Early in my public housing career, I had the chance to work with the Family Self Sufficiency Program (FSS). I loved the idea from the first time I heard of it. Any program that would encourage our residents to acquire and develop the skills necessary to realize the dreams they have sounds like a winner. After working with the program for the first several months I found the bureaucracy around the program and the long-term nature a bit to comprehend.
One thing that jumped off the page for me was the constant communication and mix-ups that took place between public housing/section8 and FSS staff. Whenever some type of income changing event needs to take place, the communication needs to be on point or the FSS part of the 50058 will be messed up. I found this to be annoying not only for the FSS staff but also the front-line staff running interims and annuals. The other part of the annoyance comes when the escrow calculations get screwed up. If they are not caught early, then folks must go back and do all types of re-calculations. On top of that, interest can get messed up which causes further re-work. It seems like a lot of unnecessary work and hassle when there might be easier ways to get to the same outcome.
The most important part of the program is the accumulation of funds for the FSS tenant. The more income they earn, the more their rent increases and the money is deferred into an escrow for them. Do not get me wrong, it is a great concept for those people who fit the mold. However; what happens if you start the program and you have a decent income? Maybe you will improve and make some incremental raises, but will you see the big home-run check that the neighbor down the road got when they started at $0 and got a job making $30,000? The answer is no. How about those who have a lot of work to do before they are ready for stable meaningful employment? What happens if the person is just starting a 4 year degree? What happens if they are doing a re-tool program to adjust to the job market and need to complete a certificate program? All of these scenarios can lead to uneven outcomes for members of the FSS program.
If the Moving to Work (MTW) program has taught us anything, it is that local PHAs should be able to make local choices. Some agencies have created pay points for their FSS program that reward getting a certificate or enrolling in college and staying in for a semester or taking a class on money management. Some programs let the tenant pick a couple goals and establish pay points for those. That gets rid of crazy escrow tracking while getting the program to a place where tenants have more of a voice on their path to true self-sufficiency.