Shaneka Greer feels blessed. Thanks to the Metropolitan Council’s Community Choice program, she is living in a well-maintained apartment in a safe neighborhood with a good school for her daughter.
Community Choice assists families with Housing Choice Vouchers—portable federal housing assistance—to find housing in areas of opportunity: neighborhoods with high-performing schools and low poverty. Families receive individual counseling to locate, secure and be successful in the opportunity-rich neighborhood of their choice.
“I didn’t have the best background to start off with for renting,” said Greer. “[Community Choice] has taught me to be a better renter and be a better person. The program has encouraged me to meet my neighbors…and build relationships in the community that I want to live in. Now I’m living in Maple Grove and I want to build that here.”
Long-term outcomes improve for children in areas of opportunity
In 2015, the Council’s Metro HRA hired two full-time outreach coordinators to build the Community Choice program and work with prospective families. The program focuses on families with children ages 10 or younger. Research has established that when children move into areas of high opportunity at a young age, they have better long-term outcomes for education, employment and income.
“Community Choice is more than just a housing subsidy,” explained Terry Hardin, Community Choice Outreach Coordinator. “When families are living in a safe neighborhood they are able to focus on other goals and aspirations. Their children see that their parents are achieving more, and that helps the child to be more successful.”
Greer said that before moving to Maple Grove, her apartment building was poorly maintained and the neighborhood wasn’t safe for her daughter to go out and play.
“We’ve become much closer, and we appreciate each other and how hard we’ve both worked to get here,” Greer said. “We’re calling it a home now.”
Families required to take classes, set goals for employment
Families eligible for Community Choice are chosen at random from Metro HRA’s housing choice voucher waiting list, and asked to attend an orientation session. Families that choose to participate are required to take classes in financial literacy and tenant education.
“In the classes our families learn from each other,” said Hardin. “We offer the content, and they share their experiences and troubleshoot for each other.”
When they complete the classes, each family meets one-on-one with a coordinator to establish goals and an action plan. They must be committed to job training, furthering their education if needed, and securing employment.
“We give them an opportunity to tell their story and share their experiences so we can develop a plan that best fits their family,” explained Corina Serrano, Outreach Coordinator. “We work with them to set manageable steps toward their goals, and we check in with them regularly to ensure they meet the goals.”
Some families have several obstacles to overcome
In 2016, 44 people enrolled in the program. Of those, 14 have successfully located housing in a high opportunity area. The remainder continue to work on their goals or are still on the waiting list.
Many of these families face challenges that take time to overcome,” explained Hardin, “including issues with their rental history, credit, or a criminal record.” In many cases, evictions and minor crimes can be expunged from their records, although this can take several months. “Judges are likely be sympathetic to someone who was the victim of domestic violence or lost their job and could no longer pay the rent,” Hardin explained.
Greer said that the program helped her to “fix things in the past, and just be honest with [my] new landlord.”
“Things can happen to someone’s life that can make them go down,” Greer said, “but everybody doesn’t always stay in their past. I grew up a lot thanks to this program and this beautiful home.”
Greer now works for Hennepin County and volunteers for Boys and Girls Clubs where she helps children with homework and runs a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) program for six- to nine-year-olds.
Post-move counseling: Staying on the path to self-sufficiency
Like all Community Choice participants, Greer will receive two years of post-move counseling to assist her to overcome any barriers to success and stay on her path to self-sufficiency.
“We’re making a difference in people’s lives beyond the housing subsidy,” Hardin said. “This program truly puts the choice back into Housing Choice vouchers.”
Metro HRA Assistant Manager Jennifer Keogh told about how excited the child of one program participant was when they moved into their new apartment. Because it was close to a library, the child would have a library card for the first time in her life.
“That’s something I take for granted, but was a very big deal to her,” Keogh said.
Community Choice offers help to landlords, too
A second aspect of the program is recruiting landlords to accept Housing Choice vouchers. Metro HRA Assistant Manager Jennifer Keogh said that landlords who already rent to voucher holders are fine with the Community Choice program. But recruiting new landlords to accept vouchers can be a challenge. Their primary concern, she said, is upkeep of the unit.
But Community Choice offers features to overcome that fear. If the tenant needs it, Metro HRA will pay the security deposit. The HRA guarantees an additional amount of money to help repair damage caused by a tenant, should it be needed. In addition, HRA staff will visit the unit four times each year for the first two years to ensure success.
“There are a handful of programs like ours around the country that offer a type of risk pool for damage mitigation,” Keogh said. “The experience has been that very rarely is that money used.”
The HRA also does a unit “pre-inspection” to advise a prospective landlord what he or she will need to do to pass the official inspection required before a tenant can move in.
“Landlords appreciate that, because then they know they will pass the inspection,” Keogh said.
In late January, Metro HRA will post a new Outreach Coordinator-Housing Search position. That person will assist with landlord recruitment, help voucher holders secure housing, and serve as an ombudsman for landlords and tenants. With average caseloads of 425 families for regular Metro HRA housing coordinators, the additional support is needed, Keogh said.
The federal government funds the Housing Choice Voucher program. With a voucher, income-qualified tenants pay one-third of their income for rent and the federal government pays the remainder. The program sets fair market rent limits based on family size.
In late 2016, the HRA recruited additional families for Community Choice. As of mid-January, 32 had enrolled; 6 more have their initial appointment later in January and may enroll.