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Four innovative strategies to house low-income families are honored

Jule Pattison-Gordon

Several nonprofits recently received a financial boost for innovative ideas that could shield some of the city’s poorest families from homelessness.

The Home Funders, a collaborative focused on addressing housing needs of families with very low incomes — zero to 30 percent of the area median — debuted its Innovation Competition to honor “innovative, feasible and sustainable,” scalable solutions to provide or retain housing for extremely-low income families.

The competition is a first-of-its kind for the Home Funders, which presented Preservation of Affordable Housing, Inc., the Coalition for Occupied Homes in Foreclosure, Inc. and Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association with monetary prizes and the affordable housing fellows at Kuehn Foundation with an honorable mention.

The money is secondary to the official recognition, Sonia Gupta, executive director of Home Funders, said. The prizes were awarded without stipulating timeline requirements, a deliberate incentive to encourage submission of creative ideas that may only be in their early stages, Gupta said. Even though it is not obligatory, Home Funders hopes the innovative ideas will be implemented.

“Part of the reason we conceived of giving out prizes instead of implementation grants is we wanted people to come forward with ideas that may not be actual projects yet, but are conceptual,” Gupta told the Banner. “To advance thinking, so people would feel confident coming forward with ideas that are really in early stages, but still hold some promise.”

The competition launched in November 2015 and prizewinners were celebrated last month.

POAH’s Donation Tax Credit

POAH received $20,000 for its proposal to develop a new state tax credit. The credit would be offered as an incentive for property owners to donate existing housing to nonprofits for development.

An eligible nonprofit would create a financial plan that included the cost of purchasing the property. Then, the nonprofit would use the cost savings of donated land and buildings to underwrite the creation of more long-term housing units or deepen the affordability of existing units, Andrew Spofford, POAH’s chief of staff, said. POAH estimates that, with the so-called Donation Tax Credit in place, nonprofits could afford to make 15 percent to 30 percent of the units extremely-low-income-affordable without having to seek other operating subsidies, according to the project description posted on the Home Funders’ site.

Implementing this tax credit hinges on winning over members of the legislature and getting it passed as part of a bill. While such work does not require money, Spofford said, the Home Funders prize has boosted POAH’s cause by bringing greater awareness to it and certifying that others involved in the housing world endorse it as a worthy idea.

“It’s useful to be able to say to legislators that not only are we saying this is a good idea and the other folks that we’re working with on it [saying it’s a good idea] … but that it has the blessing of this competition. That helps people to take a hard look at it,” he told the Banner.

POAH hopes to get the tax credit introduced as an amendment in the next few days, Spofford said last Thursday. But POAH also recognizes that legislative action could be a slow process. In the meantime, the organization is directing the prize money to support its housing residents with stabilization and eviction prevention services.

COHIF’s housing rescue

COHFI, which received $15,000, focuses on protecting families in Dorchester’s Greater Four Corners area from losing their housing to foreclosure. The organization has piloted a strategy that involves purchasing occupied properties in which residents are at risk of being displaced and then transferring ownership to community land trusts. That helps retain long-term affordability, enabling residents to remain, and creates stability.

Now COHIF looks to expand its aid to those at risk of losing housing to reasons beyond foreclosure, such as tenants facing eviction when the owner sells. COHIF also aims to help others replicate its model. The next phase of its pilot involves providing technical assistance to those seeking to adopt similar practices. Groups from cities such as Rochester, NY and Detroit have expressed interest, Executive Director Maureen Flynn said.

The prize signals a strong vote of confidence in the pilot project and eased the way for some discussions, Flynn told the Banner.

“[The prize] is extremely significant. It gives our model a lot of credibility and says to us that the board and the members of the Home Funders group recognize that the pilot is extremely innovative and that the model can work and be replicated,” Flynn said. “Recently we went to talk to a state representative about COHIF and thought we’d have to explain everything from the beginning. He said, ‘Oh no, I know about you because you won one of the Home Funder prizes.’”

CHAPA’s health fund

CHAPA plans to target health issues exacerbated by unstable or inadequate housing and use its $10,000 prize to kick off the project. The organization aims to create a funding pool that can be tapped to assist families who may be living in rooms with mold or lead, afflicted with health problems from living on the streets or experiencing related problems.

Housing status often entwines with health status. As Ann Verrilli, Director of Research noted to the Banner, “If someone’s couch surfing, it’s hard to be medically compliant.”

“We know housing is a basic thing everyone needs in order to be healthy and successful in their life,” CHAPA Executive Director Brenda Clements told the Banner.

Under CHAPA’s proposal, the organization would solicit funding from groups such as hospitals and combine the contributions into one pool. That pool then could be utilized to fund solutions such as rental assistance or treating housing for mold.

CHAPA is in the early stages of its plan. Among the organization’s next steps are recruiting donors and identifying the most effective strategies to fund.

Organization members currently are initiating conversations and will use the award money to explore potential joint projects as they move toward creating working models, Clements and Verrilli said.

Clements said she expected hospitals would contribute funding as part of their work to advance preventative care solutions, an acknowledgment that providing adequate housing can mean major savings for the health care system.

“Most hospitals and others are looking at housing as a critical determinant of health and health outcomes,” she said.

Kuehn Foundation’s housing vouchers

Fellows from the Kuehn Charitable Foundation received honorable mention for their proposal to change public housing authority policy and use the National Housing Trust Fund to improve access to housing for extremely-low income families.

If the prize and honorable mention winners’ initiatives bear fruit they will represent advances toward meeting a critical need. Home Funders’ Gupta noted that while the average yearly rent in Boston is $24,000, more than half of Boston families earn less than $35,000 annually.

“The numbers just don’t compute,” she said. And for the lowest earners, of course, the impact of this hits hardest. “The need at the lowest income is the highest because the impact is the greatest,” she said.

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