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Opinion: Putting residents of affordable housing first

Supporting the Affordable Housing Resident Services Act

As rents escalate across the country, housing advocates are right to be concerned about the growing challenge of low-income families finding an affordable place to live. But our national housing policy cannot just be about housing units. Ultimately, it must be about the residents themselves.

That is why we believe that the recent introduction by Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., of H.R. 6602, the “Affordable Housing Resident Services Act of 2022,” could be a game-changer.  For the first time in our nation’s history, the bill would create a real source of funding for enriched supportive services for the millions of low-income families, seniors, and disabled persons living in federally assisted affordable housing units.

At National CORE, one of the nation’s largest affordable housing developers, we provide affordable housing to 25,000 residents in over 8,500 affordable rental units. We are proud of the fact that National CORE recently become only the second affordable housing developer in the country to receive an A+ bond rating from Standard & Poors (S&P). We then used that rating to issue $100 million in bonds to expand our ability to build more affordable housing units.

But our mission is not just about building housing. Fundamentally, National CORE is about improving the lives of the families and seniors living in our housing. We are at the forefront in providing family self-sufficiency and financial literacy services, so families can pull themselves out of poverty. Our after-school programs give youth a sense of belonging and a constructive way to spend their time.

We help seniors and persons with disabilities access health care, through partnerships with major health care providers like Common Spirt and Inland Empire Health Plan. And we help residents access critically needed social services in the local community — a role that became more important than ever during COVID as residents were often homebound.

So why is Rep. Aguilar’s bill needed? Though National CORE is a national leader in providing resident services, our growing inventory of affordable housing exceeds our ability to keep up with the private fundraising necessary to provide all the services we could provide. There is no federal program that funds these types of services, and no funding sources exist that are either scalable or consistent.

Twenty-five years ago, Congress adopted a Housing First policy for federal McKinney-Vento homeless programs. This approach recognized that affordable site-based housing was the key to helping homeless families address underlying causes of their homelessness like mental health and addiction problems. McKinney-Vento grants even funded some services tied to McKinney-Vento eligible projects.

A similar program is long overdue for the vast majority of federal assisted housing, which is not funded by McKinney-Vento. Most people would agree this would be money extremely well spent. But for decades, the silos that separate Congressional committees and federal agencies have stymied this effort. Housing advocates do not want to divert funds from housing construction for services. And federal human services programs are not designed to take advantage of the economies of scale and ease of delivery represented by the low-income housing infrastructure that tens of billions of federal dollars have funded.

Some believe the answer is to have Medicaid fund these types of services, as Congress tried to start to do in Build Back Better, through the Home and Community Based Services (HCBS) program. That’s a great idea, which National CORE supports.

But HCBS supports an extremely limited, albeit important, role — keeping seniors and persons with disabilities in their home by avoiding institutionalized settings. The types of critically needed resident services that are needed, are much broader — self-sufficiency, after-school, family literacy, accessing community resources, and others. These supportive services don’t just keep people in their home — they enrich their lives.

The Affordable Housing Resident Services Act would fund $300 million a year each of the next five years to provide enriched supportive services to residents in federally assisted low-income rental housing. The bill focuses on outcomes for the types of services that will be funded, and selection criteria that prioritize affordable housing owners with a proven record of delivering resident services. Funding comes out of HHS, the federal agency responsible for funding these types of services.

The bill is supported by numerous national advocacy groups like the Corporation for Supportive Housing, the Housing Partnership Network, the Affordable Housing Tax Credit Coalition, and the National Leased Housing Association.

The debate over funding housing units versus housing services should end. We must do both. And now we have a roadmap on how to do just that.

Steve PonTell is the President and CEO of National Community Renaissance (National CORE), a non-profit affordable housing developer based in Southern California.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of HousingWire’s editorial department and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Steve PonTell at [email protected]

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Sarah Wheeler at [email protected]

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