Denver, Colorado was the site of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning Conference from October 12-15, 2017. Among the many presenters from UNC-Chapel Hill were Center for Urban and Regional Studies Researchers Michael Webb, Ph.D., and Kirstin Frescoln, Ph.D.
Webb’s presentation, titled “Policy Mobilities and Mutations in the Moving to Work Demonstration,” was based on research conducted for The MTW Guide. Moving to Work (MTW) allows participating housing authorities the flexibility to waive certain U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) regulations and implement alternative program designs. For instance, some agencies have implemented a work requirement (which are normally prohibited), while others have modified rent calculations for their tenants (public housing residents typically pay 30% of their income as rent).
Despite wide latitude to implement a variety of programs, though, most Moving to Work agencies have implemented very similar activities. Webb’s presentation argued that housing agencies are responding to the same pressures—such as funding cuts, long waitlists and lack of access to high-opportunity neighborhoods for Section 8 residents—and, as a result, their programs look very similar. Staff at Moving to Work agencies are also very interested in seeing the program succeed, and are willing to share best practices with other agencies. Ultimately, sharing policies between agencies may be a good thing, as previously-implemented policies are already tested, have policy language already drafted and implementation issues identified and possibly addressed.
Frescoln’s presentation, titled “Public Housing’s Self-Sufficiency Mandate,” explored the history of self-sufficiency interventions undertaken by public housing agencies (PHAs). In particular, her research sought to understand: 1) Why policy makers established a self-sufficiency mandate within public housing; 2) The relative strengths and challenges of PHAs assuming this role; and 3) Whether this is an appropriate role for a PHA?
In response to public discourse, shifting demographics and changes in PHA funding, housing agencies began experimenting with direct self-sufficiency interventions as early as 1961. While the 1961 Concerted Services project was not deemed successful, Congress established a series of pilot initiatives in the 1980s including Project Self-Sufficiency and Operation Bootstrap that culminated in the Family Self-Sufficiency program in 1990. Other programs have included Community Supportive Services (part of HOPE VI), Resident Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency, Jobs-Plus and various self-sufficiency initiatives launched by Moving to Work.
There are many good reasons for PHAs to engage in self-sufficiency programming; chief among them is the clear identification of a population of need. PHAs can leverage physical co-location and multiple funding streams to directly deliver high-quality programming. The greatest challenges have been lack of capacity within the PHAs, insufficient on-going program evaluation and improvement, poor data collection, and the absence of evidence-based practices to effectively increase economic mobility
Recommendations include providing PHAs with training and technical assistance to more effectively implement existing interventions and HUD funding to support data collection and evaluation of the self-sufficiency programs. Current initiatives to test and evaluate Jobs Plus, Moving to Work and other self-sufficiency policies such as work requirements may lead to the first evidence-based self-sufficiency interventions within public housing.