VASH Survey Summary

April 2010

 

Preliminary Survey Results:

CLPHA Members’ Experiences with HUD-VASH

 

Background

 Almost 80% of CLPHA’s members have received HUD-Veterans’ Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) vouchers over the past two years.  Collectively, these awards total approximately 7,300 vouchers, or 35% of the HUD-VASH vouchers awarded.  Most CLPHA members administering VASH have a small allocation relative to their total Housing Choice Voucher program—about one-third have only 35 VASH vouchers, with another 40% having 70 or 105 vouchers.  A few—Houston, Los Angeles City, New York City—received substantially larger allocations.

CLPHA recently asked its members to complete a survey on their services for special populations (veterans, the homeless, ex-offenders).  As of March 24, 2010, we had received responses from 32 PHAs, 28 of which administer VASH vouchers.  This report is based on those responses.

General Response to the Program

Though PHAs have faced significant challenges in getting the HUD-VASH program off of the ground, the vast majority of survey respondents have found ways to build a successful relationship with their VAMC counterparts and make the program work.  Most of those still struggling are agencies that did not receive an allocation in 2008, and so are still working out their relationship with the VAMC. There are limited exceptions related to particular VAMCs and/or their particular program staff. 

While none of the PHAs would claim that the program is now perfect, the answer to the question of interest in additional VASH voucher allocations was a resounding “yes!”  Agencies cited the tremendous need for this program in their communities and a desire to make good use of the infrastructure capacity and relationships they have been putting in place.  In Denver and Jersey City, developers have been expressing interest in partnering with the PHA to create supportive housing for veterans using project-based VASH vouchers.

The administration’s budget justifications for 2011 does not request funds for the VASH program, stating an intent to “focus its efforts on the administration of previously appropriated amounts.” It notes that though additional allocations were made in 2009 and 2010, the FY2008 allocation of VASH vouchers was not yet fully leased as of November 2009.  Survey responses explained the reasons for the slow lease-up process, and offered insights into how PHAs are working to improve the program and help more people more quickly.

Challenges with the VA—Referral Rates and Communication Concerns

 In order to issue VASH vouchers, PHAs must receive referrals from their partner VAMC.  Virtually every respondent to our survey noted the lengthy VA hiring process as one of the primary challenges of administering the program.  The VA can take as long as six months from the time of award to staff the VASH case manager position(s), after which referrals still start off slowly as new staff orient themselves to the program. Several agencies first awarded vouchers in July 2009 (Cambridge, New Bedford) were not able to say anything about VASH implementation as their VAMC is just finishing their hiring process.

Denver suggests that the slow hiring process gave them time to develop protocols and communication mechanisms.  Where communication channels exist to make this possible, that may be the case. Pre-award communication between the Houston Housing Authority and VAMC allowed that program to succeed from the very beginning. 

Still, most agencies have been frustrated with the slowness with which they began to receive referrals.  In Minneapolis, the PHA sent staff to the VA to conduct intake appointments and briefings to offset the slow referral process.  In DC, the PHA has trained VAMC staff and their partners on what documentation clients need to receive a voucher.  The PHA (DC?) can now issue a voucher in response to most referrals instead of having to turn applicants away because of inadequate paperwork. 

Experiences vary with regard to whether the VA staffing challenge improves with regard to a second allocation of vouchers.  Boston reports that the VA was able to get case managers in place much more quickly when they received their second award; King County, on the other hand, found that it still took six months to get through the process.

Once VA staff is in place, communications concerns often remain.  Neither the VA nor the PHA has expertise in each others’ protocols and most have found that the best way to address that challenge is to teach each other how to speak each other’s languages.  Almost every agency that reported a positive and productive relationship with their VAMC spoke of regular meetings—usually weekly or biweekly, though sometimes less frequent—with all relevant staff people as key to making the program work. They stressed the importance of open, ongoing, and structured communication. 

Several also found it useful to establish clear points of contact at the PHA and at the VA. For example, the Housing Authority of the County of Los Angeles (HACoLA) provided a thorough training on its processes and forms and reviewed the Homeless Definition with the VAMC to ensure they referred clients that met that definition.  HACoLA also asked the VAMC to designate a limited number of contacts to communicate with HACoLA,  decreasing the number of phone calls and inquiries from multiple VA case managers.  This helps HACoLA and the VA to better streamline their communication process.    

Aside from not knowing PHA protocols, many VA case managers do not have experience assisting clients with housing searches.  Several PHAs (e.g., DC, Kansas City, HACoLA) have found that sharing their familiarity with the housing available to voucher-holders has helped increase their rate of leasing.  DC, for example, maintains a list of pre-inspected, rent-reasonable units available to VASH voucher holders.  In both DC and Oakland, the VA contracts with local agencies that have more expertise in housing search assistance.

