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As with any new endeavor, partnerships between housing authorities, education systems, and other entities are works in progress. Even collaborators who have been working together for some time are still encountering obstacles, learning lessons, and making changes to their practices. “This is a new effort that both institutions are engaged in and are attempting to forge,” Andrew Lofton said of the work between the Seattle Housing Authority, which he leads, and Seattle Public Schools. “And in that newness, as in anything, there are just lots of challenges, lots of things you don’t know that you run into that are surprises, and lots of differences because the institutions work in their own field in lots of different ways.” It has taken time, he said, to get a sense of how day-to-day operational issues will be reflected in the policy work, since SHA and Seattle Public Schools bring different perspectives to the work. Lofton raised a point also echoed by Janet Gates-Cortez, of the Tacoma School District—before partners can learn lessons from each other, first they need to learn to speak the same language. That doesn’t just mean utterances, acronyms, and terms of art, but also the core ideas of how another field works. Michael Mirra of the Tacoma Housing Authority concurred: “We learned school districts and housing authorities, in some ways, are their own tribes, with their own language, and that was a difficulty.” Jan Wichert of VHA echoed the concern about squaring two different organizations’ approaches and cultures. “Where it got a little difficult was when it got down to the nitty-gritty, and we realized that our system is less flexible than we thought it was, as is the school system,” she said. “When it got difficult was probably months into it, when we would come up against roadblocks. And that’s where our relationship with the partners that we work with and the idea of really keeping our eye on the common goal mattered so much.”

Learning New Languages

One example of a language barrier is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), a law that education officials know intimately but that is less familiar to housing staff. Lofton said navigating FERPA has been a challenge for his staff. “We spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to get information [from schools] in a way that would protect the privacy rights that people had to do, but also would give us some data to say, ‘Here’s what’s going on.’ And that’s proven to be very, very delicate.” Fortunately, SHA worked out data agreements with the school system that allow the housing authority to collect good metrics. “It has been revealing to us of how our students are doing, and what are some of the challenges they’re having, and what are some of the things that we can actually do about that from a housing authority perspective?” Because the school district and the housing authority each have their own rules on the sharing of data, “It sometimes feels like the KGB and the CIA exchanging information, and having to puzzle out all of the barriers for that,” Mirra said. “My general advice in drafting those kinds of agreements is do not start with the lawyers.” It has taken time, but housing and education entities in the Pacific Northwest—and many other communities across the U.S.—have data-sharing agreements with partners that satisfy these important requirements of protecting students and families, while also obtaining consistent, accurate information that’s actionable. 

Melanie Green, the administrator of Title I engagement and family and community resource centers with Evergreen Public Schools in Vancouver, also mentioned a few disconnects the partners had to consider. Most important was the definition of homelessness for Section 8 voucher referrals: the Vancouver Housing Authority had used the HUD definition, while the schools relied on the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act definition. “Making sure that we had a clear understanding of what homeless was and how it’s defined and making sure systems aligned—that was a challenge we had to overcome and have communication on, but we came to an agreement,” she said. Wichert echoed that concern. “When it came time to share data in a way that was productive, it just took a lot of work,” because of VHA and the school system’s different “homelessness” definition. “But we worked through it and have had enough successes now that when we hit a bump we figure there’s going to be a way around it, we just need to figure it out."

Serving Voucher Families

One challenge specifically faced by housers is choosing between place-based and mobility approaches—whether to bring programs to housing sites or to help families move to areas with better services, and how to do both well. At King County, for example, “We feel very strongly that those approaches need to be balanced, and we invest in both,” said Megan Hyla. “It’s important to us that our families have the choice to live in a good school district. If they choose to live next to grandma and auntie in a not-so-great school district that’s their choice as well. As long as those families truly have that choice, that’s where we believe that our residents are going to make the best decisions for them.” But that makes it incumbent for KCHA to ensure its collaboration with local schools is compatible with both approaches.

