AFTER THE SPEECHES were over at a recent event, I walked over to say hello to one of state’s most prominent elected officials. He’s someone I have known for many years. As I approached, he smiled broadly and reached out his hand, saying, “Mayor, how are you?” After exchanging pleasantries, I asked for an opportunity to meet with him. I told him I needed a few minutes to tell him about our ABL program. Before I could complete my request, this middle-aged man did a perfect Michael Jackson 180-degree spin on his heels and was off. Without even looking over his shoulder, he said, “talk to [my aide],” and he was gone.
In nearly 40 years of elected and appointed office I had never, ever experienced such an abrupt brush-off. Here I was, the former four-term mayor of the city of Worcester, left standing with my mouth half open while this prominent official headed for the door. The mere mention of our ABL program had him running for cover.
ABL stands for A Better Life, a program started in 2011 and designed to get people in public housing back on their feet and off public assistance. While most of my discussions about the program with elected leaders haven’t ended quite so abruptly, almost all of them have ended with the elected official running for the door and cover.
What did I do to cause people to run away from me? Simply put, I tried to help lift families living in public housing out of poverty. By any measure, our current system of providing public housing is a failure (See “The failure of public housing assistance,” CW, Summer ’15). We conducted extensive in-person research and found that about 80 percent of our adult residents who live in family public housing are unemployed. We also found that 40 percent of our adult residents didn’t have a high school diploma or even a general equivalency degree and that more than 50 percent of our adults didn’t even have a driver’s license. Only in public housing would these statistics be tolerated.
Alarmingly, we found families who had been living in public housing for decades, some as long as five generations. For them, public housing had become a sort of perverse legacy handed down from one generation to the next. With each generation, self-sufficiency became less likely. We concluded the current system had been an abject failure in helping people escape public housing, so, with the support of the Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts, we set out to change the system.
Just about every elected official is in favor of helping to lift people out of poverty, but just tell them that you want to require able-bodied residents to go to work or attend school and they want no part of it—regardless of the results your program has achieved.
Our program’s results stand in stark contrast to the dysfunction of the current system. By requiring work or school, we have more than doubled the percentage of residents employed (from 35 to 75 percent), nearly tripled wages earned, and tripled the number of residents attending school or training programs. Our results have been confirmed by a Boston University School of Public Health study that has been monitoring our progress. That study also found that participants were 50 percent less likely to be the victim of domestic violence. These are statistics that any candidate can build an entire campaign around. Nevertheless, we struggled to find any politician willing to support us publicly. In fact, initially we couldn’t get anyone, Democrat or Republican, to write a simple letter of support to the federal Housing and Urban Development agency or the state Department of Housing and Community Development.
The reason for this reluctance appears to be an occupational unwillingness to make even a small group of voters angry. As a result of our work/school requirement, our program is opposed by a highly motivated group of housing advocates who believe that requiring work or school to receive a housing benefit is almost un-American. They ask fair questions. What if the resident doesn’t have day care or transportation? Our response is that the barriers to self-sufficiency that our residents face are very real. But that shouldn’t be an excuse to not even try. At a recent conference, one advocate stood up and said that it was wrong to require work and that “we need to wait until someone is ready.” I responded that, in some cases, we have been waiting for as long as five generations and that was long enough.
Advocates also worry that enforcing the work/school requirement could lead to eviction of a family who refuses to participate. To that we have two responses. First, any family who is willing to work with us will retain their housing benefit. We realize that the challenges that some families face are significant. As long as they make a sincere effort to move forward, we will work with them. Second, we have thousands of families who have been on our waiting lists for years. These families are willing to do whatever it takes to pursue a better life. Homeless applicants shouldn’t have to sit on a waiting list while a few families refuse to help themselves.
The advocates believe in their cause and have worked the political phone lines relentlessly to stop us from moving forward. It wasn’t until state Sen. Harriette Chandler, now the majority leader of the state Senate, was able to get our ABL program written into the Welfare Reform Act that we received state permission to move forward. Then Karyn Polito, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, brought her running mate Charlie Baker to Worcester and championed our cause. Today, we have the Baker-Polito administration’s full support and are expanding the program.
Nevertheless, efforts to expand the program, even with such impressive results, continue to meet with political opposition. When Chandler and Senate President Stanley Rosenberg added a small amount of money into the budget to allow a handful of other housing authorities to volunteer and pilot our program, a few key leaders in the House of Representatives killed the proposal. We are moving forward nevertheless.
While we are making significant progress in state-subsidized housing, we are going backward in federally-subsidized housing. Initially, officials at HUD gave us written approval to proceed. Then, without warning, they withdrew that support. As of this writing, virtually every federal official we have spoken to is unwilling to allow us to implement our program on federally-subsidized property, even on a pilot-program basis. In fact, it has taken us months just to get an appointment with some of the people in the federal government we need to talk to. For some, we are still waiting for a return phone call. As a result, we have been forced to proceed only in the few developments that we operate that are supported by state funds.
Nevertheless, the success of our program has motivated us to expand. We recently implemented Phase 3 of our ABL program, which extends the work/school requirement to all able-bodied, non-elderly residents living in state-subsidized housing. With this change, we immediately add several hundred new families to our program.
We’re also creating an ABL village. Ever since we began our ABL program, we have been searching for a way to bring our participants together. Up until now, that was only possible when participants attended a life skills class or some other event as part of the program. Because the participants are scattered across multiple developments, their interaction is fleeting. Recently, we developed a plan that will bring a large group of participants together to live and share experiences within a dynamic community environment. The benefits, to the participants and the ABL program, are likely to be significant.
Curtis Apartments, a state-funded public housing community, has a group of 54 apartments that are somewhat isolated from the larger development. The concept is simple: Fill all 54 apartments with participants in ABL who are receiving case management services. By concentrating participants in one area, we hope to:
- Create a cohort of like-minded residents, all working to achieve self-sufficiency. Every study relative to self-sufficiency indicates there are significant advantages to bringing people together in close proximity so they can share their struggles and celebrate their successes.
- Provide our family-life coaches with an opportunity to create group activities that take advantage of the close proximity of residents in the program. For example, the coaches might schedule rotating pot luck dinner discussions or host activities for younger children of these families all right in this smaller community.
- Give our coaches more time to work with the participants in the program by eliminating time spent traveling from one location to another.
While many elected officials have been reluctant to publicly support our program, the overwhelming response of average citizens has been off the charts. Not long ago, an unscientific reader survey in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette generated 90 percent support for our program and had one of the highest response rates the paper has ever seen. Everywhere we go, people encourage us to continue the fight to expand ABL.
Now that ABL has proven to be an unqualified success in Worcester, we are looking to expand the program to other housing authorities across Massachusetts and across the country. In recent weeks, I have met with executives from other housing authorities who want to roll up their sleeves and take on the hard work required to help the families in their communities. Our fight to help lift families break the cycle of intergenerational poverty continues.
Raymond Mariano is the executive director of the Worcester Housing Authority and a former mayor of the city. He spent nearly 20 years growing up in the same public housing developments he now manages.