Housed in the hometown of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the Baltimore Regional Housing Partnership (BRHP) is a non-profit organization that provides rental assistance in the form of federal Housing Choice Vouchers (HCVs), formerly known as Section 8. Tiffani Long, BRHP’s senior communications and external affairs manager, views the organization’s work as an instrument of fair housing. “We want to create opportunities for families who have historically been excluded from diverse, resource-rich communities,” she said. BRHP functions uniquely by coupling rental assistance with pre- and post-move counseling to help families access and find their place in historically off-limits communities. The organization is unique in that it is a housing mobility provider that provides housing counseling and also directly administers housing vouchers. It is the third-largest HCV administrator in the Baltimore region.

BRHP was born out of the landmark fair housing lawsuit Thompson v. HUD in 1995. The case was litigated by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) and the ACLU of Maryland after housing experts ranked Baltimore as one of the most racially segregated cities in the nation. Ten years later, Federal District Court Judge Marvin Garbis held that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) violated the Fair Housing Act of 1968 by implementing discriminatory practices that concentrated African-American recipients of public housing in the most impoverished and segregated parts of Baltimore City. Judge Garbis further ruled that HUD must take affirmative steps to promote fair housing opportunities for Black residents throughout the Baltimore region.

Another trial was held in 2006 to determine whether HUD violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause and to establish a remedy for the discrimination experienced by the 14,000 Black families who were tenants, former tenants, and prospective tenants of Baltimore City public housing developments. According to the NAACP LDF, throughout the trial, even witnesses for HUD admitted that “the region’s public housing had never provided Black Americans access to the economic and social mobility that comes from living in integrated areas.” In 2012, a historic settlement was reached, which resulted in a mandate for civil rights oversight for housing and community development plans in the Baltimore region and the birth of BRHP.

“Residential Security Map of Baltimore” ca. 1937 Source: John Hopkins Sheridan Library

The Impact of Housing Mobility Programs

Housing mobility programs aim to combat two issues that are prevalent throughout the United States: a lack of affordable housing and a lack of access to high-opportunity neighborhoods. Across the country, there are only forty affordable housing units available for every 100 extremely low-income households–those whose incomes are at 30 percent of the area’s median income ($50,379) or fall at or below the poverty line. In Baltimore specifically, 70 percent of low-income renters spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing. This high cost of housing can have serious negative impacts on families, causing households to spend significantly less on other necessities, such as food and health care. Furthermore, traditional housing programs for low-income families often fail to provide opportunities to move out of areas of concentrated poverty. For example, in 2017, only one in eight families with children that participated in typical programs lived in low-poverty neighborhoods.

In contrast, three in four BRHP families live in areas that were historically off-limits for low-income families or families of color due to housing costs and federal redlining policies. The average neighborhood poverty rate for BRHP families is just 10.3 percent; the national neighborhood poverty rate for HCV recipients is more than twice as high, at 24 percent. BRHP families tend to move to neighborhoods that are integrated and affluent, with resource-rich schools. Living in one of these areas can lead to improvements in a variety of health, economic, and educational outcomes. These benefits may include improved mental and physical health, including lower incidences of psychological distress and conditions such as diabetes and obesity, as well as higher reported well-being for adults. These moves have also been found to have particularly pronounced positive outcomes for children. A Harvard University study found that the longer children live in low-poverty areas, the more likely they are to attend college and earn more income as an adult: moving into a low-poverty area when a child is about eight years old can increase that child’s total lifetime earnings by over $300,000.

The impact of BRHP is widespread. Since 2012, the program has helped over 5,300 families access historically off-limits housing, educational, and health opportunities throughout the Baltimore region, including in Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Howard, Harford, and Carroll Counties. “We want families to live in areas that are desegregated and do not have high clusters of poverty, and more diversity,” Renita Dorsey, BRHP’s program training specialist, commented. To further this goal, BRHP is a member of The Century Foundation’s Bridges Collaborative, a learning hub for housing and education practitioners to develop grassroots support and other successful strategies for neighborhood and school integration.

Because BRHP focuses on placing families in high-opportunity areas, the program is designed to reduce housing and school segregation by default. This approach leads to beneficial physical and mental health outcomes for families, as well as educational benefits for young children. These positive effects are just one of the factors that motivate families to take advantage of BRHP’s program.