Some of the challenges involve agencies’ tendencies to favor certain traditional priorities—in the case of housing authorities, focusing on the essentials of providing safe, affordable housing. “It’s hard to get your head up and look at that really big, broader picture,” Hyla said. While this widening of perspective has become natural to KCHA, Hyla imagines it would be a challenge for other housing authorities. “Housing and education is such a big issue and big challenge for so many of our communities that it can become overwhelming very quickly, and so when you’re tackling one overwhelming problem, and then add in another, it can feel a little bit—it can feel like mission creep in some ways, and it can kind of make you question your agency direction.” –  Megan Hyla, KCHA“Housing and education is such a big issue and big challenge for so many of our communities that it can become overwhelming very quickly,” she said. “And so when you’re tackling one overwhelming problem, and then add in another, it can feel a little bit—it can feel like mission creep in some ways, and it can kind of make you question your agency direction.”

Housing authorities also think about how these partnerships can benefit families whom they do not directly house but provide with Housing Choice Vouchers (also known as Section 8 vouchers). Providing programming to developments owned and operated by the housing provider is one of the first reasons to partner with a housing entity: It reduces barriers like transportation, safety, and comfort levels for families to participate. But those families aren’t the entire population being served. Because place-based initiatives happen at public housing sites, it’s easy for families utilizing Section 8 vouchers to be left out. In Portland, Rachel Langford said Home Forward has trouble intervening with voucher participants. “Outside of the administration of the voucher we have really limited ways to touch those families, and that’s something we’re really working to solve because two thirds of the students who are receiving our assistance are receiving it through the Housing Choice Voucher program,” she said. “So in our mind, if we’re really going to make progress in our goal of helping change the trajectory of kids growing up in our housing, and doing our part to disrupt intergenerational poverty, we’ve really got to figure out how it can meaningfully work with our voucher families.” Cara Ianni brought up the same concern: “A lot of what we do on our sites is really hard to translate to a diffused population of voucher holders, so that makes it challenging.”

Still, housing authorities are making strides in serving their voucher families. While it is certainly harder to connect with this population, housing authorities still have access to those families to promote improved educational outcomes. At the very least, a housing authority will connect with a family during the annual recertification process, where many housing authorities use that time to talk about the importance of attendance or get families connected to resources, like free or very low-cost internet. In Tacoma, Mirra had his staff use that time to ensure residents were signing up for and therefore eligible to take advantage of Washington state’s College Bound Scholarship, a program that pays for students to attend public in-state college as long as they met some basic requirements—and, importantly for THA—as long as they sign up by the end of 8th grade. “When we started this, for lack of that miserable bit of paper shuffling, by the end of the 8th grade, almost half the children in the state and Tacoma were missing out on this transforming promise,” Mirra said. “When we understood that, we thought to ourselves, “we’re paper shuffling. That’s what we do. Every year we do paper shuffling with all our families. We make them sign these certification forms, leases, new leases, applications, blood oaths, and we resolved to sign up 100 percent of our 8th graders every year—and we have gotten it done, now, several years in a row, by taking the College Bound Scholarship paper shuffle, putting it at the bottom of our paper shuffle, and taking advantage of the law of nature. That a normal human person on this planet’s surface who has just signed four pieces of paper is probably willing to sign a fifth. And that was a very good experience for us, that a housing authority is able to be influential at a relatively low cost.”

Throughout the rest of the year, many housing authorities send out paper mailings, emails, and text messages, and post flyers in frequented locales. To improve kindergarten registration, Home Forward used posters, flyers, mailers, and staff knocking on doors to reach families that school districts had helped them to identify who had a child eligible for kindergarten and for which school. The housing authority was able to compare the registration from that year with the previous year where there was no outreach and saw “a really remarkable gain,” Langford said. “It was also was a real foot in the door for our partners, for them to see how we could be effective in this broader community campaign.” The following year, Home Forward residents had even greater registration and ended up raising the rates by over 14 percent, which was more than the biggest school district’s results for children not housed by Home Forward. In King County, staff send out mailings, make calls, utilize social media, do outreach to community venues, and have now added a line on applications asking residents about their preferred methods of communication, Robson and Ianni said. This is where partnerships, like those with community centers of libraries, can be especially useful. Many housing authorities also enlist residents to help with efforts, like Seattle and Vancouver Housing Authorities’ walking school buses, which escort children to school by establishing safe and effective walking routes through neighborhoods; often residents—even those without children—volunteer to be part of the initiatives. And with data sharing, some housing authorities are able to use partially disaggregated or completely individualized data to tailor services for specific families, regardless of whether or not they are public housing or Section 8 residents.

