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Tacoma Community College

Tacoma Community College, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

Officials at Tacoma Community College knew they had a problem when they surveyed students four years ago and learned that nearly 100 of them reported being homeless or near homeless.

The survey underscored what, at the time, was becoming a crisis for the region. The IT boom in Seattle had driven demand for housing to accommodate new workers moving to the area. Rental housing costs and home sale prices shot up.

Residents priced out of the Seattle housing market were willing to pay for rentals about 40 miles south in Tacoma. Meanwhile, Tacoma property managers increased their prices and welcomed the demand from former Seattle residents who could afford the higher rates, said Marybeth McCarthy, who oversees the college's student housing program.

“We had mass migration to Tacoma and Pierce County,” she said. "Tacoma rent went up and displaced people. Our folks that were struggling became homeless, and the City of Tacoma declared a state of emergency.”

The college administrators searched for ways to help students with housing problems and found a unique solution. They partnered with the Tacoma Housing Authority and started the College Housing Assistance Program in 2014.

The program provides federal rental assistance vouchers to students who are homeless or are at risk of becoming homeless because they can't pay their rent and utilities. The program served about 50 students,76 percent of them with children, in the first year it started. It now provides vouchers for about 150 students annually.

Erica Anthony, 35, a sophomore and full-time student studying information technology, said the voucher helped her find stable housing in the Tacoma area. Before she applied for the program, she and her two children lived with family members in a small apartment.

"Trying to support all three of us and go to school was increasingly difficult," Anthony said. "I struggled a little bit trying to find a place to accept the voucher, but once I did, it made it possible for us to move to a safe, clean and not dangerous place. It's amazing what that does for your state of mind and ability to concentrate."

The housing authority covers the costs of the voucher, which provides about half of the monthly price of a rental unit based on household size. The average monthly rental assistance from the housing authority is $460.29.  Anthony said she gets a $570 monthly voucher and her rent is about $1,300 a month.

“Our job is not only to house people but to do it in a way that helps them and their children succeed,” said Michael Mirra, executive director of the Tacoma Housing Authority.

The College Housing Assistance Program is just one of 15 education projects the housing authority operates to help the public schools and colleges in the region succeed at graduating students, Mirra said. He noted that Tacoma educational institutions serve a large population of low-income students.

“Students who grow up deep in poverty bring challenges through the schoolhouse door, and the best-trained teacher cannot overcome those challenges on their own. Housing instability and homelessness are at the top of the list.”

Students in the voucher program must be enrolled in credit-bearing courses and maintain a 2.0 grade point average. They also must meet the housing authority's eligibility standards for income and residency. Although part-time students can enroll in the program, they must become full-time by their third quarter in college.

The voucher is also available to students who are “near homeless,” which means they may be staying with relatives or friends, living in a motel temporarily, or have received an eviction notice from their current landlord.

McCarthy gets weekly updates of rental prices in the area through popular sites like Zillow. In the past month, one-bedroom apartments were priced at about $1,100 a month, she said. She gives every student who requests a voucher a list of rental properties that may accept them and the voucher.

“Rents are cooling now,” McCarthy said. “I’m seeing more studios for under $1,000. They may not be in the best locations, and that’s what gets tricky. Cheaper apartments are in places that don’t have bus routes, and then we get into a transportation crunch.”

Tacoma is one of many colleges across the country trying to help the neediest students reach graduation by removing housing and transportation barriers and other obstacles such as not having enough to eat. Tacoma Community College officials, along with those from City Colleges of Chicago and the Chicago Housing Authority, were among the more than 550 faculty, college presidents, foundations and students who attended the second annual Real College conference at Temple University in Philadelphia last month to address student poverty on campuses across the country.

“Our focus is to work with the residents we currently have and help them become self-sufficient by completing a degree,” said Cassie Lynn Brooks, an education specialist with the Chicago Housing Authority.

The housing authority partnership with City Colleges of Chicago, called Partners in Education, is slightly different from the one in Tacoma. The Chicago Housing Authority provides scholarships to housing authority residents to cover tuition, books and fees not covered by other state or federal aid.

Last year, 604 housing authority residents enrolled in the city’s two-year college system; 70 percent enrolled in an associate-degree program.

Brooks said many of the residents tried to attend college in the past but never completed.

The Chicago and Tacoma housing agencies can partner with their local community colleges thanks to their designations as Moving to Work authorities. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Moving to Work program allows 39 housing agencies across the country to use federal dollars to help residents find employment and become self-sufficient.

Mirra said the HUD program does not provide more funding to the agencies but allows them to be more flexible and innovative with the money they receive. In 2015, Congress approved 100 additional public housing agencies to receive the Moving to Work designation over the next seven years.

“We’re buying up apartment complexes around the campus and renting those units to homeless TCC students,” Mirra said. “We’re also contacting private owners of another complex to reserve units.”

But even with the voucher, there are other financial obligations, such as rental deposits and screening fees, that may hinder homeless students.

Anthony, the Tacoma student in the program, said that because she was using the voucher to rent an apartment, she wasn't viewed as an "ideal applicant" by her landlord, and so her deposit was double the normal amount. Anthony sought additional help through the housing authority for a grant that partially covered her deposit.

McCarthy and the Tacoma housing authority have been in conversations with housing managers and are trying to find solutions to these problems. For example, they've asked housing managers to consider allowing students to hold off on paying a deposit and first month’s rent up front and instead let them make those payments based on when they’re awarded financial aid.

McCarthy said she’s also talking to students about how they’re going to pay the portion of their rent not covered by the voucher. Mirra said the housing authority does not fully cover the cost of rent for students in the program because not doing so allows more students to be served through the program.

These students are receiving federal financial aid and may receive the state’s need-based aid, which provides $1,200 a quarter, she said.

Some students end up not using the rent vouchers after receiving them because of other challenges in their lives.

As of August, 14 vouchers expired before students could lease housing, 16 students stopped attending the institution and three students had criminal histories that prevented them from signing a lease, according to Tacoma Community College data.

Students may not pass the rental property’s screening process or the property may not have passed inspection with the housing authority.

“One of the realizations and the hard truth is that the housing vouchers don’t solve homelessness,” McCarthy said. “About one-third to half of them end up using the vouchers effectively. We still have a large number of vouchers come back unused. So, we’re trying to address those barriers.”

Mirra said the housing authority is open to more partnerships with other colleges, but for now, they're focused on the relationship with TCC and expanding it to provide immediate housing assistance to incarcerated students once they are released.

"We expect the other colleges would have a similar experience with a similar survey, so we are alert for what kind of partnerships would make sense for other colleges," he said.

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