Pam Bailey, NeighborWorks blogger
| 8/10/2015 12:09:42 PM
As children across the country prepare to return to school, more than 13 million of them are starting with a “mark” against them: They live in poverty, putting them at much greater risk of a host of challenges that make good academic performance an uphill, often losing, struggle.
Megan Sandel, MD, principal investigator at Children’s Health Watch and an advisor to NeighborWorks’ health initiatives, says, “For children, moving two or more times increases their risk of unhealthy weight, hospitalizations and developmental delays. Evictions are particularly damaging, as they tear children and family away from their communities, their schools, their doctors and other social supports, often suddenly and without warning.”
Evictions are clearly bad for the entire family. And eviction-prevention programming (EPP), such as emergency cash assistance, financial-capability coaching and after-school activities for children of working parents, help prevent such dislocation. But do EPP services make sense from a “business” point of view? It costs money to attract new renters, but it is equally problematic to carry bad debt. Even mission-oriented nonprofits, like NeighborWorks members, cannot offer services or avoid evicting a negligent renter if it will compromise their ability to operate cost-effectively.
“Many nonprofits struggle to balance their goal of running their properties efficiently and serving the needs of their residents,” says Harold Nassau, director of asset management for NeighborWorks and president of its Consortium for Housing and Asset Management (CHAM). “In the name of serving they let rents slide too much. But once a person is 90 days in arrears, maybe even 60 days, they almost never catch up. So, actually, letting rent slide is the worst thing for both the property and the family.”
A 2007 Enterprise Community Partners and Mercy Housing study reviewed data from 36 multi-family housing sites (1,787 units). The study found that sites with a dedicated resident-services staff had lower losses due to vacancies, legal fees and bad debts compared to those without this type of programming. Likewise, a 2008 Community Housing Partners study sponsored by NeighborWorks America found that sites with eviction-prevention programming saved $38 per unit per year.
To further explore just what successful EPP means, NeighborWorks America partnered with Community Properties of Ohio (CPO) to conduct a review of six affordable-housing organizations that have implemented eviction-prevention programs at their rental properties and identify best practices.
"For this review, we chose organizations that are truly ‘mindful’ about it, focusing on eviction prevention as a key financial and social program."
A lot of organizations offer elements of what could be considered eviction-prevention services,” says Nassau. “However, they are all over the map in how they are set up and operate, and very few have similar tracking mechanisms to measure success. For this review, we chose organizations that are truly ‘mindful’ about it, focusing on eviction prevention as a key financial and social program.”
Here are a few of the critical elements of effective eviction-prevention programming practiced by the studied organizations:
Stable funding. All of the participating organizations have secured stable funding for resident-services programming, with a significant portion of it funded as a line item (and thus not subject to fluctuations in cash flow).
Multi-disciplinary team that communicates. All staff stakeholders must communicate with each other through a time-sensitive, coordinated process, including property management, resident services and maintenance. This can be a challenge for organizations that outsource to or partner with external property managers. Two NeighborWorks members in this situation are Community HousingWorks (San Diego) and Urban Edge (Boston). It’s critical, they say, to assure a shared vision, one that values stable housing for residents as well as cost-efficiencies.
“We started offering systematic eviction-prevention services in 2009, when residents really started falling behind because of the recession,” says Robert Torres, associate director of community engagement for Urban Edge. “Once a month, on the first Wednesday, property management, the lawyer it contracts with, the person responsible for asset management and the resident services staffer for each building sits down for a meeting. They each have different approaches, so it’s important to get on the same page. In addition, property management might know something we don’t. Any tenant who has fallen behind on rent for a month is flagged. Property management sends a letter, and then we follow up with our own letter plus a call. If necessary, we knock on doors.”
Although separate resident services and property management teams can be challenging, Nassau says communication can be better when the functions are split between two sites because it simply has to be. Community HousingWorks uses a cloud-based customer-relationship-management software called TeamLab Office that allows the staffers to share data and updates real time, both in the office and the field. It also is critical to explain to residents the team members’ roles, and what is confidential and what is not.
Protocols that define EPP “triggers” and timing. A standard practice is to define which events should trigger implementation of an EPP intervention and who should initiate. The ideal, however, is to identify tenants in advance who may be at risk. Once a tenant is contacted, most organizations will reach out to the resident two or three times within a designated time period. CPO, for instance, contacts tenants two to three days after receiving notice of referral, and requires staff to make three attempts to reach out through a letter, phone call and home visit.
Interventions that work. Each of the studied organizations also specified in a protocol the interventions that are offered. Most commonly, they include referral to programs that offer emergency assistance, such as child care and cash for utilities; education and counseling on budgeting and money management; and implementation of a payment plan.
Beyond these common offerings, three of the six surveyed organizations offer assistance in finding employment, whether on-site or through referral partnerships. CPO offers support such as help with job searches and interview preparation.
REACH Community Development (Portland, OR) has found that such interventions can even work with “nonpayment repeaters.” Its Chronic Late Payer Program uses positive incentives such as gift cards to motivate targeted residents to call or meet monthly with resident services staff.
Built-in measurement. The analysis found a lack of consistent metrics and methods for assessing them. At the very least, concludes the report for NeighborWorks, organizations should monitor the number of residents referred to EPP each year, the number actually enrolled and how many evictions are prevented. Other metrics could include percentage of residents paying on time, decline in notices issued and cost per eviction.
Only one organization among those studied, Urban Edge, has developed a cost-savings calculation for EPP, based on dollars saved in rents collected and prevented vacancies.
“Demonstrating success anecdotally falls short of the gold standard of using metrics and data to illustrate how organizations are performing against stakeholders’ expectations,” the report concludes. “As the field of affordable housing moves toward this goal, NeighborWorks America is capturing how organizations are achieving success and seeking to provide nomenclature.”
Nassau says the next step for NeighborWorks is to test an algorithm developed by Virginia Tech University for calculating the cost and benefit of EPP services, which it expects to be compelete in the next 90 days.
“One of the built-in challenges of serving residents is to maintain property requirements while helping people prevent and deal with dislocations that happen in their lives,” says Nassau. “For-profits don’t do this. They evict a lot faster than we do. Evictions lead to very bad outcomes; they cause tremendous damage to people’s lives. Our mission is to make prevention cost-effective.”