Home is where the heart is

The Boston Housing Authority seeks to help vulnerable renters keep their homes

Photo courtesy of the Boston Housing Authority

The Boston Housing Authority is not only the city’s largest landlord; it also houses “some of the poorest and most vulnerable,” says Gail Livingston, the agency’s Deputy Administrator for Housing Programs. Many tenants live right on the edge, she adds, where small things can cause them to get behind on their rent.

“Small things” has two meanings here; many of the neediest tenants have young children. The BHA, in a partnership with HomeStart, a nonprofit devoted to ending homelessness, is using funding from the Community Health Initiative to assist these families before their lives are turned upside down by a trip to housing court.

A chance to try something new

The BHA’s prevention efforts have traditionally focused on tenants in gravest danger of being evicted — that is, those who have been summoned to housing court. Livingston has worked with Kelly Mulligan, Chief Program Officer at HomeStart, for years. The two often conversed about how exciting it would be to work with families before they reached that crisis point. “We wanted to study whether early eviction prevention is more cost-effective” than the court focus, says Mulligan.

Of course, cost is only part of the picture. By its very nature, a court procedure is stressful and disruptive. That’s especially true for the poor (the average BHA household has income of only $14,000 per year), and especially for those with children under five years of age. “We wanted to put in a program aiding people at the very start of arrearages,” says Livingston.

And to give vulnerable children a fighting chance. “People with kids are most affected by evictions,” she says. “Young children tend to be heavily affected by disruptions and stress.” The effects of eviction on families are often heartbreaking. In one study by the Middlesex County Coalition on Housing and Homelessness, eviction was named by parents as a significant factor in custody changes, with children often sent off to live with grandparents or other family members.

Strains on parent-child bonds and a general rise in stress were also noted in the study. As one respondent said, eviction “throws [children] off completely… Kids don’t like changes. To put them on a drastic change like that stresses out the entire family…It threw off assigned schedules for everything, sleeping-wise, eating-wise, all of it.”

Experts often note that families in the midst of a rent crisis are more susceptible to health problems. “You’re not making or keeping appointments,” notes Mulligan. “You’re not taking your meds, you’re forgetting refills.”

Structuring the program

When the BHA and HomeStart learned of the funding opportunity from the Collaboration for Community Health, Livingston and Mulligan wasted no time in creating a program and a proposal. With 9,000 units of housing, the BHA had to narrow the potential recipients; this led to the focus on families with young children.

During its three-year span, the program’s goal is to assist 180 families. The key is early intervention. “Let’s get to [tenants] before court,” says Livingston. “Let’s reduce stress and stabilize tenancies.”

The Collaboration for Community Health funding allows the BHA and HomeStart to make funds available in a way that heads off arrearages. Take, for example, an unexpected car repair. A recent study by the Federal Reserve found that an unbudgeted expense of $400 would throw 40% of U.S. households into turmoil. The effect is even more dramatic for those getting by on $14,000 a year. The BHA-HomeStart program will help participants pay for auto repairs and other necessities, such as children’s school supplies, in order to “catch and remedy the arrearage while it’s small,” says Livingston.

Other forms of assistance will vary, depending on the individual tenant family’s needs. “There’s no one-size-fits-all solution,” says Mulligan. Many tenants will receive coaching around budgeting and financial planning. For example, they’re encouraged to have rent payments automatically deducted from their pay. Another element of the program is working with partner agencies to provide career counseling.

Metrics are a vital part of grant proposals, and the BHA has engaged Boston University to assess the program’s impact. BU will compare the early-intervention method against other families being helped in other ways by HomeStart, looking for a decrease in stress and whether families helped early are better able to maintain successful tenancies. “This gives us an opportunity to track the benefits for children,” says Mulligan.

The BHA and HomeStart have high hopes for early intervention; they believe it could be a cost-effective way to address the issue, and the grant will help them find out. “This is something we’ve always wanted to do,” says Livingston. “Get involved with families to prevent them from needing to go to court.”