The Little Housing Program That Could

Blog Post
Dec. 5, 2013

Editor's note: This piece originally appeared on New America's Weekly Wonk. Learn more about Helen Seide and other successful graduates of Montgomery County's Housing Opportunities Commission Family Self-Sufficiency program in this video.

It should’ve been a fresh start for Helen Seide. It was 2001, and she had finally escaped her abusive marriage. But as her relationship dissolved, her finances, too, collapsed like a house of cards: Seide, suddenly a single working parent with three young daughters, couldn’t afford her rent and lost her apartment. A hotel became their temporary home as Seide struggled to support her family on her earnings as a hospital secretary. But the late shifts were hard to balance with her children’s day care. Her paychecks shrank. They needed help.

After months in the hotel, followed by another two years in transitional housing, that help came. A voucher for rental assistance allowed her family to move to their own apartment in Montgomery County, Maryland—a first step on their move out of poverty. Today, Seide is a proud homeowner with a stable job as a medical coder. Her oldest, now 17, is on track to attend college next year.

Yet, success stories like Seide’s are rare. This is because many rental assistance programs are so focused on meeting the immediate needs of families that they may neglect longer-term goals – like helping families transition out of the program. In some instances, program regulations even hinder the progress of residents – discouraging them from earning a higher income or from building up the savings.

So, why was Seide’s experience so different? Her rental assistance voucher was connected to a tiny, under-the-radar program with the potential to transform the American housing system: The Family Self-Sufficiency Program, or FSS. The FSS program has received only sporadic attention from Congress, but it’s time policymakers took notice: After all, the FSS program is positioned to address one of the thorniest problems of our housing system ­– one that’s spawned in part by the very programs intended to support struggling families.

Read the rest of the piece on the Weekly Wonk and check out the accompanying policy paper on the FSS program.