for example, for both the services coordinator and resident groups to use. Services and community space may also be available to other residents in the neighborhood.
Regardless of the specific model, affordable housing developers in underserved communities should ensure that residents of their developments have access to the services they need to create a safe and stable environment, while providing opportunity and support for the realization of individual goals and aspirations.
The Coronado Place Apartments
A successful demonstration of service-enriched housing is the Coronado Place Apartments in Los Angeles, California, developed by Beyond Shelter, a nonprofit housing and social services provider. A former slum building, Coronado Place is located in the city’s MacArthur Park area, a densely-populated neighborhood characterized by overcrowded, substandard multi-family structures built primarily in the 1920s and 1930s as residential hotels. Approximately two miles west of downtown Los Angeles, the area is home to large numbers of recent Central American immigrant families and various other ethnic groups in smaller numbers.
The Coronado Place Apartments provides a safe haven for residents in a neighborhood plagued by gangs, drug activity, and urban decay. The building was purchased in 1990 by Beyond Shelter and completely renovated into 41 attractive one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments for families. Of great interest to the developers was the fact that, due to the slope of the property, one basement wing provided an additional 3,500 square feet of potential community space, with large windows and a door opening directly onto the front sidewalk. During renovation, the space was converted to a community room, children’s playroom and classrooms, a large and well-lit laundry, crib room, community kitchen, and three multi-purpose rooms. Additional community areas include a large front porch and an entry patio with benches and a small, fenced-in play yard with a sandbox and playhouse. From the play yard, stairs lead down to the children’s playroom in the basement. Behind the building is a multi-purpose patio/recreational area. Inside is a large, carpeted lobby, immediately adjacent to the Services Coordinator’s office.
Residents are low-income and very low-income families with children, some of whom have experienced homelessness. Renters are not required to participate in programs or activities at the site (services provide support as needed), but are required to abide by basic tenant-landlord rules and responsibilities, as mentioned earlier.
Approximately half of the families at Coronado Place are headed by single females. The rest are two-parent families, some with extended family living with them. While about one-third are dependent upon welfare for support, most of those either attend school or job training programs. Many others are working at minimum wage or at sporadic employment. Approximately 75 children and teenagers under age 18 live at Coronado Place at any given time. At least one-quarter of those are teenagers at risk of gang involvement.
Coronado Place has a Resident Manager, responsible for rent collection, and physical maintenance and upkeep of the building, supervised directly by the property management company hired by Beyond Shelter. A full-time Services Coordinator, employed and supervised by Beyond Shelter, is responsible for services and activities. The Services Coordinator has many roles, including: providing intervention and support for residents experiencing a crisis, and ongoing support for people with special needs; referring residents to resources and services in the community; and developing and supporting resident participation in management. The Tenant Management Committee represents Coronado Place residents and helps the Resident Manager and Services Coordinator develop and maintain a safe, supportive environment with programs and services responsive to resident needs and desires.
The Tenant Management Committee plays an integral role in decision-making at Coronado Place, on developing programs for tenants and their children, and on issues related to security, noise, and use of community space. Through this involvement, the Tenant Management Committee encourages a sense of homeownership often lacking in rental properties. Within months of their first meeting, the committee conducted a survey to determine residents’ priorities and long-term goals. As a result, Beyond Shelter converted three newly-renovated and empty rooms in the basement to (1) a library with three donated computers, (2) a small office for the Tenant Management Committee, and (3) a small gym, with equipment provided by various residents. The small backyard area was converted for recreational use, with a basketball hoop, tetherball, volleyball net, benches, and portable barbecues. This year, at the request of teenagers in the building, the Tenant Management Committee’s office will be converted to a club for the teen’s exclusive use.
Supported by the Services Coordinator and manager, the Tenant Management Committee organizes ongoing activities. These include: periodic surveys of residents’ needs and concerns; monthly meetings of all residents to identify priorities, discuss problems in the building or nearby criminal and/or gang activity, or to communicate with management; holiday parties, pot-luck dinners, and other social activities, such as a Halloween Haunted House and Trick-or-Treat Party for neighborhood children, a yearly Summer Barbecue, and field trips to the beach or camping; and a monthly “Clean-Up Day,” when most residents participate in cleaning community areas. The committee is also involved in neighborhood efforts to address criminal and gang activity in the streets and local parks.
