Skip to content

Public housing as a platform for social services can contribute to low-income families’ stability, independence

Human Services

Public housing facilities are ideal locations for on-site services that help low-income and vulnerable families achieve stability and independence, concludes a briefing paper from the Urban Institute.

Partnerships between public housing agencies and human services providers that offer relevant and accessible counseling, assistance with parenting skills and health and other supportive services is a sound model for helping move residents from dependence to independence, according to the brief.

Leveraging housing as a platform to provide such services is a relatively new concept for many public housing authorities and policymakers. Lean budgets, inflexible rules and misperceptions represent significant barriers to implementation. Breaking through those barriers requires education, enhanced regulatory flexibility, adaptive capacity and strong partnerships with local government agencies and service providers.

The brief points out that families do not experience crises and hardships in isolation – they may be simultaneously applying for a job, seeking parenting-skills training and receiving substance-abuse counseling. However, social services are often siloed in ways that require those families to travel to multiple locations, often with children in tow, at inconvenient times to receive that help. Consolidating services within the housing complex leads to more successful outcomes.

Service coordination alone is unlikely to solve the multiple problems faced by many low-income public housing residents. The paper says effective service coordination models require intervention and sustained investment to interrupt detrimental behaviors, address trauma and equip young people to overcome the effects of concentrated disadvantage.

A previous demonstration project in Chicago, also conducted by the Urban Institute, showed that on-site services resulted in increased employment, a reduction in anxiety and more stable physical health. This project helped inspire important aspects of what became the institute’s HOST (Housing Opportunity and Services Together) program. When crises are addressed, residents are also less likely to be evicted, fall behind on rent or exhibit criminal or behavioral problems.

The HOST program – testing innovative strategies for delivering services through public housing – is a grantee of The Kresge Foundation’s Human Services Program. The foundation works to expand opportunities for vulnerable people living in America’s cities. Its Human Services Program works to strengthen multiservice human services organizations and networks that improve the quality of life and economic security of low-income people.

Among the recommendations in the paper:

  • Highlighting best practices and creating more flexibility in federal rules to allow better service coordination through public housing authorities.
  • Adoption of promising practices and building of staff capacity in public housing authorities.
  • Federal prioritization of service-coordination proposals that serve high-need families through intensive, whole-family service models.
  • Rigorous, data-driven tracking of service outcomes to help design the best models for effectively serving residents’ needs.

The analysis concludes that the success of service coordination for families living in assisted housing rests on two elements: “The first is the ability of families to find the services they need close to where they live. The second (really the flip side of the first) is the ability of housing developers and their managers to pursue the whole mission of affordable housing: to provide a platform on which their residents can build a stable, healthy and independent future.” (Proscio 2006, 19)

Download a copy of the paper from our Library, or from the Urban Institute’s website.