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Project Overview

The Challenge

We know that when life hits us with stressful, overwhelming, or traumatic experiences, we are more likely to bounce back – be resilient – when we have healthy ways to cope and a supportive environment.
A safe, affordable place to call home can foster resilience and support overall well-being. This is critically important in affordable housing communities, where residents are statistically more likely to have experienced trauma. But too often, tight margins and heavy regulation in the affordable housing industry place the focus on compliance and risk management instead.
As a result, focusing on residents’ life experiences sits squarely with the resident services team in most affordable housing communities. But the impacts of daily stressors and trauma influence a wide range of day to day tasks, touching nearly every portion of our business. This might include things like paying rent on time, complying with lease requirements or interacting with fellow residents or staff.
There are simple ways to yield better outcomes, for residents and for properties’ financial and staffing sustainability, when we adopt a resilience lens across our business operations. Trauma-informed practice has been tested and proven to strengthen outcomes in healthcare and education, but it has not been fully embraced in affordable housing. Several housing practitioners, led by POAH, are exploring what this lens can offer the housing industry and the communities we serve. 

The Context

What connects the housing sector with trauma? Trauma is a leading health concern in the U.S., impacting 6 in 10 people, and disproportionately impacting residents of affordable housing. Residents of color – particularly Black and Indigenous populations – are most adversely impacted due to historic and structural conditions of racism, residential segregation and oppression. Given this history, housing and community development practices must seek to understand and acknowledge residents’ collective lived experience and expertise. If overlooked, housing owners and operators risk perpetuating trauma among the very communities they seek to serve.

Research has found that less than 20% of individuals’ health is determined by clinical care, meaning 80% is determined by behaviors and the social and environmental conditions in which they live, work and play. These conditions can either reinforce or help to heal past harm.

Community health and well-being refers not only to the physical health of individuals, but also to the broader physical and mental well-being of individuals and their communities. Well-being is shaped by our relationships and communities, by the spaces we inhabit, and by the policies and practices that shape our experiences. There are a variety of systems (e.g. healthcare, community development) and institutions (e.g. hospitals, local governments) that influence these outcomes; housing practitioners have a powerful role to play within those systems by creating spaces that contribute positively to the health and well-being of residents and their community.

Historically, the housing sector has evaluated community development impact through the lens of the number of units produced or preserved. A trauma-informed approach, however, centers residents’ lived experiences and understands success not just in terms of bricks and mortar, but on the well-being of residents and the staff that serve them. This requires owners and operators to take a wider lens beyond the four walls of housing units and think critically on the intersections of housing with the systems and institutions that affect community health and well-being.

The Potential: A Community Resilience Lens

Adopting a community resilience lens across all affordable housing practices – from design to property management – allows development and property management stakeholders to better understand residents’ experience and use that understanding to implement strategies that build resident ownership over their living environment and encourage accountability in a meaningful way, all supporting a stronger bottom line. 

What does it mean to adopt a “community resilience lens?” Historic and structural harm create community trauma and so our responses must create community resilience. “Community trauma” affects social groups or neighborhoods long subjected to interpersonal violence, structural violence, and historical harms. Research suggests that the causes of community trauma lie in the historic and ongoing root causes of social inequities, including poverty, racism, sexism, oppression and power dynamics, and the erasure of culture and communities. Trauma-informed engagement and development work must include practices that acknowledge and address the trauma of individual residents and their collective communities.
Co-design is a leading-edge business practice in which customers or end-users, in this case residents and staff, are brought in as experts in their own experience to help generate better solutions from the start. As an approach, it is grounded in equitable participation and accountability among stakeholders. In addition to generating better solutions, by respecting residents’ capabilities, co-design can support people in building autonomy, ownership and belonging in their communities.

Based in the principles of trauma-informed practice, a community resilience lens commits to building trust between residents, staff, and the partners that shape the spaces where they live and work. This requires co-design with residents, where community members and front-line staff, armed with the lived experience of the property and its management, lead in designing and implementing plans for change.

The Result

The intended result is a more effective and equitable model for affordable housing that increases staff wellbeing and retention and improves resident experience, all while improving property performance (more on time rent payments, faster inspections, fewer evictions, etc.). 

Where You Can Start

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