Partially in response to resident requests, the Services Coordinator has brought in a wide variety of adult education classes, seminars, or special presentations, primarily through neighborhood organizations, health clinics, or social service agencies already funded to work in the community. After the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake, the Tenant Management Committee surveyed tenants to determine their immediate needs and then requested that the Services Coordinator bring in experts for an Earthquake Preparedness Seminar. Other programs have included job readiness sessions, a weekly parenting group, a series of talks on health education (through a Consortium of Physicians from Latin America), another series on protection against criminal activity on the streets and security for the building (provided by a Los Angeles Police Department representative), and presentations by the management company on security issues.
The Services Coordinator has also developed activities for children and teenagers, including child care during on-site activities for parents; tutoring and assistance with homework, provided by Jesuit volunteers and outside agencies funded to work with at-risk youth; and recreational and aesthetic activities such as piano lessons funded by Beyond Shelter, arts and crafts activities provided by volunteers, field trips, and karate classes taught by a resident. Two years ago, at the request of teenage boys in the building, Coronado Place formed a football team, coached by a resident father and with uniforms and equipment donated by a member of Beyond Shelter’s Board of Directors.
Helping Residents Achieve Their Goals
The critical support services available at Coronado Place are already proving to be highly effective in addressing a multitude of issues facing residents. These include job loss, family violence, child sexual abuse, health crises, money management problems, poor housekeeping, poor parenting and child neglect, drug abuse, and gang involvement of resident teenagers. Coronado Place’s services have helped residents identify goals and gain access to the resources they need to achieve their goals, such as job training and placement, child care, and further education. Families receive ongoing support, primarily through referral to appropriate resources in the community, and through follow-up and monitoring where necessary. The Service Coordinator maintains liaisons with local schools and social service agencies and has developed a Community Directory with continually updated information on available programs and activities. A Beyond Shelter Family Survival Guide also helps residents address ongoing issues.
Coronado Place provides a highly successful model for service-enriched housing, which can be easily adapted by affordable housing developers and owners and private landlords in low-income neighborhoods.
Tanya Tull, D.S.Sc, is the Executive Director of Beyond Shelter. The mission of Beyond Shelter is to combat chronic poverty, welfare dependency and homelessness among families with children, through the provision of housing and social services, and the promotion of systemic change. For further information, contact the Technical Assistance Department, Beyond Shelter, 4032 Wilshire Boulevard, Suite 501, Los Angeles, California 90010. Telephone: (213) 252-0772. Fax: (213) 480-0846. e-mail: www.beyondshelter.org
DEVELOPING SERVICE-ENRICHED HOUSING
While there is no one way to develop service-enriched housing, resident participation is one key to success. Successful programs respond to and emanate from the needs of residents. Provision of services often begins with a survey of residents to identify services and activities that would benefit them. Program development based on actual experience can be the determining factor between success and failure.
Service-enriched housing can be extremely cost-effective. Organizations often find a surprising number of resources and services already available to residents in the community. Coordinating access to local resources and services becomes the major focus of their work.
Organizations often hire a services coordinator, who might, for example, provide the following:
- assistance to residents in identifying and accessing local resources and services.
- development and support of resident participation in management and in the development of services, programs and activities.
- crisis intervention and short-term support or referral to outside resources.
- longer-term support for residents pursuing goals related to social and/or economic self-sufficiency.
- intervention and prevention of problems related to substance abuse, criminal activity, destruction of property, or other issues harmful to residents.
New housing or rehabilitation projects are often able to fund the salary of a services coordinator within the operating budget, although this will depend on the size of a project and the amount of subsidy it receives. Existing projects in which the budget cannot be expanded might be able to revise an existing budget item or job descriptionÑsuch as that of assistant managerÑto accommodate the full or partial salary of a services coordinator. Smaller projects do not necessarily require on-site staffing and may be served by a part-time services coordinator. Services are sometimes also provided through agreements/collaborations with local agencies; some organizations arrange for social service agencies to place a services coordinator on-site.
To help decide what services to offer, housing developers should consider the following factors: What is available in the community? How accessible is the service or program? Would most residents benefit from this service? Do you have the organizational capacity to provide the service? Is it more effective to refer residents to an outside resource?
Providing a continually updated notebook or bulletin board of neighborhood and community programs and resources (such as an inexpensive summer day camp or a new food pantry) is another way to provide easy access to services, and can often be more effective than trying to respond to residents on a case-by-case basis.
For new programs created to respond to residents’ needs, finding space may be challenging. In existing buildings, housing providers may convert a small apartment to classroom or office space. Others have converted their manager’s offices and part of a lobby. Many developments have community rooms and other space that residents rarely use. Some groups obtain foundation and corporate funding to convert existing space. New construction of residential property often allows the addition of classrooms, offices, and multi-purpose rooms. Others, again, find it more cost-effective to use the space of neighborhood organizations who serve area residents.