Pairing social services with housing saves money, improves lives

It is a rare and precious thing in government when “doing good deeds” coincides with sound fiscal responsibility and actually saves money. Just in the last few weeks Beacon Hill legislators unanimously approved and Gov. Deval Patrick signed a bill that will help the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable populations meet their housing needs and avoid moving to places where the care they need is even more expensive.

Massachusetts’ elected leaders have long recognized that we are at a crossroads concerning the availability of housing options to meet the specific needs of low-income elders, the homeless, and people with disabilities. The numbers of those individuals experiencing distress in finding appropriate housing have grown significantly in recent years.

Increasing public costs for institutionalization, shelters, and nursing care, and the growing demand on these resources, have also had the consequence of creating obstacles for these individuals to live independently in their own homes. 

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, nearly two-thirds of Massachusetts renters pay an excessive rent burden – defined as needing to pay over one-third of their income on housing costs. This burden deprives these households of funds for health care, food, transportation, and other basic needs. It also runs the risk of creating personal situations spinning out of control because they require services that can only be accessed through institutionalization, shelters, or nursing care, and not in their own homes, where they want to be.

The legislation recently passed, “An Act Relative to Community Housing and Services,” enables a number of state agencies that already wrestle with these challenges to work in collaboration to create up to 1,000 units of housing. The key is that this housing, intended as a start toward developing a larger supply, will be delivered with the supportive services these residents need. The days of separate housing and service delivery, long in separate silos, would come to an end. It is a winning strategy.

It is well established that when rental housing developments offer what are known as “supportive services” and “service coordination,” social workers are able to work with tenants individually in order to identify and fulfill needs as they arise.

What results is better management of an individual’s difficulties. With seniors, for example, strategies can be developed for medication management or physical balance control. These small changes and support can be the difference between an individual’s good health and well-being versus the risk of a devastating fall, a fractured hip, and trouble ahead.

Through our work with low- and moderate-income seniors, we see every day how service coordination helps our residents to link to health and wellness assistance, financial resources, transportation, and counseling. Stimulating the creation of additional homes with this type of added assistance – which is the goal of this new law – will help more frail elders, families, and individuals with disabilities, and those who risk homelessness to be stable and independent.

As the program gets rolling, fewer individuals will be faced with jeopardizing their financial well-being for the sake of accessing inappropriate housing. And the state will benefit from the financial savings anticipated to result from the avoidance of expensive institutionalization, shelter, or nursing care.

Meet the Author
We predict the state will see a significant net cost savings with this program and look forward to helping to create more housing with services in the Commonwealth.

Susan Gittelman is Executive Director of B’nai B’rith Housing New England, a nonprofit, nonsectarian affordable housing organization based in Brighton, MA. B’nai B’rith Housing is proceeding on a new housing development in Sudbury for seniors and older adults.