Forming A Partnership
Housing Authorities in the Pacific Northwest have long been held up for their work collaborating with other systems, but even they needed time to assemble these partnerships and make progress toward improving outcomes.
In 2008, the Vancouver Housing Authority (VHA) was already working closely with local governments and other community partners throughout Clark County to address issues of affordable housing and homelessness. And by 2013, VHA was working with Vancouver Public Schools as well as the Evergreen School District to support students experiencing homelessness. But it was a local crisis in December 2014, in which an apartment complex housing low-income families gave 150 residents 20-day notices to vacate, that truly spurred VHA to deepen its collaborations. At the time, Vancouver had a two percent housing vacancy rate and the highest rental increases in the nation. The agencies worked together to change city policies around eviction notices, and the housing authority was able to change some of its own policies, giving priority for assisted slots to homeless families with children in school. The school district reached out to VHA, and together they mobilized to find housing for the impacted families. The agencies worked together to change city policies around eviction notices and the housing authority was able to change some of its own policies around preferences for Section 8 vouchers (a long-term housing subsidy), giving priority for assisted slots to homeless families with children in school. “This would not have happened if we did not have trusted relationships with our housing partners, relationships that have been built on many difficult conversations that put children's needs at the center,” Tamara Shoup, the director of family engagement and family-community resource centers at Vancouver Public Schools, said.
Not all communities have such a watershed moment: partnerships that accomplish change usually do not form overnight. Indeed, VHA and their partners had already been working together for six years when they came together to tackle a pressing crisis. Seattle Housing Authority’s Andrew Lofton describes his organization’s partnership with Seattle Public Schools as “a long courtship in some respects.” They navigated some staffing changes at the district and nurtured conversations and interactions to build a relationship before the partnership “really took off,” Lofton said. Tacoma had some similar obstacles but was able to deploy data to show the school district that the two organizations served the same children and would be more effective in their efforts if they worked together. And for Home Forward, it has been about moving the work from episodic and individual pilots to an intentional agency-wide plan. “The focus of [our strategic process] is going to be on systems alignment and systems-level impact, and when I say that I mean getting beyond the sort of well-funded site-based work. Because, while that feels good and is a great success to point to, we have so many incredible examples—especially in Washington—of what all the ingredients of those programs are. For us, we really want to look at equity, and what’s scalable,” said Rachel Langford of Home Forward.
Is it best to start with a small goal or a big plan? To Ted Dezember, senior resident services manager for educational initiatives at KCHA, it made sense to begin the partnerships with an achievable, discrete goal and see what kind of long-term relationship could grow from there. “Our philosophy was if we can come together and decide on a problem and implement a program to address that problem, out of that we’ll build relationships and, you know, the partnership with the school district will get more robust as a result of that specific project that we wanted to do. So we did that.” The housing authority didn’t immediately articulate “our vision and mission of educational initiatives,” Dezember admitted. His organization had been involved in early learning programs and out-of-school activities but was more focused on individual outcomes rather than an overarching philosophy. Conversely, Seattle “took the approach to really use their money and do a lot of internal work, and really think critically about their role, and what they can do,” he said. “And now they’re at a spot where they’re like ‘OK, we’ve done all this, now we want to do stuff. We want to do programs,’ and we’re like, ‘We have this array of programs,’ and now we’ve done all that internal work.”
Director of Resident Services Jenn Ramirez Robson of KCHA also said she valued a gradual approach to building partnerships: “Once you figure out the right players, you figure out the right ins to creating the relationships. Sometimes it can be harder to break through, but once you do, you’re partners. There has been a feel of more collaboration and less competition—although that certainly occurs. People are more open to when there’s a benefit for making their own programs look successful. Then the turf issues seem to fade away.”
Who Should Be Your Partner?
When Michael Mirra became executive director of Tacoma Housing Authority, he said one of his first stops was to ask the school district how THA could help. From there, the two entities began discussions that led to the current partnership. The collaboration was certainly helped by Marilyn Strickland, Tacoma’s mayor from 2010 to 2018, who made the success of Tacoma’s schools a priority. King County Housing Authority started with superintendents, but because KCHA encompasses 19 school districts rather than just one (as many housing authorities match up with), KCHA also initially reached out to community partners with overlapping interests like Head Start. One of the resources housing authorities can often offer as an in-kind donation is space. In King County, Head Start needed additional space for classrooms, and that was easy for KCHA to provide and an easy way for the two entities to partner and pursue a joint goal of more opportunities for low-income children. “The approach really started with developing relationships with the leadership and understanding two things: One is that the partnership works best where we can truly, incredibly be perceived as value added by the school system, and by the parents,” KCHA Executive Director Stephen Norman said. Similarly, Seattle Housing Authority started by reaching out to Seattle Public Schools’ (SPS) superintendent, but did not immediately strike a partnership. Work started to move more quickly when a deputy superintendent became interested and began to champion the effort. With the partnership cemented, SPS has been able to replicate that work with other entities. The district works with the City of Seattle to appropriately implement tax levies meant to boost educational outcomes and ensure that investments happening in schools are supporting the city.
And in Portland, where encouragingly the community was already engaged in collective impact work around early childhood and school readiness, Home Forward saw who it wanted to partner with, but did not receive an immediate welcome. “It was great we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel, but we just had to sort of elbow our way in because we weren’t seen as an obvious education partner,” Langford said. The housing authority “kind of invited ourselves to those tables,” she said, and over time was able to take a leading role in the community on issues like attendance and early kindergarten registration. “Now that we’re at the right tables and have the right relationships, and are less in a place where we have to elbow our way in and more in a place where we’re being invited, that I believe that once we have more of those internal systems in place, it’s really going to flow,” Langford said.
Turning Collaborators Into Long-Term Partners
Part of the task is transforming informal relationships into formal ones. “I would say that, more or less, we’ve always had a partnership,” said Kisa Hendrickson, the chief engagement and partnership officer for Highline Public Schools. But in the case of King County, the formal crossover began when a coalition of community partners in the school district, including a community development organization and other groups, formed the White Center Promise. From that grew a collaboration between the school district and the King County Housing Authority, which allowed them to deepen support of students not meeting their education outcomes. “It’s been an evolution, but what’s been great is to see the partnership deepen through the years," Hendrickson noted.