The Case for Cultivating Strong Partnerships
Effective partnerships form the backbone of program success. But what’s the best way for homeownership programs and housing counseling programs to partner in order to prepare and assist first-time homebuyers? This post takes a closer look at best practices for advising homebuyers and explains how close coordination of programs and referrals can set everyone up for success.
Homeownership programs with lasting affordability
When we at Grounded Solutions Network talk about Homeownership Programs, we’re referring to permanently affordable homeownership programs that seek to balance individual wants and needs with community wants and needs. These programs balance individual wealth creation and the rewards that come from homeownership with creating homeownership opportunities with lasting affordability in a community. Grounded Solutions primarily supports organizations managing these kids of programs.
These homeownership programs with lasting affordability take on a variety of forms– such as Community Land Trusts (CLTs), deed restricted homes, and other related variations. They are managed by local municipalities, some Habitat for Humanity affiliates, local Community Land Trusts and other community-based nonprofits. These programs keep homes affordable sale after sale.
Homeownership programs are guided by our stewardship standards, which we created with and for practitioners in order to articulate practice standards and required practices for homeownership programs with lasting affordability. Local ordinances and funding restrictions also apply to these programs, so there may be additional program terms that affect the application process, the eligibility criteria, the length of affordability, and so on.
According to our most recent count, there are approximately 165 Community Land Trust across the country and with 12,000 homes, and 886 inclusionary housing programs in 25 states and DC. No two programs are identical, so it’s important to know the specifics characteristics of the programs in your area.
Housing Counseling Agencies
On the other end of the partnership are housing counseling programs. The primary objective of a housing counseling program is to help folks make smart decisions, improve their housing situation and meet the responsibilities of tenancy and homeownership.
Trained counselors – sometimes called homeownership advisors – work 1-1 with clients and also host group education workshops, including the 8 hour Homebuyer Education course often required by lenders and homeownership programs. If you run a homeownership program and you have not attended the eight-hour class that you require of all your buyers, sign up yourself or your staff for the next one, so you can find out what exactly is covered.
Housing Counseling programs are managed by HUD-Approved Counseling Agencies, private or public nonprofits. There are over 1900 HUD-approved housing counseling agencies. Some agencies are affiliated with one of 36 HUD Counseling Intermediaries or State Housing Finance Agencies and many belong to the National Housing Resource Center. HUD-certified counselors are trained on topics such as:
- Financial management
- Homeownership and Tenancy;
- Property maintenance;
- Fair Housing
- Housing Affordability
- Avoiding Foreclosure/ Eviction
While counseling programs sometime operate alongside homeownership programs in the same organization, that’s certainly not always the case.
Counseling programs are guided by HUD Requirements for both agencies approval and counselor certification, as well as the National Industry Standards for Homeownership Education and Counseling. State or regional certifying organizations sometimes have standards as well. For example, the Massachusetts Homeownership Collaborative coordinated by CHAPA offers professional training, curriculum standards, and best practices criteria for homebuyer counseling agencies across Massachusetts.
If you’re not familiar with housing counseling programs, review these standards to get a better idea of best practices for housing counseling programs. While counselors are expected to help buyers understand their housing and financing options, information on affordable homeownership programs is not formally included in counselor trainings or industry standards. As a result, counseling programs and homeownership programs need to work together to figure out how to keep counselors not just informed, but trained on the ins and outs of an affordable homeownership program.
One of our HomeKeeper users, Richmond Neighborhood Housing Services, provides homeownership trainings on not only traditional homeownership opportunities, but also alternative housing models like Community Land Trusts which let potential homeowners know all of the options they have when purchasing a home.
Both homeownership and housing counseling programs are often operating in the same communities and both are committed to expanding access to homeownership for low income households, so it’s pretty clear there’s strong mission alignment. Here’s an overview:
Thinking of becoming a HUD-approved counseling agency?
If you manage a homeownership program and are considering become HUD approved, be sure to build on your strengths and don’t stretch your capacity. Evaluate the benefits of partnering with an existing housing counseling agency, or regional network of housing counseling agencies, before bringing housing counseling in-house. Do not become a counseling agency unless you have the capacity to stay on top of the reporting and compliance activities required.
Two Programs, One Organization
Even if one organization manages both a housing counseling program and a homeownership program, they are often separately staffed. There may be some overlap, such as a shared intake form or group workshops open to folks in both programs, but each program operates as a different program with their own staff, services, client flow and program requirements. Coordination is needed to ensure a smooth handoff between programs and program staff. All homeownership program participants typically attend homebuyer workshops and counseling, which is sometimes also offered to the general public.
