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Nonprofits join forces for housing solutions

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September 27, 2007

By JOHN FLOWERS

ADDISON COUNTY — A new Addison County program offering money and financial counseling for those seeking to find and remain in affordable housing has in its first two months already stopped nine evictions/foreclosures and helped seven area families find places to live.

The program is called “Addison County Housing Solutions,” and is the brainchild of several state and county human services organizations, including the United Way of Addison County (UWAC), the John Graham Emergency Shelter, the Parent-Child Center of Addison County, Addison County Community Action Group (ACCAG), Neat Repeats and the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity (CVOEO).

Housing Solutions is a program through which the participating agencies pool their discretionary affordable housing funds and collective expertise to help needy families come up with enough money to secure or hold onto an apartment during a rough financial stretch in their lives. The program also gives participants information to plan for their long-term financial security so they will better be able to meet their household/rental expenses over the long haul.

Kate McGowan, co-director of UWAC, said Housing Solutions is the product of a year and a half of discussions among local agencies that had formed a “poverty task force.” In comparing notes, members of the task force noted how some of their respective clients often struggle to make rent. Those clients often find themselves hopping from agency to agency in hopes of leveraging $50 here and $30 there to help them pay their housing bills during a month in which other household expenses — such as medical, fuel or clothing — have been unusually high.

“We had a whole bunch of agencies where housing was not their primary task, but it was one of those core things that needed to be addressed,” McGowan said. “We looked at it and thought, ‘We can do this a better way.’”

With a financial assist from Neat Repeats — a Middlebury-based shop that sells used clothing and turns the proceeds over to charity — the agencies decided to pool the small amount of money they had been individually parsing out to people with rent/mortgage crises. They also came up with a single application form for people wanting to tap into the funds. Applicants are also offered “financial literacy classes” to help them balance their checkbooks.

“We can’t just keep on throwing money down a bottomless hole,” ACCAG Executive Director Jeanne Montross said of the emphasis of Housing Solutions in providing long-term stability for clients. “We’re all trying to get to a point, in the human services community, where it isn’t the same people coming in time and time again.”

Participants in Housing Solutions are being asked if they can pay back a portion of the money they receive through the program. If some of the funds are replenished, it will allow the program to better sustain itself.

“Our goal is 30 percent payback,” McGowan said, noting the people tapping into the service are — at least initially —very poor and unable to guarantee debt repayment.

Organizers are happy with the way things have worked out so far.

As of Aug. 31, Housing Solutions had received $20,992 in application requests. Around $9,900 of those requests have been honored. Recipients have agreed to repay $5,800 of the $9,900 given out.

A panel of representatives from participating human service agencies regularly reviews applications for Housing Solutions funds and sometimes directs applicants to other sources of assistance. 

“Requests are outpacing the funds that are available,” McGowan said of the need, which figures to only get more acute in the coming months as the weather gets colder. More and more people will be trying to transition to warn shelter from campgrounds and cars, McGowan reasoned.

“We’re concerned about the need and our ability to provide,” McGowan said. “Hopefully, we will come up with some more grants and discretionary funds.”

Sue Schmidt, field director for the Vermont Agency of Human Services Addison County office, was among those who helped establish the Housing Solutions program. She agreed with McGowan that more people will face housing crises this year due to the other mounting expenses — especially in the heating fuel category.

“It gets harder and harder to pay all those bills with the same amount of (household) money,” Schmidt said.

Anyone wanting more information about Addison County Housing Solutions should call UWAC at 388-7189.

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