HUD Secretary Donovan: “Communities are assets to be built on”

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Recently in Atlanta, federal, state, and local officials joined advocates and local practitioners to discuss solutions to housing issues facing communities across the country. During the event, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan spoke about the Administration’s recognition that housing is one of the primary pillars needed to help grow the middle class. Secretary Donovan noted, “communities are not places with problems to be solved, but assets to be built on.”

In outlining the vision of a “new federalism,” the Secretary noted that the federal government needed to again become a strong partner with local stakeholders. Donovan outlined several examples of this partnership such as the Sustainable Communities Initiative and the Rental Assistance Demonstration. In addition, a renewed relationship between federal agencies and local partners is shown in the growing progress being made toward ending chronic veteran homelessness.

In the coming months, either Salt Lake City or Phoenix will become the first city in the nation to end chronic veteran homelessness. This unprecedented accomplishment is on the cusp of reality because of a focused and sustained commitment by both federal and local government officials, as well as non-governmental stakeholders in these communities.

At the federal level, since 2008, over 48,000 housing vouchers specifically designated for veterans have been distributed to communities in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. Unlike traditional Housing Choice Vouchers (aka Section 8), HUD-VASH vouchers have additional support from VA case workers. As a result, both veterans and landlords have a resource should issues arise.

Also in 2008, the VA was authorized to begin the Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program. SSVF’s goal is to promote housing stability among very low-income veterans and their families who reside in or are transitioning to permanent housing. In FY13, the SSVF program provided nearly $300 million to 319 organizations to serve approximately 120,000 veteran households.

In 2010, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) released Opening Doors, a comprehensive plan to prevent and end homelessness, with the specific goal of ending chronic veteran homelessness by 2015. Ongoing support from Congress and the Administration for the HUD-VASH and SSVF programs, combined with improved implementation at the local level, has led to a 17% decline in veteran homelessness since the release of Opening Doors.

In Phoenix, these federal resources have been maximized by local stakeholders, including the city. To help reduce the amount of time between when a veteran is awarded a voucher and when they move in to a unit, the two city departments that are required to conduct housing inspections collaborated to allow for one inspection to occur that met both agencies’ requirements. In addition, the city has supported a locally developed innovation called a navigator with funds from their Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) and Emergency Solutions Grant programs. The navigators provide peer support to chronically homeless veterans by walking them step-by-step through the process and providing assistance when necessary to make certain they obtain and sustain housing.

In Salt Lake City, stakeholders recognized they were starting their efforts to end veteran homelessness with imperfect data. To overcome this, partners began regular meetings to identify the veterans in need, come to agreement about what people should be prioritized, and determine what resources were available in the community to meet those needs.

In addition to these steps, city, county, and state officials worked to create a uniform reporting process for organizations using federal Emergency Shelter Grant resources. These resources were primarily being used to fund rapid re-housing efforts, and the uniform reporting reduced administrative time and costs associated with their use. As a result, since February 2013, Salt Lake City has been placing the homeless into housing at a rate that puts the city on a path to end veteran and chronic homelessness in the coming months.

Finally, in Tacoma, WA, community stakeholders have come together to form a Veterans Housing Options Group. The group consists of the WA State Department of Veterans Affairs, the two local agencies administering SSVF, and representatives from the regional VA office. The work to improve how services are delivered to homeless veterans is being complemented by the city, which has encouraged the WA State Housing Finance Commission to consider including a veteran preference when determining how federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits are distributed. In addition, the city is considering actions that would benefit homeless veterans, including inclusionary zoning requirements and voluntary housing development incentives, among others.

In an environment of limited fiscal resources, Secretary Donovan is correct when he acknowledges that cities are where innovations are born and progress is made. But these innovations cannot happen when there is persistent uncertainty about the level of federal resources and where those resources will be directed. Increasing partnerships between the federal government and municipal officials is a common sense notion that requires sustained support in order to see results. In their own ways, these cities are illustrating how progress on an issue can be made when local governments have focused and committed partners at the federal level.

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About the Author: Elisha Harig-Blaine is a Senior Associate for Housing (Veterans and Special Needs) at NLC. Follow Elisha on Twitter at @HarigBlaine.