A Holistic Approach to Housing Mobility

One stand-out aspect of BRHP’s model is the extensive pre-and post-move counseling that is provided for each family. While many housing authorities contract with outside organizations to provide counseling services, all of BRHP’s counseling is provided in-house and each family works with a single, dedicated counselor. This approach ensures that BRHP is well-informed about each family’s unique situation and can provide targeted support. It is this component of the program that BRHP cites as helping families have a positive, successful experience with moving into a high-opportunity area.

While many housing authorities contract with outside organizations to provide counseling services, all of BRHP’s counseling is provided in-house and each family works with a single, dedicated counselor.

Before receiving a housing voucher, families begin participating in one-on-one pre-move counseling and a workshop series that focuses on readiness to lease. The workshops include information on banking and budgeting (as well as credit education), how to carry out a successful housing search, home maintenance, and landlord–tenant relationships. At this stage, families also work towards saving $500 to put towards a security deposit. In addition to these practical matters, each family’s pre-move counselor also makes sure families are thinking about where they want to be within the next three to five years and helps them set long-term personal, educational, and financial goals.

Once a family receives their voucher and finds a place to live, they receive post-move counseling support. The focus on banking and budgeting continues, so that tenants are prepared to pay their rent on time each month. Another component of post-move counseling is a series of home visits—four over the first two years of each family’s participation in the program. These visits target home maintenance, so that families have a higher likelihood of having their security deposit returned. BRHP also offers tenant–landlord mediation sessions when necessary. Additionally, BRHP works with each family to make sure that they are acclimating well to their new neighborhood. Counselors help families identify and access local resources, as well as ways to get involved in the community and the potential benefits of involvement. Ultimately, BRHP aims to ensure that all of their participants leave the organization empowered and ready to be successful advocates for themselves and their families.

Centering Families of Color

While the lack of affordable housing is an issue for low-income people of all backgrounds, there are stark differences in access to high-opportunity neighborhoods by race. Low-income white families tend to live in neighborhoods with more resources and a higher median income than Black families with similar financial circumstances, who are often concentrated in high-poverty neighborhoods. A study from Stanford University found that Black families with an annual income of $50,000 generally live in neighborhoods where the median income is about $42,000. In comparison, white families with an annual income of just $20,000 usually live in neighborhoods with a higher median income of $46,000. Baltimore is one of twenty-five cities in the country where this gap is the widest. In a city like Baltimore where nearly 63 percent of residents are Black Americans, many of whom are directly affected by these disparities, it is essential that those serving residents are culturally competent and evolving to meet their families’ needs.

In a city like Baltimore where nearly 63 percent of residents are Black Americans, many of whom are directly affected by these disparities, it is essential that those serving residents are culturally competent and evolving to meet their families’ needs.

Along with being led by a Black woman and primarily staffed by women of color, BRHP actively works to disrupt reductive racist and deficit-based tropes about housing vouchers and their recipients. BRHP pushes back against the stereotype that housing voucher recipients are using public assistance to avoid self-sufficiency by teaching their families health, education, and economic empowerment. Their clients include families with a disability—approximately 24 percent of the 5.2 million people who receive assistance through the HCV program nationally have a disability. BRHP offers reasonable accommodations to ensure that all clients regardless of differing abilities, are able to take full advantage of everything that our program offers. The goal is for families to no longer need assistance, and BRHP provides mentorship. “We’ll continue to support after the two year window, making sure the tenants are getting everything they need in the area and trouble shooting so that they can stay settled in that area,” says Renita Dorsey.

To be the best public servants to their families, BRHP does internal development as an organization. This has included growing their staff from one to fifty individuals and building a diversity of backgrounds into leadership roles. Another component of the organization’s high cultural competency is its elevation of families themselves to positions of leadership: for example, one of the organization’s board members is a current participant of the BRHP mobility program. Through BRHP’s model, this participant board member assists with relationship building, such as tenant–landlord communication and mediation as necessary. BRHP has also established a twelve-member client advisory board to share client experiences and feedback directly with the organization’s leadership. This approach lets BRHP know what’s working and where there is room for improvement, and ultimately ensures that all decisions are informed by participants’ needs.

