A few years ago, as new owners took over apartments in the Meadowood area, longtime tenants were displaced when faced with new, tougher screening criteria.
There was “a lot of turnover and turmoil in the neighborhood as as a result,” said Helene Nelson, a member of Orchard Ridge United Church of Christ.
ORUCC collected special offerings to help displaced families pay for apartment applications, security deposits and move-in costs for new apartments. But those efforts “were small scale, and we knew we hadn’t done enough,” Nelson said.
This January, ORUCC announced new pilot program in the Meadowood area that will provide rental assistance and wraparound services to transition neighborhood families with young children into stable, long-term housing.
The program, called Heart Room, is a collaboration between ORUCC, The Road Home, Joining Forces for Families and the Early Childhood Initiative. Good Shepherd Lutheran church is exploring how they might partner in the project.
For years, The Road Home ran the Interfaith Hospitality Network, a shelter program where local congregations took turns housing families. But the shelter program will end this spring, and The Road Home will instead focus on programs that help families maintain affordable housing. ORUCC was one of those host congregations, sheltering families for 18 years.
Ultimately, Nelson said, shelter is a band-aid, but the housing first model is a solution. Housing first is the practice of providing housing to the homeless with no conditions or barriers, then addressing other needs of the tenants once they have a place to live.
The new program will take a housing-first approach, by providing up to three years of generous rental assistance for six families in the Meadowood and Southdale neighborhoods.
It is slated to provide up to $6,000 per family for the first year, $4,500 for the second year and $3,000 for the third year.
Eligible families will be identified by the partner organizations. Families must be actively or functionally homeless, or under threat of imminent eviction. Families must have young children, and not have access to public or private housing subsidies like Section 8.
The focus on families with young kids is meant to promote healthy child development and success in school, Nelson said.
“If you look at a child, who’s bright and beautiful, and at risk of now sleeping in a car because the landlord raised the rent, your heart breaks,” she said.
The Road Home will be responsible for housing case management and distributing rent assistance, and families will interact with other partner organizations depending on their needs. If a parent needs help managing their child’s mental health, they will work with ECI. If they need help with employment, JFF can step in. ORUCC will fund the rental assistance.
There will also be a core team steering the project, made up of representatives from the partner organizations, neighborhood residents and Sheray Wallace, a neighborhood advocate.
Nelson credits Wallace for helping bring many of the neighborhood housing issues to light.
“Without being paid, she took it upon herself ... to advocate for a better neighborhood for everybody,” Nelson said. “Honestly, I think that she has been a voice calling to many of us to look and see what’s there, and to respond.”
Wallace organized forums to help the community better understand this close-to-home housing crisis.
“We listened to the voices of dozens of low-income people of color who were losing housing in our neighborhood through no fault of their own,” Nelson said. The stories told “would have shattered a few illusions people have about who are people who are losing housing,” she said.
Wallace said she thinks Heart Room will be effective because the partners involved in this project aren’t new kids on the block. They’ve been building relationships in the community for a long time, and better understand the local context.
Heart Room is a pilot program, with room to expand in the future. The organizers have set up an evaluation system to ensure the program leads to positive change.
“We want this to grow into something, if it works,” Nelson said. “We are optimistic that this is a good solution, but honestly the worst thing that would happen is that six families with lots of children would be in housing for three years. And is that such a bad outcome? We hope it’s bigger and better than that.”
ORUCC is in the midst of fundraising for the program, set to launch on April 1 and house families this summer.