Developers Empowering Resident Voices

10 min read

POAH’s Trauma-Informed Housing Toolkit

Many American adults, about 60 percent, have experienced trauma, but the practice of considering the effects of trauma on affordable housing residents and staff is relatively recent. More organizations are changing the way they approach housing, putting people at the center. 

Trauma results from physically and emotionally harmful experiences that lead to long-lasting adverse effects. Considerations around trauma originated in the healthcare industry, where trauma-informed care acknowledged the need to understand a patient’s life experiences in order to deliver effective care. Trauma-informed housing seeks to break the cycle of trauma by focusing on the well-being of residents, frontline staff and communities. This can be difficult in a system that exists within a complex matrix of rules and regulations.

Trauma can either be caused or be exacerbated by things like building conditions, climate, punitive disincentives in rules and policies, or community conditions like gentrification, says Julianna Stuart, vice president of community impact at Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH). Intentional housing segregation and discriminatory policies in housing also trigger or exacerbate trauma.

In March, POAH released its Trauma-Informed Housing Toolkit, a website aimed to inspire mission-driven housing providers to adopt a trauma-informed approach to housing. The toolkit is designed for owners, resident service providers, property management companies, architects and interior designers, funders and policymakers, as well as community residents.

“In the past, a trauma-informed approach as a form of care of individuals was the responsibility of social services,” Stuart says. “It’s certainly part of the picture, but what we’ve been trying to do with trauma-informed housing as a model or an approach is to look at the entire housing system and really reorient it towards centering people and away from centering, over-indexing or over prioritizing rules and compliance.”

Stuart defines the housing system as not just the delivery of resident services, but how decisions are made, how communities are designed, the rules and policies that govern them, and the relationship the people who live and work in housing have with one another.

Oftentimes, in affordable housing, rules and compliance have an outsized role, Stuart says.

“We’re sort of operating our housing system from the perspective of managing towards the rules and real estate and not focusing on the real people that are living and working in our communities,” Stuart says. “So, essentially, what this model does is take lessons of trauma-informed care and apply it to the entire housing system.”

For example, income certification, an essential piece for managing affordable rental housing, often ends up becoming a cumbersome, invasive process in which residents have to give a lot of information, but there is no transparency in the process, and it can be frustrating for staff who have to chase down the paperwork, Stuart says. A trauma-informed approach takes a step back, doing research to improve processes and allowing the staff to invest in relationships and build trust within the community.

“How do we look at that whole process and say, ‘This is just not working for us, and how do we make this more transparent? How do we keep this streamlined?’” Stuart says. “How do we free up all the time that staff spends facing paperwork and allow them to use that time in relationship building by getting to know, being compassionate and understanding what their community actually needs instead of having to be overwhelmed by the sort of onslaught of work.”

POAH Toolkit
POAH’s journey in trauma-informed housing began with resident services staff who saw trauma-informed care as great training for people who engage with residents, Stuart says.

“As we were going through training, we started to appreciate that it’s a lot to ask of the staff, to train them and be responsible for this without changing anything about the conditions where they work,” Stuart says. “If the housing organization really wants to take this seriously, we have to not just look at how we train staff, we also have to look at where we are causing part of the problem.”

In 2020, POAH applied for and was awarded a grant through the Wells Fargo and Enterprise Community Partners Housing Affordability Breakthrough Challenge to create a trauma-informed housing toolkit.

POAH spent the next couple of years exploring the topic and the toolkit is a culmination of the work, Stuart says. The toolkit not only explains what trauma in housing is but also provides other information, such as designing trauma-informed spaces, suggestions on how organizations can improve their policies and procedures to become trauma-informed organizations, case studies and metrics to measure the impact of trauma-informed changes.

In addition to reading the information in the toolkit, users can download the tools to help and adapt lessons in the toolkit to their own organizations and communities.

Certified Organization for Resident Engagement and Services
Stewards of Affordable Housing for the Future (SAHF) is now applying some of the principles from POAH’s Trauma-Informed Housing Toolkit in its policy analysis, including around housing stability, Andrea Ponsor, SAHF president and chief operating officer says. The organization is also reviewing a series of policy and practice recommendations that could help advance trauma-informed practices in an affordable rental housing setting.

“SAHF continues to promote trauma-informed practices through peer exchange among its members and by connecting members and partners with experts and resources around trauma-informed design and practices that can be applied in affordable rental homes,” Ponsor says. “We’re also sharing what we’re learning about resident-centered and trauma-informed practices with the field at conferences with groups like the American Association of Service Coordinators (AASC), NeighborWorks, National Housing & Rehabilitation Association and Consortium for Housing and Asset Management (CHAM).”