BRHP’s COVID-19 Pandemic Response

As with the vast majority of nonprofit organizations, operational challenges occurred for BRHP throughout the COVID-19 pandemic; transitioning more than forty-five staff members to remote work and providing home office equipment was one of the largest. However, in spite of the difficulties, BRHP’s transition to all-virtual service provision was culturally competent, compassionate, and ultimately empowering for families. Efforts included establishing a hotline for clients to call for assistance and sending out bi-weekly email blasts highlighting specific resources that might be useful to participants and their families. BRHP also put together an evolving pandemic resource guide with participants. Updated monthly, the guide helped inform participants about local, state, and federal resources for those experiencing food insecurity, mental health issues, or other pandemic-related problems.

BRHP also implemented innovative solutions. They established virtual home visits to their families and ensured equitable practices were still occurring among the landlords and tenants. This included speaking with landlords and establishing clear lines of communication on inspections and eviction moratoria for the units. During the holiday season in 2020, up to 200,000 Marylanders were facing evictions, with rates significantly higher for Black families than white ones. BRHP was proactive in ensuring their residents did not become homeless through communicating with landlords and checking on the housing status of their families. BRHP also launched a client enrichment series, which included webinars with the Fair Housing Action Center of Maryland. Tenants were informed of their rights, including how to identify and fight against income discrimination in accordance with the HOME Act, Maryland’s source of income protection law.

During the height of the pandemic, 40 percent of Baltimore households lacked wireline internet access, and Americans across the country heard horror stories of fellow citizens facing evictions after moratoria were lifted. One BRHP participant commented that BRHP “gave us information about cable or different ways to access the internet affordably. If you needed different information on virtual learning and free meals, we learned about that as well.” BRHP hopes to continue providing these tailored supports for families as the country begins to reopen.

Looking Forward

BRHP is dedicated to continuously improving the quality of the services they provide, which was one of the reasons they decided to join Bridges Collaborative. Megan Wessels, BRHP’s counseling director, explains that “We’re hoping to learn more about addressing the family as a holistic unit. We want to bridge a gap on the educational side of things. We want to make sure the families we’re placing have access to the educational supports that they need.”

BRHP aspires to build partnerships with the school systems in their area so they can access the resources that will allow them to support their families. In particular, they would like to gain access to data from the schools in their service areas, with a focus on students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, a category which encompasses most of the families that BRHP serves. BRHP hopes to expand its counseling services to include outreach to family liaisons or paraprofessionals at a family’s school site, if, for example, a child is struggling to adjust to the new environment. They also hope to connect with special education teams to ensure that students with an individualized educational program are receiving the appropriate services.

BRHP’s Recommendations

BRHP expands housing choices for low-income families by helping them obtain housing in well-resourced neighborhoods from which they have historically been excluded. BRHP has had remarkable success. To help others achieve similar results, here is what BRHP recommends to policymakers and other service providers:

  • Ensure a federal role for expanding housing development. BRHP’s impact has been recognized widely, especially given that Executive Director Adria Crutchfield served on then President-elect Biden’s transition team for housing and urban development. Strengthening the federal role includes providing financial incentives for reducing exclusionary zoning, as President Biden has proposed doing as part of his infrastructure bill, to ensure Americans at every point of the income spectrum have an opportunity to live in neighborhoods where they can thrive.
  • Adopt a holistic approach to housing mobility services. The success of BRHP is attributed to empowering their families as people and not solely connecting them with housing opportunities. This includes financial literacy, education consulting, and access to healthcare. A holistic approach also rejects deficit narratives of families that receive housing choice vouchers. In education, research documents the positive evidence of educating the whole child through academic and social-emotional learning. Similarly in the housing sector, assisting families holistically prepares them for homeownership and self-sufficiency.
  • Center families of color and low-wage residents in the discourse of housing mobility. One of BRHP’s strengths is going beyond just consulting families to empowering them in positions of leadership.The voices of families must be centered in policy decisions, because without them, the policies cannot hope to be truly equitable or effective. Centering families should also be done with an intersectional lens, including multilingual outreach and clients with disabilities.

BRHP’s approach has the potential to make lasting, positive change for families of all backgrounds by helping to create diverse and inclusive communities that are more integrated by race and socioeconomic status. What’s more, their model is replicable elsewhere: fair housing and integration advocates across the country should take notice.