  • I think the biggest challenge is that public school systems are so beleaguered and so under siege in terms of lack of resources and other challenges they’re dealing with, that it’s sometimes hard to get their attention or keep them focused.

    Stephen Norman

    Executive Director, King County Housing Authority

Data and Metrics

Sometimes, the paperwork that undergirds partnerships can create alarming amounts of work. While many large housing authorities’ geographic reaches encompass one school district, for some their bounds include many school districts, which can make data sharing much more challenging. “One of the things that we struggle with is that we think of how much time and bandwidth it takes to put into data sharing with one school district,” said Sarah Oppenheimer of KCHA. “For a regional housing authority such as KCHA where we have 19 school districts, the thought of how we would ever staff 19 data sharing agreements is a little baffling. So I think one of the things that we’ve been thinking is ‘there’s got to be a better way,’ right?”

Sharing data and metrics with partners can be difficult, but the Innovation Team also had the idea that sharing regionally would increase the field’s knowledge and help with efforts on a broader level. However, sharing that data wasn’t easy because the various organizations used different software programs to examine the data, as well as different metrics. “In the case of King County they have so many school districts, so that’s pretty significantly different as well, and then Portland is in a different state, ” Black said, Right now, she added, the partnership is trying to get access to statewide data and possibly work with a different evaluator.

Assessing the overall success of a partnership is its own, significant challenge. There are many quantitative ways to do that, like looking at graduation rates or attendance patterns. More difficult is finding a process to successfully evaluate qualitative factors. “One of the things in particular that we’re interested in understanding is really the evolution of the partnerships, and seeing what changes over time,” research analyst David Forte of KCHA said. “So we’re doing intentional pauses to have a conversation with district partners, with program partners, and asking specific questions in a repetitive sense to see what changes over time they’ve noticed as kind of the people on the ground doing the work with the school district, with the kids, with the teachers.” The purpose of this process is to document and understand what makes an effective partnership between a housing authority and a school district.


And then there’s the issue of recognizing whether an experiment or initiative is ultimately cost-effective. “I think part of the challenge for education initiatives and for any innovation agency—or any of our programs within our agency—is figuring out when is the data enough to say, ‘We either need to really make a pivot in this program or we need to discontinue this?'” said Oppenheimer. It’s not clear what the right answer is, but she said what matters is that you have the right data and partners to make the right call. “Getting us to a place where we feel like, ‘This wasn’t working, we piloted it, we learned from it, so it’s really useful in that regard, but we’re going to go in a different direction,’ those are hard learnings, and I mean, to be frank, I don’t know that we’ve completely mastered that. But I think we’re working towards it.”

The greatest challenge of all may be finding ways to continually improve these partnerships. “What’s the way for housing authorities and school districts, once they decide what a highly effective partnership looks like, what’s the process and strategy going to be to continually come together and talk and to meet so that there is continuous growth occurring in the partnership, [so] it’s not a stagnant thing?” asked Ted Dezember. Systems-level change is fundamentally different than a housing authority or school system’s usual focus on discrete tasks, said Matthew Gulbranson of PSESD: “A lot of times, what can happen is that if you have certain deliverables with certain projects, with certain grants, with certain funders, it tends to silo you, and it tends to put a focus on your project that is kind of contained.” Translating that mindset into more expansive work “is problematic when you’re trying to do bigger, regional work,” he added. “Systems change takes a long time, and a lot of funding is short periods of time. So there’s a lot of tension that happens in that.”

Sustainability of effort will always be one of the weightiest tasks for partnerships. “How do you institutionalize these relationships?” asked Stephen Norman. “Because you have turnover with principals, you have turnover with superintendents, and that’s why you just have to continually document and engage with everybody in the school district so that this becomes, on both the housing authority side and the school district side, an understanding that having good, stable housing is as important as having a school bus system in terms of actually getting kids to school. On the flip-side, within the housing authority, we look at the challenge of how do we put this into the housing authority’s DNA, and that is communicating and communicating and communicating with staff what is the ultimate goal here, which is around the success of these children.”