Homes (First), Sweet Home

Open Road — Week 4 by Team ACAI

Driving across the breathtakingly lush (and rightly “Evergreen”) state of Washington fueled Team ACAI to finish strong on our last week of Ross Open Road. Many are likely to associate a visit to Washington with Seattle (AKA the land of Amazon, Microsoft, Boeing, Starbucks, and Meg Ryan not getting enough sleep) and not the Olympia area, where the state capital and our final destination Homes First reside. CEO Trudy Soucoup describes Olympia and its Thurston County as where the Puget Sound begins, contrary to what other Washingtonians may say. Step aside Pike Place — the South Puget Sound harbor is where you’ll find Olympia’s cozy and plentiful farmer’s market. There, you can try mouth-watering crab cakes at Dingey’s, sample delectable Dancing Goats coffee, or buy a bushel of apples to support the largest apple producing state in the US.

Exploring the Olympia Farmers Market

Olympia is relatively rural compared to other cities in Washington; for perspective, the city of Seattle’s population is nearly 3 times that of the entire Thurston County. Despite their differences, both cities face the same problem of growing homelessness due to rising rental prices. The number of homeless individuals in Thurston County increased significantly by more than 40% from steady counts in the past 4 years. That’s where Homes First comes in with an innovative and sustainable solution to this pressing problem.

Homes First is a non-profit that serves low-income tenants mainly in Thurston County by owning and managing affordable housing properties, most of which are supported by various voucher programs including Section 8. Homes First also maintains a scattered-site housing model, meaning that tenants reside in single-family or smaller multi-unit apartments and are more integrated within the community. From their website, “[when] households are ‘anonymized’ in their community, not stigmatized by being singled out as low-income, they are more likely to thrive and to develop long-term healthy relationships.”

In addition to this current business model, Homes First plans to launch its 2.0 Enhanced Property Management program (HF 2.0). HF 2.0 will continue expanding access to housing, by incentivizing private property owners to accept voucher holding tenants and let Homes First manage the property and tenants on their behalf. That way, property owners can fulfill their desire to serve the community without worrying about the administrative hassle of these programs, such as mandatory inspections, tenant qualifications, and maintenance repairs. Furthermore, Homes First brings the experience and connections with local service providers to support both landlords and tenants. To help with this initiative, Team ACAI built the internal HF 2.0 business plan and landlord-facing sales sheet. While Trudy stated that she can now move forward with HF 2.0 because of these deliverables, we felt that we gained the bigger slice of the pie* because of our time spent with her and Homes First.

*We also ate actual pie for breakfast at King Solomon’s Reef

Trudy joined Homes First in 2011 and was a powerhouse from the start, doubling the number of properties that Homes First owned in under 7 years. Every staff, board, and community member we spoke with praised her incredible leadership and passion for the cause. One of our very first conversations with Trudy revolved around the “nonprofit industrial complex” and opened our eyes to nonprofit systems that were intended to solve societal problems but may instead exacerbate them. Trudy’s sharp knowledge of and fearless attitude toward tackling the complex housing landscape impressed us; however, what blew us away the most were her strong ties to the local community. We spent the majority of our week with Trudy and her connections, learning various perspectives about affordable housing.

From Homes First’s pro bono lawyer Jason Zittel, we learned the legal and risk management implications of integrating HF 2.0 under the nonprofit umbrella. From property management company Prime Locations’ President Zach Kosturos, we learned about building rapport with clients through innovative ideas such as direct response marketing. Here we also gained an insight into pricing HF 2.0 as part of the business plan’s 4 P’s of marketing. From Hometown Property Management and WA 2nd District State Representative Andrew Barkis, we learned about adapting the business model to focus on customer service, shifting from siloed ownership to shared responsibility. From board member and CPA/risk management advisor Beth Brown, we learned about Homes First’s exemplary internal controls that are crucial for maintaining integrity and commitment to the community.

If our takeaways from this experience could be summarized in one word, it would be integration.

Integration was exemplified in multiple interpretations during our week with Homes First. On the one hand, integration means combining the strengths of public and private organizations to provide cost-effective and efficient solutions for addressing the housing crisis. On the other hand, integration means incorporating low-income families into the rest of the community through the scattered-site housing model.

Site visit with Development Director Marge Price

We witnessed this integration firsthand during a site visit, when we met a Homes First tenant. The apartment buildings were well-kept and bloomed with beautiful spring flowers. The appearance of this property ran contrary to the widespread public perception of low-income housing, which is often institutionally underfunded and under-kept. The integration is subtle but speaks volumes. The tenant thanked the Homes First staff endlessly for giving her and her family hot water, which she lived without for years before living in a Homes First property. Even the simplest solution that Homes First provides can mean the world to the community, and we felt proud to be helping this organization, even if it were for just a week.

Team ACAI + Trudy in front of the Homes First office

Thanks to Trudy, that short week was packed with insights. Learning about Homes First and its complex environment felt like drinking from a fire hose, to put it lightly; nevertheless, we gained more than we could have ever imagined. We left at the end of the week excited for the impact that Homes First will continue to create for its community and inspired to do the same for our own.

Special thank you’s to the Corey Seeman of Kresge Library Services and Zell Lurie’s Entrepreneur in Residence Rashmi Menon for supporting us with tremendous resources each week of Open Road.