AHFC earns national awards for affordable housing aid
Recently released prisoners throughout Alaska had a little easier time finding housing in 2012, and that’s helping keep recidivism rates down.
A program developed by the Alaska Housing Finance Corp., or AHFC, through a collaborative effort with other agencies, works to provide recently released prisoners with housing assistance. That assistance comes in the form of vouchers that cover a certain portion of a participant’s rent.
The National Council of State Housing Agencies awarded AHFC with three Program of Excellence awards in 2012 for its efforts to better connect Alaskans with affordable housing. The program for prisoners was one of those.
The awarded programs address housing for people with special needs, and AHFC’s management operations.
AHFC is a public corporation that works to help provide Alaskans with affordable housing, particularly those who have difficult accessing it.
AHFC and other organizations noted in recent years that certain populations have still faced gaps in access to housing, despite work to provide it. The awards recognize AHFC’s efforts to bridge those gaps and serve a wider segment of Alaska’s population.
In a statement, AHFC Executive Director and CEO Dan Fauske said the awards reflect well on the organization’s efforts.
“These awards show we are a leader nationally when it comes to proactively finding solutions and caring for the growing needs in Alaska. It is a testament to the commitment AHFC employees have in opening doors for Alaskans.”
AHFC Planner James Wiedle said the program for prisoners developed out of work done cooperatively by several agencies in Alaska to try and address homelessness.
Recently released prisoners represent a segment of the population that is more often homeless than other residents. A lack of stable housing is thought to contribute to high recidivism rates, Wiedle said.
According to a report from the Alaska Judicial Council, 66 percent of offenders from 1999 were re-incarcerated within three years of their release.
Alaska’s inmate population is expected to double in the next 20 years, Wiedle said, making those concerns unlikely to go away.
AHFC was in a strong position to help address the housing problem because it’s the state housing agency and has access to federal grant programs.
Wiedle said that typically, as someone leaves prison, people consider their need for work, but housing sometimes isn’t recognized — and when it is, it can be difficult to fund assistance.
“This helps us get involved and do what we do best, which is housing, and that creates a positive outcome for the exoffenders as well.”
Wiedle said the program is similar to other tenant-based assistance programs. Eligibility is determined based on a number of factors, and tenants receive help paying for housing. Landlords are able to chose whether or not they will accept tenants using the assistance.
Recently released prisoners face an additional hurdle in getting assistance in that some of the regular income-based programs require a certain length of rental history — but ex-offenders don’t have that history.
The assistance costs about $6,732, or less. A year in prison costs the state about $49,000. If recidivism decreases as a result of the program, that could be a significant savings, Wiedle said.
Over the two years the program has existed, about 60 ex-offenders have received assistance. The program operates only outside of the Anchorage bowl. The majority of participants — about 39 percent — have been from the Fairbanks North Star Borough. Juneau, Kodiak, Kenai Peninsula and Mat-Su Borough residents have also participated in the program, as have a smaller number of residents from coastal communities, like Ketchikan, Sitka and Valdez.
Once they participate in the program for a year, ex-offenders can apply for other AHFC programs.
So far, tenants are responding well, Wiedle said. About 53 percent of the participants have had stable housing for at least six months. Only 12 percent have returned to prison because of parole violations, a much lower number than in the entire population of ex-offenders. And about 4 percent have received a notice to vacate, meaning they haven’t held up their end of a lease agreement.
An ex-offender’s parole officer must recommend them for the program, which helps with the success rate. Wiedle said the value of each voucher is calculated through certain regulations, but based in part on a recipient’s income.
“There are quite a few nuts and bolts to this process,” Wiedle said.
Generally, participants are expected to pay around 30 percent of their income on rent, with the program making up the rest of the rent.
In essence, Wiedle said, it helps bridge the cap between availability and affordability.
The person receiving assistance is responsible for finding a housing unit, and set guidelines determine a typical or fair cost of rent for that unit. The amount of assistance depends on the person’s income, and on the typical rent for that unit.
The funds are provided as they’re available, with people on a list. It takes an average of 65 days from the time when an ex-offender is referred to the program, to the time when they begin receiving assistance, Wiedle said.
So far, the average length a person has participated in the program is 10 months.
Wiedle said the program is a group effort by the AHFC staff.
The connection between housing and parole officers developed from an interagency task force that was addressing homelessness in Alaska. Since those initial connections were made, AHFC has also worked to reach out to parole officers in other communities, Wiedle said.
Alaska’s program isn’t entirely unique. Wiedle said that similar programs exist in other states. But this was the first effort in Alaska to connect recently released prisoners with housing assistance.
Wiedle said the structure also mean there’s an extra onus on the tenant to meet the terms of his or her lease. The probation officer, who also can help assuage a landlord’s concerns, generally sets any conditions on the housing.
“It works well because the landlord, unlike a typical household, has that probation officer that he can contact.”
That extra support for the landlord, can make it a little easier for landlords to give the tenants a chance.
One of AHFC’s other awards was for management innovations in operations.
Historically, AHFC has used a paper-based application process. Over the last few years, AHFC has implemented an online system.
The online system means applicants can submit everything online, and also creates efficiencies for reviewing the applications. That’s reduced the time it takes to score, evaluate and fund applications.
Wiedle said the changes began in the rental development programs, but is now being migrated to other grants AHFC offers.
“It’s not just specific to rental development anymore,” Wiedle said,
The new system is particularly helpful for rural applicants, who may have access to the internet but slower or less reliable mail, Wiedle said.
Molly Dischner can be reached at email@example.com.