Self-sufficiency program at Missoula Housing Authority funded for another year

The Missoula Housing Authority has received $204,000 from HUD to continue its family self-sufficiency program. The program looks to move families in public housing to financial independence. (Missoula Current file photo)

A program to help families stay in public housing as they work to increase their earned income and become financially independent has received a new round of congressional funding – welcome news at the Missoula Housing Authority and its self-sufficiency program.

The funding, announced by the Department of Housing and Urban Development last week, includes $291,000 for Montana, including $204,000 for the Missoula Housing Authority.

Lori Davidson, the agency’s executive director, said the money will fund three family self-sufficiency coordinators for another year.

“They help you overcome barriers to getting jobs,” Davidson said. “It’s a program designed to help people become self sufficient. If you have child-care issues, are wanting to go back to school or you need a GED or have transportation issues, our coordinators help people signed up for the program overcome that. The ultimate goal of the program is to increase participants’ earned income.”

Montana’s total take in this year’s funding round was $291,000, a fraction of the $74 million announced for the program by HUD. The Housing Authority of Billings received $43,000 and the Economic Security Corporation of Southwest Area received $42,000.

Davidson said as many as 15 Missoula families graduate each year from the self-sufficiency program. Roughly 50 families are currently enrolled and more than half establish an escrow account during their participation in the program.

“As the person’s earned income increases, HUD allows us to put aside a certain amount of money into an escrow account for them,” Davidson said. “That amount is roughly equal to the increase in the amount of rent they had to pay for when they weren’t working – or when they were working a lower-paying job – to a job that gets them into a living wage.”

Once the participant completes the program, Davidson said, he or she can apply the savings from the escrow account to any other use. Graduation requires the person to be off public assistance, with the exception of the public housing subsidy.

“When they graduate from the program, they have an escrow account they can do anything with,” Davidson said. “They can use it for home ownership, paying off student loans or paying off credit cards. We’ve had people graduate with a couple hundred dollars to $20,000.”

Three Missoula residents graduated from the program in December, Davidson said.

While HUD lauded the program in its latest funding announcement, saying it sets a path to a higher-paying job and ultimate self sufficiency, annual funding isn’t a sure thing. But this year’s news was welcome, Davidson said.

“There’s no guarantee it’s going to be funded every year,” she said. “It’s congressional appropriations, just like most things that come through HUD. So we’re always very happy when we hear our coordinators are going to be staffed again. It’s such a successful program. It’s a great benefit for our folks.”