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Unfamiliar territory

5 min read

Without realizing it, roughly 20 years ago American affordable housing drifted into its third new territory, and because its border isn’t demarcated, we’re wandering through it without a map.

In our first territory (1904-1945), affordable housing was an instrument of public health and safety – clearing out alleyways and slums to scrub away disease and crime. In the second (1949-1995), affordable housing was an American birthright – decent, safe and sanitary. Entering the third (1995-now), affordable housing is advocated as the platform for improving lives – because, as my friend Michelle Norris of National Church Residences has put it, “housing touches everything.” Economic poverty in America today is often a byproduct of other personal challenges (some internal, some externally imposed). To address them, affordable housing by itself may not be sufficient, but it is certainly necessary. Hence the rise of resident outcomes as part of affordable housing success, and place-based resident services as part of affordable housing delivery.

For us in housing, this is unfamiliar new territory, and though we are in it, so far we only poorly map it. To orient ourselves to resident outcomes, our industry needs to map them across five dimensions:

  1. The definition of success. Unless you can recognize it when you’re there, you’ll never find what you seek. In resident services, what is our goal? Our definition needs to be close enough to universal to encompass a wide range of people’s challenges. For myself, the definition is independence: Reduce each household or person’s current dependency or potential future dependency. Regardless of definition, success at the level of people or households brings us into unknown territory, because our two previous territories were and are predicated on the presumption of independence – the residents’ right to privacy, the lease principle that the home is inviolate without permission to enter.
  1. A theory of success-making. Even if you think you know where you are going, you need a plan to get there, and the plan must deal with the route you’ll take and the terrain you’ll traverse. Myriad are the types of dependency people suffer, myriad are the ways they fall into it – and unfortunately, dependency is often a stubborn and resourceful foe, especially as its root causes are often multiple and mixed differently in different people. To take but one example, the general cycle of poverty, dependency may be reinforced by lack of education, school situation, home situation, family stability, nutrition, language spoken at home, cultural shock, lack of role models or dozens more contributing causes. Just as resident service program designers must have some means of assessing the barriers to success, they should have a theory as to what journey will remove or surmount those barriers, how to sequence or combine them, and how to do them by coordinated activity from the service provider(s), the resident or her household and the owners or managers.
  1. Quantitative observable proxies for success. Success, like happiness, is an abstract concept, to be known by a person only from inside that person. Everyone else invested in that person’s success needs things we can observe: measurable indicators that we believe are proxies for our success. A smile, for example, is universal in human communication: speedily conveyed, instantly perceived and non-verbally reciprocal. Ideally, the more diverse the type of proxies, the better, because they can all be measured at the same time, and progress can be charted. If, in facilitating elderly independence, our objective is extending their healthspan, we need proxies that track (say) cognition, mobility, blood pressure, obesity, and social connectedness.

Because human beings are clever, these proxies must be:

  • Objective – the same regardless of who’s observing
  • Verifiable – documentable at the time, preferably with evidence
  • Replicable – so that skeptics who repeat later get the same results we observed

That leads into the next orientation dimension:

  1. The time domain to achieve success. Before you start a long journey, make sure you’ve committed to the whole route, are adequately provisioned and are ready for unexpected delays. Impacted populations who live in service-enriched housing face challenges that are complicated, deeply rooted and often externally reinforced. Gains won slowly can be lost swiftly. Beyond coordinated strategy using observable proxies, patience and continuity are keys: thus those spending money to help people – service providers, property managers, property owners – need funding streams they can count on for that whole interval. As these intervals are invariably longer than one election cycle – often longer than several election cycles – we financing wizards are called upon to create financial and contractual structures that take out economic or political insurance against the government counterparty risk.
  1. Trail markers for success. Challenging journeys take a long time, pass over changing terrain and change us on the journey. When the terrain is psychological, as in helping people toward independence, the person or household who is our traveling companion and change-making partner will also change, and those changes are part of making the future a success. Beyond objectively verifiable and replicable proxies for ultimate success, we also will need trail markers – proxies for the earlier stages of success. The high school diploma may be a great objective years off, so we need earlier progress milestones that foretell ultimate success – such as the attainment of third-grade reading comprehension by the finish of third grade.

All this is hard new stuff for housing professionals. Back in our previous comfortable territory, the land where all we had to do was provide decent, safe and sanitary housing, we didn’t need to know this, because our customer was independent. With customers who are less than fully independent they become critical. If we move in the resident services terrain without orienteering around these five dimensions, we are lost in the wilderness, not knowing what we’re seeking, how to get there, or even why we’re on the journey.

David A. Smith is founder and CEO of the Affordable Housing Institute, a Boston-based global nonprofit consultancy that works around the world (60 countries so far) accelerating affordable housing impact via program design, entity development and financial product innovations. Write him at dsmith@affordablehousinginstitute.org.