Partnerships bring great value to housing authorities, school systems, and other organizations, but they also require investment—not just of time, but often of money.
The funding part of the equation certainly doesn’t need to be there at the outset, interviewees stressed. “Informal partnerships” can generate a lot of good, Courtney Cameron, then of the Seattle Housing Authority, said. “There are conversations that happen together at City Hall, identifying the fact that many students are shared whether there’s a data-sharing agreement or not, understanding that a majority of students attend a particular school in a particular community, that it may be a good idea to invite a principal into a community, it may be a good idea to work with residents of a community to help interview teachers that may be hired at a particular school,” she said, adding that that kind of collaboration can happen “regardless of funding. I think that requires a relationship, it requires time, it requires commitment, it requires listening to students, families, and residents, and understanding needs.”
Making these informal strides can matter a lot for securing funding once a partnership is ready to grow. “I think once people get started, there are more opportunities for funding,” said Vancouver City Councilmember Alishia Topper. “So if you can get by with a staff and the resources you have, and you get something established, it’s very appealing for community partners to step in and support your work. So it’s really just taking that first baby step.”
A more formalized partnership generally involves things like data sharing, which binds both halves of a partnership in a multi-year commitment. While organizations don’t necessarily need extra funding to make those agreements work, having additional positions focused on that area can help a great deal. “I think the commitment of foundation funds to support the position I fill over multiple years is a huge advantage,” Cameron said, “and likewise the School District knowing that Kathlyn [Paananen, Education and Housing Manager, Seattle Public Schools] is able to invest time and build a relationship, and connecting with schools, and knowing there is stability with her position allows her to move quickly and get time and attention from leadership across the district.” Having these extra positions, Cameron said, allows for more bandwidth to innovate and move quickly.
In a resource-constrained environment, housing authorities have to be nimble in finding the funding to dedicate to partnerships. One piece of the puzzle is the Moving to Work designation, which allows housing authorities some flexibility in how they use their federal funds. King County’s Stephen Norman said his organization has sought out “efficiencies in what we can accomplish in other areas of the operation,” which has freed up money for partnerships. “Some of [the funding] comes from the schools—although the schools have difficulty freeing up a lot of money for things that happen outside of the four walls,” he said. There have also been other federal grant opportunities, he continued: “We were part of a regional application by seven of the school districts in South King County, which is the poor end of the county, that received a $40 million Race to the Top grant from the federal government, and I think the fact that the schools and housing authority were partnering and targeting schools within the region that were serving a lot of low-income kids strengthened the application.”
A similar mix of funding can be found in Vancouver. “We’ve used our existing staff and we’ve utilized the school’s existing staff, so one I’d talk about with other housing authorities is looking at the infrastructure you have and what you can do with that,” said VHA’s Jan Wichert. “Truly, mostly what we’ve accomplished has been accomplished with the staff we have and the structure that we have.” On top of that, though, the Vancouver partnership has received funding through foundations like the Community Foundation of Southwest Washington. Vancouver also passed a levy that will provide housing funding. “So that’s new funding, but that’s very difficult, it’s quite an accomplishment to get it done,” said Wichert. Still, she stressed that these extra streams supplement what is already a robust program: “What I’d think about for other housing authorities is, take a look at what you got before you decide that you need a lot of extra. It doesn’t need to be fancy, you know, and you can do quite a bit with what you already have.”
Housing authorities everywhere have hard decisions to make: What is the best way to serve resident needs now and in the future? In Tacoma, Michael Mirra has said he believes every housing dollar spent is not just for putting someone in a dwelling, but to support a myriad of other goals—education included. That’s why the Tacoma Housing Authority has made the decision to dedicate some of its resources to its partnership with Tacoma schools.
Still, there thankfully has been an influx of foundation funding in recent years, one that interviewees acknowledge is unique to that part of the country. “We’re fortunate that the Pacific Northwest division of [the Bill and Melinda] Gates [Foundation] understands the local context and the urgency around the crisis of housing affordability in our city,” Cameron said. “So I think that there’s a true commitment to this region and thinking about innovation and new ways of thinking about how to address this issue that has become even more urgent and even more visible in different ways.”
Interviewees said that foundation funding was useful for jumpstarting innovative projects—and is now helping them grow their partnerships into sustainable arms of their overall work. Jenn Ramirez Robson described that evolution: “One of the shifts that I think I’ve seen with the Gates funding for the housing and education partnerships is it’s gone from funding discreet programs and saying, ‘Well, partner on that and we’ll call that a housing and education partnership,’ to saying ‘Well, what would it take to really interweave what you do together so that when this particular set of funding goes away that it just becomes part of your DNA that you’re going to partner and work together.’”
One outgrowth of the involvement of the Gates Foundation has been the investment in a series of convenings with housers, schools, and related groups organized by topic, such as adverse childhood experiences and attendance. After the initial meetings participants have had continuing conversations. KCHA’s Ted Dezember is glad to see these interactions happen. “They’re all working on the same thing, they’re doing it differently, and they’re coming together to share their learning, and approaches,” he said. “There’s things happening specifically in their own school and strategies have been shared. And that’s a direct by-product of hearing that presentation, and thinking about that model, and how that might be applicable to some of our schools.”
While some interviewees said foundation money has helped spur their collaborative work, they are committed to trying to continue work even if investments recede. Andrew Lofton said SHA would continue to do the work regardless. But as budget cuts for education and housing deepens, it is difficult for organizations to fund efforts. “Currently right now, we’re in a tough situation,” Brent Jones of Seattle Public Schools said. He added that because the state has been facing a budget deficit and hasn’t funded the school district, “We have a 74-million-dollar gap. Ideally, we’d like to continue that [partnership] work, ideally we’d try to repurpose funds to support this work, because we know that the student population is super important, to provide those services. But without that funding from sources like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, it’s going to be difficult for us to continue. Seattle Housing Authority has also been a partner in providing funding, so we need to sustain that. So that’s our biggest piece right now, to sustain our current funding. We’ll try to be creative in finding ways to do some fund development to enhance our programs, but right now our focus is on sustaining what we have.”
Making the case to local officials can also be important, interviewees stressed. “We have a really strong relationship with the city of Seattle,” said Jones. “The Department of Education and Early Learning is a key partner for us. They have provided us funding for different items, the mayor has been gracious in trying to provide a revenue source for us. He recently had a summit, a mayor’s summit, where he brought together all the different sectors around supporting education and from that summit we’re hopeful that he’s going to provide some more funding for us. We have a very generous citizenry. They pass levies consistently. So, some of those funds are supportive of all the work we’re trying to do as well.”
While the housing authorities and school systems of the Pacific Northwest are now strong believers in cross-sector partnerships, they admitted the idea may not be obviously worthy of investment to officials elsewhere. In part that’s because this work takes many years to see definitive results. “Until there’s solid evidence, until there’s absolutely some rewards that we can point to say, ‘This has been successful and here’s what it has done,’ it will be a challenge for people to want to divert resources to this. And that’s fair,” Lofton said. “But if you believe in supporting your residents, if you believe in creating a path to self-sufficiency, I think this is something one has to take a look at.” Part of the point of the Seattle partnership, he said, is to demonstrate the value of such undertakings.