A win-win: Fill gaps by hiring local

Alyssa Andreska, Mary Coulter and Maggy Otte, CommonBond Communities

Affordable housing providers have a difficult time finding qualified candidates for jobs focused on ensuring compliance with the multitude of requirements of funders and monitoring agencies. At the same time, low-income residents and people of color too often face obstacles in obtaining the skills needed to earn a living wage. CommonBond has found a way to address both needs.

As the largest nonprofit provider of affordable housing in the Upper Midwest, Common Bond relies on a number of funding sources and subsidies to operate our developments. To remain in compliance with the requirements of multiple monitoring agencies, such as HUD and the IRS, our financial documentation must be kept accurate and up-to-date on an ongoing basis — a time-consuming and detailed task. Like other organizations in this field, CommonBond employs compliance technicians to ensure that funder requirements are met. However, because of the specialized knowledge needed to assure compliance, there is a shortage of qualified technicians. 
CommonBond recently completed financing for a major rehabilitation of one of our largest housing communities, Seward Towers. As part of this work, 640 heads of households were required to complete an income-certification process. This additional work placed a significant burden on compliance staff.
In response, CommonBond used a technical assistance grant from NeighborWorks America to establish a compliance internship program that trains individuals to complete resident interviews, review housing applications, complete eligibility certifications, and maintain the documents required by funding sources and partners. Interns work 20 hours per week for three months.
Upon completion of the internship, participants are certified as occupancy specialists, a nationally recognized certification applicable to all affordable housing programs that must adhere to guidelines in HUD Manual 4350.3. These trained interns are ideally suited to be hired by any organization needing to better navigate the complicated regulatory landscape of the affordable housing industry. 
Recruitment for the internship program focused on diverse, local residents. Our primary source of candidates was our own residents. Candidates were selected from our adult education and advancement program, which assists residents with employment and career advancement, financial coaching and income support.

Two participants have completed the program to date, including Fekri, a married father of three who initially worked with our employment/financial coach to receive maintenance training and secure a job he held for five years. However, Fekri decided to return to school to complete an accounting degree and, with the help of his coach, applied for the compliance intern program. He participated in the program while continuing to finish his degree and recently began working in compliance for one of our housing communities. Our second participant, Hamza, lives with his brother and mother and, in spite of his degree in liberal arts and additional technology training, could not find a job. Hamza met with an employment/financial coach, recently completed the compliance program and hopes to join the CommonBond team.
Through this program, CommonBond has expanded the pool of trained, certified compliance specialists. The compliance interns assisted in the certification process for Seward Towers’ residents. Interns were able to translate, complete interviews and review certifications, which alleviated some of the burden on CommonBond’s compliance team. 
Through the intense income-verification process alone, interns acquired valuable customer service skills, training in accurate record keeping and skill in navigating the many regulatory layers involved with the affordable housing industry. These interns are ready to interview for and obtain compliance positions at CommonBond and other affordable housing organizations. One has already done so! 
Everyone in the affordable housing industry should consider recognizing that residents can benefit from professional training while we benefit from their internal knowledge of affordable housing.

Originally published at www.neighborworks.org.

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