Example: Athens Land Trust has separate staff and programs within the same organization. They became a Housing Counseling Agency because their homeownership program was growing quickly and they didn’t have counseling agencies they could refer folks to. They also wanted to make sure folks could access comprehensive services along the housing continuum in one place, and receiving accurate information on community land trusts. Some clients start with the community land trust program, and are then referred to the housing counseling program where they take workshops and meet with a counselor monthly until closing. Other clients attend a homebuyer workshop, and then learn about the land trust program and apply. Their housing counseling program also provides post-purchase workshops focused on maintenance and will and estate planning. There’s a lot of transparency
“After closing, we have a ton of regular contact to maintain stewardship with homeowners and that works well with our housing counseling program…We’re able to maintain contact and relationship with them to help increase success and reduce the risk of foreclosure.” – Kelsey, Education Director at Athens Land Trust
Two Programs, Two Partnering Organizations
Often, the homeownership program and the housing counseling program are run by separate organizations or agencies. The program staff each organization coordinate the referrals and training content, but each have their own intake process. A homeownership applicant not yet ready to purchase may get referred to a housing counseling program, or the homeownership program may give a short presentation on opportunities during the pre-purchase homebuyer course taught by an independent counseling agency.
Example: The City of Lakes Community Land Trust refers out to a local housing counseling agencies. Both organizations have historically worked together to ensure that information on City of Lakes CLT is included in the homebuyer education course. There’s a network of counseling agencies in Minnesota and a number of counseling agencies in the area. City of Lakes provides CLT-specific trainings two to three times a month, as well as post-purchase workshops for homeowners.
“What the partnering has allowed us to do is cultivate strong relationships with the agencies that have assisted us long-term. It has also created long-term partnerships that allow us to really tap into resources that we do not have the capacity to have: different post-purchase counseling needs, foreclosure prevention and it has helped us augment the capacity that we have significantly and sere our homeowners much better than we would have as an independent organization.” – Staci Horwitz, Operations Director, City of Lakes Community Land Trust
Key to Successful Partnership
Whether it’s an in-house or an external partnership, it takes work to maintain a seamless experience for clients and homebuyers. On a recent webinar, practitioners from the field shared their partnership experiences, tips and lessons learned. Here are some of the key takeaways:
- Foster a mutual understanding of programs and services so organizations don’t spread mis-information or re-invent the wheel with redundant programs or workshops. Cross-train staff and share information about program changes.
- Ensure staff are trained and prepared to help clients evaluate all options and make informed decisions, including a basic overview of buying through a CLT or deed-restricted program. Counselors should refrain from steering away from CLTs or deed-restricted programs.
- Develop a strong network of partners that extend beyond programs.
- Ensure smooth transitions between programs, both before and after purchase.
- Maintain a separation between programs to avoid conflict of interests. For example, don’t rely solely on homeownership program staff to provide homebuyers with information or training. Think twice before having your homeownership program staff also be the primary housing counselor or buyers.
- Have the housing counselor assist the buyer throughout the loan process, through closing and beyond.
- Keep in mind HUD funding may only cover a fraction of the housing counseling budget, and grants may not always be timely, so if you do decide to become HUD approved, make sure your program will be financial sustainable.
“We don’t just sell our program, we sell every single affordable homeownership program that exists in our county and all the loan programs. There’s a section in our 8 hour workshop where we present on four different homeownership options in Athens Clark County and I give all the information to everyone.” – Kelsey, Education Director at Athens Land Trust
HomeKeeper: The Smart Choice
Many housing counseling and homeownership programs are both managing their programs in HomeKeeper. For organizations that have both homeownership and housing counseling programs, there are obvious benefits to managing multiple housing programs in one online platform.
“There’s a lot of transparency within the programs now, especially as we’ve transitioned to HomeKeeper as our housing client management system. We used HCO in the past, but I was the only one seeing that. Now [my colleague] can check in and say, ‘Hey, this lease purchaser has been to counseling every month since she moved in, she’s compliant with her lease. Or hey, why did so and so miss counseling last month…’ He’s able to check in and see that without me having to go to him with that information.” – Kelsey, Education Director at Athens Land Trust
Share Your Ideas
Let us know if you have any thoughts on how programs can work more closely together. In particular,
- What implementation tips can you share to ease the client/homebuyer flow and knowledge gaps between programs?
- What are your strategies for strengthening or establishing partnerships between housing counseling and homeownership program staff?
- Who else are you partnering with in your work to improve outcomes for your clients and homebuyers?
Share your ideas with us and we’ll update this post periodically.