Friday, December 20, 2013

Connecticut group trains renters and landlords to ‘bridge the divide’

Helping residents of its diverse community achieve homeownership is a core mission of Neighborhood Housing Services of New Britain (CT). In fact, the organization – which celebrated its 35th anniversary this year – was chosen to participate in NeighborWorks America’s pilot program when it first started training housing counselors in 1982.

But homeownership isn’t feasible or the desired option for some people, and as Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies reported this month, there is a growing shortage of affordable rental units. According to the report, the share of renters paying more than a third of their incomes for housing, traditionally considered the minimum threshold of affordability, rose to 50 percent in 2010. Much of the increase was among renters facing severe burdens (paying more than half of their incomes for housing) – a group now representing nearly 27 percent of tenants. 

That reality can be seen in central Connecticut as well. The area, which has a large population of Hispanic and Polish immigrants (giving the neighborhood around the organization’s office the nickname, “Little Poland”), has lost a lot of manufacturing operations over the years and now relies on service businesses for its livelihood. Unemployment is nearly 12 percent.  

The mission of Neighborhood Housing Services of New Britain is to help fill the gap in the supply of affordable housing – in part, through developing rental units, of which it now manages 25. The goal, says Executive Director Maureen Voghel, is to add 10 plus units annually for the next three years, along with two to four single-family homes. 

However, renting poses unique challenges – for both tenants and landlords. And while counseling is offered by many organizations for new homeowners, such training rarely is provided to people on both sides of the renting “equation.” NHS of New Britain is taking the lead by offering preparation classes for both existing and prospective renters and landlords.

“Sometimes, renters become landlords themselves,” observes Evelyn Branch, supervisor of Homeownership and Foreclosure programs for NHS. “It can make sense, once they are ready to purchase, to buy a multi-family unit – like a duplex – and rent out the extra space for some income. But becoming a landlord isn’t easy.”

Participants in the NHS-NB training class for landlords
hear from a police officer.
In the last year, the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority began requiring landlords to receive education on their responsibilities, and with the closest alternative site a less-frequent program in Hartford, the NHS class attracts a regular attendance of about a dozen for each monthly, three-hour session.

The “Landlord 101” workshop, says Branch, covers everything from making the decision to purchase a rental unit and become a landlord, to how to screen tenants, maintain the property, manage their finances and – if necessary – evict residents in accordance with the appropriate protocols. Recently, the curriculum was supplemented to include the importance of green maintenance practices to keep costs low for everyone.

In October, NHS began offering a similar class, but for tenants. In the tenant class, participants discuss how to effectively communicate concerns to their landlords, ways they can bring down energy costs and their rights during eviction. In the future, NHS hopes to forge a partnership with other community-based organizations to provide legal services through pro bono attorneys to both tenants and landlords.

“It’s a two-way street,” explains Branch. “Both have rights, and both have responsibilities. But no one prepares them for that. Our goal is to help them build a good, professional relationship, based on open communication. ”

‘Aging in place’ transformed from dream to reality in Ohio

As with other communities across the country, the Rust Belt town of Springfield, OH, is aging. With high unemployment and the resulting exodus of young people, the population of the small town in southwestern Ohio is increasingly in need of affordable housing tailored to the needs of older individuals who want to stay in their communities, but need a little help to do so.

“Springfield is very segregated in terms of income,” explains Tina Koumoutsos, executive director of Neighborhood Housing Partnership (NHP) of Greater Springfield, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2013. “Most of the new development is on the north side, where the more affluent residents live. People in the southern neighborhoods don’t have as many options.”

NHP-GS is doing its part to change that, however. In 2011, it partnered with the City of Springfield to leverage funds from the second round of HUD’s Neighborhood Stabilization Program, created to assist communities whose viability is at risk in the wake of the wave of foreclosures. This funding, says Koumoutsos, was a “blessing. We had no debt to service, and could use the project instead to generate a revenue stream to invest back in our work.”

One year later, NHP offered 12 two-bedroom duplexes for rent, specifically for individuals age 55 or older who are making 50 percent of the area median income or less. In addition to reasonable rents, affordability is assured through green building practices that keep energy costs low.

“We designed these units with ‘smart growth’ in mind,” says Koumoutsos, who was the city’s housing coordinator before she became the founding director of NHP. “That means people and their special needs were our focus, not cars.”

For example, the new development was positioned to be “walkable,” with a YMCA, government offices and a performing arts center within easy reach. The property manager of the complex owns another, larger senior-service project and provides case-manager services to both developments, including recreational activities and transportation when needed.

Front porches (without steps, so people with disabilities
can easily access them) are main features of the new
walkable community for seniors.
In the units themselves, garages are positioned to the back of the homes, shifting the focus to front-yard porches where residents are encouraged to socialize with each other. The University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study, which is following more than 7,000 individuals, concluded that living in a neighborhood where you have strong social ties has as much physical benefit as not smoking.

In addition, the development was built with a goal of “zero steps.” Koumoutsos explains that NHP wanted the residents to be able to safely age in place, as well as to welcome disabled friends and relatives. That means no stairs that could become wheelchair obstacles, as well as special touches such as walk-in showers in the bathrooms and accessible kitchen cabinets. At the same time, however, the NHP team worked hard to make the look inviting, rather than institutional, and the second bedroom in each unit offers plenty of space for visiting children and grandchildren.

“All of the units filled almost immediately, and we have a waiting list of about 100,” says Koumoutsos. “We are in discussions now with the city about building more, since we own the adjacent land.”

“Impact” is what Koumoutsos and her team strive for. A recent study documented that in the last five years, NHP of Greater Springfield has contributed $43 million to the local economy, supported 74 jobs and generated $51 million in first mortgages.

“We used to have to struggle to make the case that providing affordable housing has an overall impact on the community at large,” she says. “Now no one questions it.”

Written by Pam Bailey, communications writer for NeighborWorks America.