SAHF offers a certification program that recognizes property owners that excel at providing resident services, called Certified Organization for Resident Engagement and Services (CORES). From the start, the CORES certification has carefully considered how organizations center residents in designing and delivering services, Ponsor says. 

“Certification questions explore how organizations build trust, elicit and incorporate resident feedback and engage residents in shaping programs,” Ponsor says. “As the understanding of trauma-informed practices grows in the field, we see those practices reflected in answers to these questions.”

Trauma-Informed Training
Affordable housing developer, AHC Inc. also recently began addressing the issue of trauma-informed housing. AHC has 54 properties across Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia.

While the topic of trauma was on the radar of AHC’s residential services team for some time, it became a bigger concern when the pandemic hit in 2020, not only for the residents but also for its frontline staff, says Stefanie Bass, AHC’s assistant director of resident services.

Bass, who joined AHC in May 2020, previously worked at Fairfax County Redevelopment and Housing Authority in Virginia, where she gained experience in the implementation of trauma-informed practices through her participation with Fairfax County’s Trauma Informed Community Network (TICN).

At AHC, Bass works with Roxana Hernandez, AHC’s assistant director of community engagement, to facilitate training for the entire organization. The first step in trauma-informed practices is creating a shared language around trauma-informed housing and what it means.

Bass and Hernandez provided basic trauma 101 training, holding eight sessions over the second half of 2022 and into 2023. The sessions included:

1)  The definition of trauma;
2)  Recognizing possible signs and symptoms of trauma;
3)  Understanding how the effects of trauma may influence the people you work with;
4)  Why this is important information for affordable housing providers;
5)  Knowing your role in working with people affected by trauma; and
6)  Local resource information to have on hand to provide to anyone in need.

So far, 150 people have gone through the training, including the leadership, on-site resident services and third-party property management teams.

In addition to the basic training, AHC’s executive team viewed the film, Resilience, the Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope.

“The film is really well done,” Bass says. “The executive leadership team viewed the documentary film, and then we had a Q&A afterward to talk about what this means for us at AHC, how we can launch this work and where we need to start. So, we took it from there with the staff training piece.”

Plans include adding additional training in de-escalation strategies, trauma-informed supervisor training, cultural humility/understanding biases and compassion fatigue.

AHC also has plans in areas outside of resident services around trauma-informed design and construction. Trauma-informed design principles include, but are not limited to:

  • Flexible, adaptable spaces;
  • Lightweight furniture, clear circulation paths and access to nature;
  • Spatial openness and artful spaces;
  • Design for property security, visual safety and privacy, and acoustical privacy; and
  • Light-filled spaces.

Engaging with Residents
While it’s important to approach trauma-informed housing from all aspects of housing development, understanding resident experience and creating opportunities for resident voice and choice is extremely important.

As an example, Stuart points to a multifamily housing development where several families had small children, but the building was not designed for young kids. POAH had six weeks for rehabilitation of the building. They conducted several design activities with the residents.

“The residents were creative and engaging,” Stuart says. “We got to the root of what is the experience that people have in this space, what are the relationships people have in this space and how can we design it differently.”

In that community, there are 500 kids under five, but nothing in the space, particularly the office, suggests that there are children there, Stuart says. If a resident needs to bring their toddler with them to the office, a common occurrence in the community, to have a conversation with the property manager, nothing about the space is child friendly.

“If residents are worried about what their child is doing or whether or not they’re supposed to be touching something, it’s going to make it really difficult to focus on that conversation,” Stuart says.

POAH opened up the building and installed a walled-in courtyard, so a resident can be in the meeting room, while children can go into the internal courtyard and play.

“We spent the time upfront getting an understanding of whom we’re actually serving, which is super important,” Stuart says.

At AHC, one of the training’s principles is voice and choice, Hernandez says. It encourages giving residents the platforms to raise their voices to provide their input of what their community’s needs and desires are.

“We are engaging with residents in a variety of different ways,” Hernandez says. “We’re looking to increase trust and continue to build relationships with our residents, especially after COVID. We’re starting over with our communities through activities and events that build a community, bring the residents together and increase the trust.”

AHC recently completed outreach to all its communities to make sure that it is including resident voices in its strategic plan. It received over 300 responses from all AHC communities on topics, such as what home and community means to them.

The purpose was to “empower them to let us know what their community needs versus the typical standard where we choose what we think the community needs,” Hernandez says.

AHC also recently created a resident ambassador committee to help empower resident leaders.

“It’s a really important part of what we’re doing here to make sure that voices are being heard not just by on-site staff, but by our leadership, board, partners and stakeholders,” Hernandez says.  

Nushin Huq is a Houston-based freelance journalist. She has worked as a reporter covering energy markets and regulation, business and government – both federal and state.