Awards of Excellence: Referral Voucher Program
The Spokane Housing Authority (Wash.) designed a one-year pilot program to collaborate with local agencies in order to provide housing placement assistance and services to increase Housing Choice Voucher utilization, leasing success rates, and long-term placement. Nominated from among the NAHRO Award of Merit winners each year, the Awards of Excellence winners are chosen by national juries and honored at the annual National Conference and Exhibition in October. They represent the very best in innovative programs in assisted housing and community development. This agency received an award in the Administrative Innovation category, which includes programs that improve the efficiency or effectiveness of administrative operations or the general functioning of the agency.
Spokane Housing Authority’s (SHA) development of the Referral Voucher Program (RVP) stemmed directly from the struggles and stories of voucher recipients. After spending years on a lottery waiting list before finally receiving a voucher, and residents would then run into obstacles trying to use it. In early 2015, SHA conducted stakeholder meetings to gather feedback from service partners and participants. The top three barriers identified were that:
- the housing authority’s the lottery system did not prioritize based on need;
- navigating the voucher forms and verifications presented challenges for families already in crisis; and
- landlords refused to overlook negative rental histories or evictions with no alternatives to work through those barriers.
SHA designed a one-year pilot program to collaborate with local agencies in order to provide housing placement assistance and services in order to increase voucher utilization, leasing success rates, and long-term placement. In July 2015, SHA issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) open to non-profit and government agencies who served elderly, disabled, or families with children who had severe housing needs. Then SHA dedicated 25 vouchers per month to the RVP, utilizing a local preference in their administrative plan. They required each agency to commit to providing: a Responsible Renters Program to provide tools for leasing success; one-on-one assistance with application, verification, and briefings processes; and one-on-one assistance locating suitable housing and convincing the landlord to agree to a lease.
Other components of the programs include: life skills training, transportation, move-in assistance (furniture, household goods), housing stabilization plans through case management, financial management classes, energy assistance, mental health services, crisis intervention, medication management, domestic violence crisis counseling, nutrition support, transition services for refuges, translation services, and employment services.
Nine agencies were awarded contracts through this competitive process:
- Spokane County Supportive Living Program;
- Volunteers of America, SNAP and Goodwill (collaborative application);
- Frontier Behavioral Health;
- Department of Social and Health Services, Division of Aging and Long Term Care;
- YWCA Domestic Violence Program;
- World Relief;
- Northeast Community Center in collaboration with Spokane School District; and
- Catholic Charities St. Margaret’s Shelter.
The RVP process begins with the partner agency identifying and referring a household with severe housing needs. The partner agency then guides the family or individual through the labor-intensive SHA application, verification, and briefing process. Once the application is finalized and submitted, the SHA reviews it for completeness before scheduling the household for a voucher briefing and issuance. In order for the household to be eligible for the voucher, the partner agency must provide the Responsible Renters Class. Once the voucher is issued, the partner agency assists the household to identify and apply for tenancy at available rentals. This usually includes production of a universal tenant screening report (accepted by most landlords in Washington) that the participant can use for up to 90 days; this saves on reoccurring screening fees. In cases where criminal history is an issue, the partner agency provides SHA with any documentation that may be helpful in approving the application at initial submission, such as letters of reference, certificates completion of counseling/treatment, or some other evidence that would verify positive changes since the offense. The program also provides client with post-leasing access to the case manager if they need additional assistance in stabilizing and maintaining their housing.
Overall, the combination of housing and services is providing RVP participants with both leasing success and stability. At the end of the first year, of the 300 vouchers available through RVP, 251 were successfully leased (84 percent), 23 were still looking (7 percent), seven vouchers expired (2 percent), and 19 voucher-holders chose to port to other counties/jurisdictions (7 percent). In addition, the average time from call-up to lease-up decreased from 210 days to 41 days. Of the 251 successfully leased, just two (less than 1 percent) have since been terminated for program non-compliance. Given a rental market with 98.6 percent occupancy rate and 1.4 percent vacancy rate, locating units is challenging for those that have sufficient income to lease without vouchers.
The RVP program also substantially reduced the administrative burden of issuing vouchers to households that ultimately did not succeed in finding housing. SHA issued approximately 1,200 vouchers over the next 12 months based on current turnover rates. For 2017 that meant 420 RVP vouchers issued and 780 other vouchers were issued (to applicants on their preference waiting list). Using a conservative estimate of four hours of staff time to process an applicant file for voucher issuance, the cost to the agency to reprocess 70 percent of 780 files (546) is $54,600 ($25 per hour x 4 hours x 546 recycled files). This translates to approximately one full-time staff person at the agency. Based on the success of the RVP, and the assumption that providing applicants with more intensive assistance with housing location services ultimately reduces the intake workload, SHA plans to expand the program and redirect one full-time Eligibility Specialist position into a Landlord Liaison position in the next budget year. This person will provide this critical one-on-one assistance to guide applicants from SHA’s preference waiting list through the process and help them navigate the rental market.
The RVP allows the SHA to creatively use the existing framework of the voucher program guidelines to design an effective local solution to locally identified priorities. Further, since the RVP was managed within the existing voucher program and the related services already exist in partner agencies’ portfolios, it can be considered a low- to no-cost program. During a recent on-site monitoring review, the HUD field office, the HUD field offices applauded SHA’s creativity and were impressed by the program’s results.