Guest column Peg Keller: How support services help provide stable housing

Published: 5/21/2019 9:00:22 PM

People frequently talk about how to address homelessness and the lack of affordable housing. A critical, yet often overlooked, component in this discussion is the importance of support services that help people achieve and sustain housing stability and avoid homelessness.

Many households facing eviction are living in units where the rent is subsidized. For these tenants, the issue is not necessarily the affordability of the rent, but rather not having the skills or ability to manage their money or meet other requirements of their tenancy. Without support services to assist people with developing the skill sets necessary to achieve and sustain stable housing, eviction, which has enduring effects, can result.

People who struggle with housing instability may have difficulty obtaining necessities such as food, clothing and medicine, and may experience mental health challenges if they are without a support network.

Housing instability can make it difficult to find and hold a job, may lead to frequent moves, school changes for children, high rates of absenteeism, and low test scores. Housing instability affects almost everything.

People with low and moderate incomes living from paycheck to paycheck are at high risk for experiencing housing instability. In Northampton, it is estimated that 53% of families and individuals are rent burdened or spending more than 30% of their limited income on rent. Many residents in subsidized or public housing, who pay between 30-40% of their household income toward rent, scramble to juggle their various bills and expenses to ensure that rent gets paid.

Oftentimes, the need to prioritize payment of an unexpected expense such as a car repair, medical bills or funeral expenses can cause a family to fall behind. This delinquency can result in the initiation of an eviction for nonpayment of rent, a costly and stressful time for all involved. And those who are evicted from subsidized or public housing are not eligible for state-funded shelter anywhere in the commonwealth.

For these reasons, Northampton’s Housing Partnership, a mayoral appointed board of volunteers charged with addressing the city’s affordable housing needs, obtained local Community Preservation Act funds to create the Community Housing Support Services Project.

After a public bidding process, the Center for Human Development (CHD) was chosen to administer the program. For the last four years, CHD staff have provided assistance to Northampton residents that has included budget counseling and financial literacy, income maximization, linkages to education and employment training, referrals to food, health, child care or other eligible benefits and assistance with the timely payment of rent.

Eighty-nine households have participated in the program and tenancies have been preserved for 86, yielding a 97% success rate for this program.

There are other important housing stabilization and homelessness prevention programs serving tenants in Northampton. The Mental Health Association’s Tenancy Preservation Program (TPP) helps tenants and landlords avoid eviction and maintain tenancies where the resident or household members have difficulty complying with their tenancy requirements due to mental disabilities.

Since the program began over 15 years ago, TPP staff have conducted assessments, interventions and made service referrals in what is now a statewide program, preserving thousands of tenancies over the years.

The Single Room Occupancy Outreach Project was created in the late 1980s during the State Hospital deinstitutionalization process. Operating consistently since that time, this small program, also administered by the Center for Human Development, links people to resources and provides case management services to tenants living in Northampton’s single room occupancy units.

The outreach coordinator assists residents with housing issues, medical issues, benefits, legal concerns, and access to benefits. Food insecurity is addressed with a food pantry, housed in the basement of First Churches. The program also offers opportunities for residents to build social networks with coffee hours at a variety of housing locations.

Community Legal Aid also provides advocacy to people with low incomes facing eviction. It is important that people contact these programs as soon as they experience payment or other difficulties before they have to appear at Housing Court. On the city of Northampton’s website, northamptonma.gov, (under “Boards and Commissions”— the Housing Partnership) contact information is listed for these services.

Interested in additional information? Contact Peg Keller, Housing Planner, at 413-587-1288, or pkeller@northamptonma.gov or come to a Housing Partnership meeting the first Monday of each month from 5:30 to 7:00 p.m., Room 18, City Hall, 210 Main St. Meetings are open to the public and all are welcome.

The Rev. Todd Weir is the chairman of the Northampton Housing Partnership. This column is co-authored by other parternship members Jim Reis, Gordon Shaw, Julio Alves, Richard Abuza, Patrick Boughan, Kyla Prior, Mark Goggins, Edgardo Cancel, Carmen Junno, Becky Lockwood, Alex Jarrett and Dan Krassner.

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