To answer some common questions about fair housing services like mobility counseling, we spoke with Scott Gehl, the executive director of Housing Opportunities Made Equal, a fair housing agency in Buffalo, New York.
Gehl started his career working in a neighborhood housing services program. First, he worked with small businesses. Then, he did neighborhood-based planning and community organizing. He was later elected to fill a vacant seat on Buffalo’s Common Council. After he lost re-election, he joined HOME in 1982 and has been working for fair housing ever since.
Mobility counseling offers advice and information about housing and neighborhoods as well as other support to individuals and families as they try to find suitable housing, ideally by improving their living conditions. For people like Gehl, it’s another way to promote equal opportunity. “The whole idea of housing mobility is yet another way you can approach fair housing and another tool in the toolbox. It’s effective for the families it assists,” he said.
In 2014, HOME supported 155 individuals or families with mobility counseling. Mobility counseling has become one of HOME’s core services, Gehl said.
A fair housing agency, like HOME in Buffalo or CNY Fair Housing in Syracuse, can support its clients after they move to a new neighborhood and setting where they likely have no connections or support structure and can face discrimination. “[We can] offer [individuals] an opportunity, if they choose, to participate in a case management program in which they work with a mobility counselor to define goals, most frequently in the area of education, financial literacy, or employment and job readiness,” Gehl said.
Fair housing organizations can also help families choose new neighborhoods based on whatever the family’s need is. “One of the barriers that [people face] is a lack of knowledge about other neighborhoods or communities. If somebody expresses interest in [one town] we will pull a volume from the shelf and talk a little bit about the history, the school districts, crime rates, where services are located etc…,” Gehl said. “Then we will provide people with housing listings and our mobility counselor will then provide continued follow up and encouragement through the housing process,” he added.
The counseling begins broadly in group sessions or even general housing information sessions. From there, families or individuals can join small group meetings and eventually, if the family decides, it can have one-on-one sessions with a mobility counselor with active case management.
“We do one or two group sessions a month for about a dozen people, and at the small group session we talk about the benefits of housing mobility [or] how to find housing which meets federal housing quality standards … and then we talk a little bit more. From that group of people … we invite people again, if they’re interested, to schedule a one-on-one mobility counseling session,” Gehl said. “At that session, we talk about the housing needs and interests of the individual family we’re meeting with and then we talk to them about housing alternatives,” he elaborated.
From that point on, the counselor works with the client to make sure the individual or family attains suitable housing, hopefully without encountering any discrimination along the way.
Organizations like HOME and CNY Fair Housing have limited resources. HOME stretched five years’ worth of budget into eight years, Gehl said. With small budgets, the organizations can only do so much, but for the families that HOME helps, the assistance can be a world of difference, Gehl says. “[Mobility counseling] is effective in terms of creating opportunities for individual families. We think the whole issue of both moving to an opportunity community, especially if [families] choose to participate in case management, that then these are potentially life-altering changes for the family,” he added. (An “opportunity community” is one that represents a step up from where a client currently lives.)
HOME rewards clients who move out of areas with high poverty rates. It will help its qualified clients by giving them about $400 to go toward security deposits for new housing. “If [a] client lives in a census tract where 30 or more percent are below the poverty level and they ultimately choose to move to a community where less than 25% of families are below the poverty level, then they [could] qualify for a security deposit assistance payment,” Gehl said.