By Leslee Kulba- Councilwoman Julie Mayfield requested the opportunity to spotlight the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville’s Family Self-Sufficiency (FSS) program at the last city council meeting. She said federal-subsidized housing is always getting bad headlines, and she wanted to air some good news. Mayfield is council’s liaison to the housing authority’s board. Having heard a couple success stories at that board’s last meeting, she arranged for David Nash, HACA’s COO, to speak to council on the subject. He obliged, presenting two different success stories.
While charity is never out of style, federal welfare programming continues to be viewed with suspicion and stigma. While federal aid helps with food and shelter, it had traditionally provided no exit strategy. Deepening the poverty trap, programs were structured with perverse incentives. People who chose to enter the labor force to start paying their own way often found they could not earn enough to bring their standard of living up to where it had been on welfare. From the outside, it appeared the safety net had become a hammock, and accusations that federal programs were perpetuating generational poverty flew.
One reform, introduced in 1990, was the FSS program. Instead of punishing people for trying to contribute to society and pay their own way, the program provided two forms of intentional assistance that beat the proverbial tactic of throwing money at the problem. First, it connected people with counselors that could help them learn life skills like saving money, connected them with job training agencies and schools, and offered them assistance finding employment. Secondly, rather than pulling away benefits in return for hard work, the program matched income in an escrow account.
In Asheville, the program is voluntary. To be eligible, persons must live in federally-subsidized housing. Participants work with counselors to set long- and short-term goals, and develop plans of action for meeting them. The ultimate goal of the program is for participants to be welfare-free within four years, and stay that way for an additional year. For the purposes of the program, housing subsidies are not considered a form of welfare.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Katelyn Mattox, the outgoing coordinator for the local program, told the story of Ginger Kelley. Kelley and her son moved into public housing in 2002, when she was only 18 years old. In 2011, she received a housing voucher, and in 2012, she joined the FSS program. At the time, she was dreaming about starting a glamor wedding business. Her ambition was to get off public assistance and raise her son in her own home.
The program helped her learn money management skills, repair her credit, and begin building a business while she took courses in cosmetology and esthetics technology at Blue Ridge Community College. Over the years, she accrued $4900 in her escrow account and saved another $2500 in a personal account. In addition, she received a $1000 grant from the state and qualified for a $5000 matching grant from OnTrack Financial Education & Counseling.
Kelley was able to close on a home in 2015 with benefits from a mortgage assistance program. A year later, at age 31, she removed herself from the program. Her business, Posh Lash Lounge & Beauty Bar, offers eyelash extensions, hairdos, waxing, temporary tattoos, and other salon services a bride may want. “Ginger was incredible. Super professional, fast, and an expert. So glad I found her,” reads the feedback from one client.
The program’s second success story was told by Shaunda Sandford. Traci Taylor-Freeze joined the program in 2011, when, in her words, “I was in a place where I struggled with knowing my own self-worth. I didn’t know what to do with my life or where to start, but the FSS program sparked something in me.” Working with the Self-Help Credit Union, OnTrack, and the Western Carolina Women’s Business Center, Taylor-Freeze purchased a franchise of Jan-Pro and started Taylor Maid, LLC, a commercial cleaning business.
Through the program, Taylor-Freeze repaired her credit, built her savings account, and learned how to make strategic business decisions. She now employs nine people, operates a company vehicle, and was recognized as a Service Entrepreneur of the Year by the Minority Enterprise Development Committee of WNC in 2015. Last year, Taylor-Freeze moved out of public housing with voucher support and graduated from the program with $1000 in her escrow account, which she intends to apply to a home mortgage.
Responding to questions from Councilman Keith Young, Nash shared 200 out of approximately 1400 families in Asheville’s public housing participate in the FSS program. While Nash did not have statistics on how many people graduate from the program, he said administration has expanded from two to six fulltime employees, and more community agencies have gotten on-board. Nash then invited council to consider contracting with a minority-owned commercial cleaning business.