Affordable Housing and Onsite Services: A Wake-Up Call to the Industry

Affordable housing must-haves that should serve as a wake-up call to builders, developers, financiers, and architects

By KEN WHITE

Much of the nation’s current affordable housing stock is in need of a major overhaul, and the chronic housing shortage demands the construction of at least 7.4 million affordable and available rental units, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. However, the industry has to do much more than simply build units. Here are what we see as affordable housing must-haves that should serve as a wake-up call to everyone in the industry – builders, financiers, architects, and landlords.

Expand the financial literacy services residents need to succeed. A recent survey of 1,000 consumers conducted by The NHPF showed that financial literacy and workforce development programs are important components of high-quality affordable housing. The study asked respondents to rank several services on a scale of one to five, with one being “most likely” to improve quality of life. We found that financial education and workforce development programs had the highest rankings – with over a quarter of survey respondents naming them.

Make youth education a priority. For children living in affordable housing developments, it’s beneficial to provide opportunities to sustain and improve their education outside the classroom. Programs like Operation Pathways’ “Pathway to Academic Achievement” promote academic success and lifelong learning in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), and other emerging areas. So far, the programs are producing outstanding results. Last year, 37 percent of children scoring below grade level in math improved their math skills by at least 1.5 grade levels, while 62 percent of children who scored below grade level in reading also raised their reading skills by at least 1.5 grade levels. Also, over 90 percent of participants showed no sign of summer learning loss in math or reading skills.

Bolster existing digital access. Many low-income families rely solely on mobile devices or outdated computers that are “under-connected,” and shared by too many family members. These digital inequities impede educational and career advancement.

While many properties provide access to desktop computers, we recommend laptop loaner programs, expanded Wi-Fi, and discounted used machines for sale to supplement this. Exploring partnerships with local businesses results in provision of products and services in exchange for positive exposure in the community.

Resident Services Coordinators worry about older residents who may be at risk of a lack of connectivity. However, Coordinators have been heartened of late by an AARP Foundation pilot program that has provided 50 residents of NHPF senior housing properties with Amazon Echoes, which enhance their daily lives and their sense of security.

In the pilot program, residents reported feeling “less lonely” and appreciated “Alexa’s” help with a variety of tasks. According to the AARP Foundation and its Connect2Affect, technology can help isolated older adults by improving social participation, increasing opportunities for employment and volunteerism, and providing better access to information and resources.

Resident communities are also encouraged to connect through group email or a Facebook page. These provide social interaction and conversation, as well as options for selling or bartering services and merchandise, arranging social activities, and looking out for one another.

Go green, and then some. Developing high-quality housing that reduces a carbon footprint comes with many benefits. Simple actions like turning off lights and lowering thermostats produce cost-savings that properties can use to increase security.

Another way that affordable housing companies can save money and energy is by reducing water consumption. Fixing leaks, installing low-flow toilets, and updating showerheads and faucets help to conserve resources, allowing more money to be spent on improving housing. Properties also need to look at retrofitting programs which can save money and reduce water consumption by millions of gallons.

Keep health and fitness top of mind. There is a proven connection between lower incomes and poor health outcomes. A recent study cites “…the solid, convincing link between low socioeconomic status and bad health…” Poor neighborhoods are more likely to have higher crime rates, lower-performing schools, and little access to healthy foods.

With this kind of evidence in mind, onsite services must include activities that lead to physical, psychological, and emotional well-being for residents.

In conclusion. Developers of quality affordable housing would be wise to incorporate more ideas like the above. The outcomes would almost certainly save financial resources and improve living conditions as well as sustain precious human capital, leading to stronger communities across the country. We challenge our peers to heed the advice of people working hand in hand with residents and develop not only fresh new ideas for housing but a fresh new way to describe that housing – housing the next generation will be proud to call home.

Kenneth White is the National Director for NHPF’s extensive resident services program, directing a team of coordinators providing on-site programs and services and manages a budget of $1.7 million. He may be reached at www.nhpfoundation.org.

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