On Tuesday, October 12th the Pierce County Council unanimously passed Ordinance 2021-91, allocating its remaining American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds and directing a significant portion to support access to shelter and prevent home foreclosures. Of that allocation, Councilmember Ryan Mello championed a distribution of $350,000 to specifically support foreclosure prevention and housing counseling services. These capacity building funds will be awarded through a competitive process to agencies delivering HUD certified housing counseling services.
But, why is this important?
In the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, federal and state governments have invested heavily in direct mortgage assistance to prevent foreclosures. But in order to receive assistance, homeowners must also access the support services of a HUD certified housing counselor.
These subject matter experts work extensively with clients, often holding multiple meetings and/or calls to work with the client’s mortgage company; they also provide financial coaching to ensure the clients are in a stable financial position and have a plan to successfully move forward. The training and testing timeframe to certify a new housing counselor typically takes 3 to 9 months, and the one-on-one, client-focused work required is difficult to manage virtually. Demand for services surged during the pandemic, highlighting access challenges for many communities.
Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic Tacoma Habitat recognized this gap in service and has since hired and/or crossed trained to fill the need, becoming just the second organization in our region to staff certified housing counselors. In the last 18 months, Tacoma Habitat has contracted with Pierce County and other jurisdictional partners to provide struggling homeowners with housing counseling services and direct mortgage assistance. To date, our organization has provided these services to more than 250 Pierce County households and provided more than $1.2 million in direct mortgage assistance—helping people hold on to their owned homes despite economic turmoil.
But the network is strained and the need outstrips demand in our community. Industry standards note that to best serve clients, a single housing counselor shouldn’t have a caseload of more than 25 clients. But over the last year, Tacoma Habitat’s counselors have carried an average caseload of 63 clients. This isn’t sustainable and it prevents us—and organization’s like ours—from adequately providing client-specific service needs. And this is why this new ARPA funding is so important.
These funds will provide qualifying organizations resources to grow housing counselor capacity in Pierce County, allowing our communities to access more than $170 million of state and federal mortgage assistance, and keep people housed in a time when housing is becoming too scarce and expensive for most to access.
As Councilmember Mello noted in his remarks, the Council has been looking for ways to best leverage its ARPA funds, and this commitment of funds will allow the community to potentially access millions of dollars to keep people housed.