 Milwaukee raised serious concerns about inadequacy of administrative fees to enable PHAs to put in the effort needed to maintain all of this extra collaborative communication.  HACoLA also notes the financial difficulty of bearing the upfront cost of implementing the program and performing the work essential to leasing eligible clients before the PHA actually receives payment.

Participant Barriers to Securing Housing

The greatest barriers that participants face in securing housing with their VASH vouchers are those faced by many voucher holders in general: outstanding utility bills, security deposits, and application fees. Akron has utilized the connections built by participating in their local Continuum of Care to find help for their participants with resolving past-due utility balances.  San Diego is using Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Rehousing Program (HPRP) funds to address the security deposit challenge.  With permission and support from their partner jurisdictions (the City and County), the Housing Authority of Portland used some Payment In Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) funds  they had in reserve to create a deposit assistance fund to pay deposits on initial leases.  Once these funds were made available, the average number of days it took for veterans to lease up decreased by 25%, and an additional 38% leased in under 60 days. 

The challenge of securing housing with a criminal—particularly felony—record, while common to all voucher holders, is especially prominent in the VASH program because of its minimal screening.  In areas such as Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Camden, Kansas City, San Antonio, and King County, criminal backgrounds are the most serious barrier to participants’ securing housing.  In some cases, working through this challenge is seen as under the purview of the VA case managers.  In Cincinnati, both VA and PHA staff work to talk to landlords and explain that VASH voucher holders received ongoing case management services. In Minneapolis, a larger marketing campaign explaining the program has mitigated the difficulties and helped landlords become more willing to participate. In San Antonio, the PHA helps the VA connect with apartment locator agencies that are able to find units for which these participants are eligible.  King County is working with property management companies contracted at some of their KCHA-owned properties to develop alternative screening criteria to apply to VASH and other special program vouchers.   

Attempts to Project-Base VASH Vouchers

About half of the survey respondents would like to project-base some VASH vouchers to provide additional housing opportunities and more effectively deliver services.  Several have encountered serious resistance from their VA counterparts to this idea.  Camden (VA?) has concerns about their ability to maintain a sufficient waiting, given the rate of referrals from the VA.  King County and Akron have concerns about how the exit voucher requirement is applied to VASH.  Albany is at its project-based cap and so has no option to project-base VASH vouchers, despite the fact that they may have different reasons for doing so than for project-basing their general purpose vouchers.  Some (Kansas City, DC) face similar barriers they run into with project-basing in general: NIMBY and availability of suitable properties where project-basing is financially feasible.

Still, some agencies are beginning to find ways to make project-basing work.  The Akron Housing Authority took the lead in establishing a team to participate in the Corporation for Supportive Housing's Supportive Housing Institute (October 2009/March 2010).  The hope is to project-base six HUD-VASH vouchers from a tenant-based HUD-VASH pool instead of using a separate application process.  These units will all have owner-paid utilities, and management will be flexible in payment of the security deposit.  The agency's role was to serve as a catalyst to develop the team, and will administer vouchers.  Partners from the community who participated in the Institute will develop, manage and provide services.  Chicago has a project-based HAP contract in process, with execution anticipated by April 30, 2010.

Other Issues for Consideration

Several agencies raised concerns for which they cannot independently implement solutions.

Chicago, for example, has encountered difficulty with determining how to deal with remaining household members when the family member who qualified for VASH is no longer a household member, or is temporarily absent.  They are discussing this issue with the VA and are considering various solutions.

New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) finds itself in a bind that could be a problem for any agency close to its authorized cap.  The agency is over-leased in its general HCV program, but is obligated to issue a VASH voucher upon receiving a referral.  Because they cannot hold VASH vouchers back, they have no way to manage their program back under their cap.  NYCHA does not want to hold VASH vouchers back. They believe that since HUD-VASH is a separate program with separate funding, its voucher utilization should also be separate from the rest of the HCV program.

 Several agencies expressed concerns about portability in this program.  Cincinnati mentioned that some of the PHAs receiving VASH ports have no knowledge of the VASH program requirements.  Further, it is hard to get some of them to bill the original agency, a program requirement.   Milwaukee noted that participants who want to port their VASH assistance outside of the VAMC service area have experienced significantly longer search times, as their case management services do not extend outside of the VA service area.     

The survey is still open to PHAs who have not yet responded.  Please  feel free to contact Leah Staub to discuss your experience with the VASH program and suggestions for structural improvements.