Transforming Public Housing

August 30, 2017

Public housing is transforming. But what does that mean, exactly, and how can your agency follow suit? We sat down with Josh Crites, Seattle Housing Authority (SHA)’s strategic advisor, and a frequent blogger on the topic, to get some insight and inspiration.

HAI Group: Can you tell us a little about your job and why SHA hired a strategic adviser?

Josh Crites: Sure. I work within the Housing Operations department of the agency, which manages several areas of housing units including public, tax credit, some market rate, and city-of-Seattle-funded units. Within our department, I work on project management and process improvement. My position is flexible, which allows the agency and the department to use me in various areas as needed.

The position itself is not new to SHA. Different departments use the position in different ways. Some strategic advisors work more on policy and procedures, while some spend their time on internal program monitoring and research. Regardless of the department, it is helpful for a housing authority to bring in staff with different skills that can help strengthen policy, research, process, and program management.

HAI Group: Public housing is transforming, but many housing agencies don’t know where to start. What advice do you have for them?

Josh Crites: I think looking at the way things are done both nationally and internationally can show us what’s possible. Many Moving to Work (MTW) agencies have shown that changing rent structures, client programs, and management tactics is possible right here in the US. For example, the Seattle Housing Authority used MTW flexibility to decrease the frequency of annual reviews for parts of its portfolio. This change allows the agency to gain efficiency while cutting down on resident burden.

We are also seeing housing authorities here in the Northwest and across the county creating innovative methods of local non-traditional housing programs. This allows housing authorities to create housing opportunities while leveraging service dollars. Public/private partnerships are also leading to the development of affordable housing units that might not have occurred five or ten years ago.

Looking abroad, we see examples of major changes taking place in the realm of affordable housing. In Germany, housing authorities blend market rate into their portfolio to support the development and maintenance of their affordable portfolio. In the Netherlands, housing authorities are building for the private market including retail and universities. In New Zealand, the federal government is testing the idea of transferring some public housing to smaller non-profit providers. New Zealand is trying to figure out whether devolving power from the federal state to local communities might improve service.

HAI Group: How can public housing authorities (PHAs) become more entrepreneurial?

Josh Crites: While there are examples in the US, I will circle back to looking outside of our borders. In the UK, the idea of social enterprise is well developed and ingrained into public housing culture. I had the opportunity to follow the director of the Link Housing Group in Glasgow, Scotland, for a day. It was amazing to see housing agencies across the UK starting businesses that are cash-flowing and impacting low-income families positively. Everything from daycares, to mail delivery services, to cafes have become fair game for some social housing providers in the UK. Social enterprise exists in the US, but we need to figure out if connecting to this third sector makes sense for the affordable housing industry. I suggest doing a little reading on the subject. I have posted about this on my blog, and tthis article also gives some basics.

HAI Group: You’re a proponent of Lean Six Sigma. What can PHAs learn from this methodology?

Josh Crites: Lean Six Sigma, Lean, or any other brand of process improvement is a good thing. Starting off, it is probably good to not get too hung up on a brand. I will talk about lean for the purpose of this discussion. Lean process improvement methods are starting to be seen more and more in the public housing authority world. Outside of the Seattle Housing Authority, lean work has been done throughout the Northwest including King County Housing and Tacoma Housing Authority. I spoke with employees at the Stark County Housing Authority in Ohio, and the El Paso Housing Authority in Texas; they’re also working with lean. Each agency created its own spin on the methodology, but the goal revolves around becoming more efficient. Without getting too nuanced, lean focuses on the following:

  • High-level strategy and deployment
  • Visual management across all departments and daily huddles
  • Gap analysis and problem solving/process improvement
  • Supervisors as coaches and every employee as a problem solver
  • The use of scientific problem solving across all areas of the agency
  • Value Stream Mapping (VSM)

For lean to really work in an agency, line staff, supervisors, and mid-level management need to be engaged from the start. The focus is letting those who do the work decide how processes can be improved and where issues can be resolved. While lean is not a quick fix, some agencies, including ours, found that the methods can be used very quickly. At the Seattle Housing Authority, we doubled the capacity of our housing inspector after going through a process-improvement project. My suggestion to any housing authority interested in lean would be to check out the free resources that are available within your state, county, or city government. In Washington State, the governor mandated that lean be implemented at the state level. We actively work with the state, which provides training, coaching, and consulting.

HAI Group: If the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) expands MTW, can you share lessons learned for the agencies that may be selected?

Josh Crites: If a housing authority is interested in MTW, the best thing to do is to pick up the phone and start connecting with agencies that already have the MTW status. The MTW community is happy to share its knowledge, best practices, and lessons learned. From Seattle to Boulder, DC to San Diego, to Keene Housing in New Hampshire, you can reach out and get involved in the MTW network.

I do not work in the MTW world in my current role, but I coordinated the MTW program at the Tacoma Housing Authority. There is a lot of flexibility that comes with the MTW designation. It allows an agency to look at its community and try to develop solutions that meet the needs. What works in rural California might not work in Seattle, but that is the point. The main advice I would give is to really engage with the community, partners, and staff at all levels when developing potential policy decisions. The best ideas tend to come from staff who are doing the work every day. Going from policy development to deployment and implementation is tough. The early engagement with staff will pay dividends when the rubber meets the road and it is time to implement.

HAI Group: Any other tips or advice for housing agencies looking to transform?

Josh Crites: First off, it is always good to go to affordable housing conferences so you can learn from what is happening around the country within our industry. Next, try spending time looking outside of the US. While we cannot always borrow what is happening abroad, it can stimulate conversation. Back here in the US, being around people from other industries also allows for fresh perspectives. For example, I learned about lean from an Amazon employee. I have visited hospitals and international coffee companies to better understand how process improvement can work; we borrowed ideas from Seattle Children’s Hospital and Boeing right here at the Seattle Housing Authority. A good mixture of searching both within and outside of the country and industry can open our eyes to what might be possible in an ever-changing landscape.

HAI Group: Thanks, Josh.

Josh Crites: My pleasure.

HAI Group is the leading provider of insurance and related services for the public housing industry. Visit us at www.housingcenter.com.

Josh Crites is a strategic advisor at Seattle Housing Authority. Reach him at Josh.crites@seattlehousing.org .