Bigger, Stronger, Better
Thoughts from a member of our Executive Team as a leader in the affordable housing industry.
Chief Finance Officer
How Supportive Services Can Amplify Affordable Housing Investments
Plenty of apartment complexes have a community garden or a gym, but how many have an immigration attorney on staff? Or a health clinic onsite that serves both tenants and the surrounding community? That’s one vision for affordable housing and if it sounds difficult and expensive to pull off, it is. But as an executive at one of the Mountain West’s premier developers of affordable housing I also believe ideas like these will soon play a vital role in how we measure the success of getting disadvantaged neighbors into homes and helping them stabilize their lives, which benefits all of us.
Building affordable housing–below-market-rate homes for the economically disadvantaged, the chronically homeless and other groups in need isn’t easy in the U.S. but it has proven effective. Government grant programs and tax credits incentivize communities to work with for-profit developers and nonprofits like Archway Communities where I work. While plenty of Americans still cringe at the idea of affordable housing being built in their neighborhood, more and more communities are aware that building rental units for their neighbors in need can be cheaper and more effective than other taxpayer-funded programs that amount to offering a band-aid for chronic problems.
But there’s a growing recognition that affordable housing is necessary, but insufficient, to propel individuals and families out of poverty. A variety of supportive social services are needed to really effect change and it’s why Archway, and other organizations like it, are pioneering a new model that offers affordable housing clients assistance tailored to each community’s needs. Programs can range from traditional services such as after-school kids’ clubs, a food pantry, help with resume writing or specialized services like substance and mental health counseling or immigration legal assistance. A 2019 study found that families in supportive housing were much more likely to find permanent homes and less likely to experience homelessness compared with those getting typical government assistance.
At Archway, we’ve offered services to residents from the start. After our founders built our first community in 1996, it quickly became apparent that housing on its own wasn’t enough to break the poverty cycle. Food assistance, healthcare and childcare were the top needs but as Archway expanded its portfolio of properties, those needs became more complex. Today our portfolio encompasses 9 properties, some of which focus on serving veterans or seniors, others that serve immigrant families or a mix of resident types.
In all, we serve over 1,500 individuals and, depending on the property, we offer everything from English language classes to eviction counseling to community gardens and partner with the Veterans Administration to offer mental health and drug counseling. Social services like these are enabling Archway’s clients to move beyond simply “getting by” to actually thriving in their communities. We’ve seen formerly homeless individuals get control of their lives and watched families “graduate” to homeownership. But Archway, and our peer organizations that provide housing, face an uphill battle when it comes to offering these services.
Funding to build homes is far more plentiful than for services and we face skepticism from funders in both the public and private sector. The impact of a dollar spent on housing can be measured in bricks and mortar. It’s there, you can see it, and a person in affordable housing is one who isn’t struggling with rent elsewhere or living on the streets. In contrast, money spent on services may have an enormous impact on someone’s well-being and ability to care for themselves, but that outcome may be much harder to measure. In fact, the 2019 study found that cost savings to local governments from offering supportive services were modest, even if the outcomes for the families using those services were starkly better than their counterparts.
Services don’t benefit from economies of scale the way the construction of housing units does. While some of our programs are managed by third parties, we offer more and more of them ourselves. We’ve found that tailoring services to each community means our efforts go further and have more impact. That sets Archway apart from our more traditional peers. Right now we’re looking at how to meet needs as diverse as the ability to consult with an immigration attorney and getting access to health and dental care locally. That may mean hiring a legal counsel or partnering to launch a community clinic. In either case, our efforts will serve a very local population in a very hands-on way.
Measuring the impact of these efforts, however, is vitally important if affordable housing organizations want donors and grant makers to take an interest. At Archway we’re building the systems to better measure the impact of the social services we already offer and help us figure out what our residents want and can most benefit from. Through a grant from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment we’ll be able to interview each of our residents to assess their needs and technology investments will allow us to track every interaction we have with our residents to gain more visibility into how effective our programs really are.
Funding for services must change too, and it is changing too slowly. The rents that fund operations at affordable housing complexes are enough, generally, to operate and maintain the property. So funding services from that same source of rental income results in a squeeze, leading to inadequate funding for both operations and for services. Other sources of funding for our services are necessary to realize our ideal community environment.
We have our work cut out for us, starting with a focus on hiring those with an interest and capacity to bring services to our residents. As we grow both the number of affordable units we manage and the variety of services we offer, the task of measuring impact and listening to tenants will be ever more important and complex. Seeing families break the chains of poverty and the chronically homeless find permanent housing makes it a worthwhile investment, and a great place to work and apply one’s talent.