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Public Housing Residents Get More Federal Help Toward Self-Sufficiency

The Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority is one of several public housing agencies across Northern Ohio to receive funding increases to promote "family self-sufficiency." [Matt Richmond / ideastream]
A photo shows the headquarters of the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority.

Public housing agencies across Northern Ohio are getting increases in federal funds this year to help residents meet personal and professional goals.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is giving at least $200,000 each to housing authorities in Cleveland, Akron, Toledo and Youngstown to support Family Self Sufficiency (FSS) programs in 2020.

FSS allows public housing residents to set aside part of their rent money in a savings account that they can access once they meet goals such as buying a house or getting a new job.

The program is one of the few HUD initiatives to see an increase under the Trump administration, which has continued a decades-long trend of setting operating budgets that do not allow housing agencies to keep up with needed repairs.

FSS was first authorized in 1990 and has had bipartisan support ever since, according to Anice Chenault, who manages the FSS program for HUD.

"I think it's because whether we might have a difference of opinion about what the root causes are for poverty, everyone agrees that supports to help people move to work are a good thing," said Chenault.

But the program has not been without challenges. Perhaps the most significant, Chenault said, is getting people to graduate from the program so they can access the money they've set aside. Graduation generally involves completing a series of workshops, attending one-on-one meetings with program coordinators and being off Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) for at least 12 months.

In Cleveland, for example, the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA) reported a FSS graduation rate of 25 percent in 2017 — about the national average. The Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority reported a 34 percent graduation rate.

There's also the challenge of getting people to participate in the first place, according to Chenault. Cleveland's program had 381 participants in 2017, out of a total eligible population of just under 25,000, including both rental voucher recipents and those living in traditional public housing units.

"We have definitely gotten the feedback that some folks simply don't want another federal program up in their business," Chenault said. "They'd rather be going out [trying to meet their goals] on their own."

Still, she said HUD considers the program a good investment because among those who do graduate, about 30 percent are able to leave housing assistance and 14 percent move on to homeownership.

One former CMHA resident who recently graduated from FSS said she thought the benefits of the program could be better publicized.

"A lot of people probably just don't have a good understanding of how it can work for you so they don't get in it," said Kisha Nixon, who moved from the King Kennedy Estate in Cleveland into a private-market rental house and now has a full-time transportation job.

Kristie Groves, director of resident services for CMHA, said she'd like to see local FSS participation increase, possibly in part by hiring additional case managers to work with residents.

"But keep in mind it's just one of a few programs we have to help people move toward self-sufficiency," Groves said.

Others, she said, include the Resident Opportunities and Self-Sufficiency program and the Jobs Plus Intiative, which offers job training at specific public housing sites.

This story is part of ideastream's  two-year reporting project about the past, present and future of Cleveland’s Woodhill Homes public housing development .

Justin Glanville is the deputy editor of engaged journalism at Ideastream Public Media.