The importance of strong “personal touch” relationships in housing services

Photo credit: By Michael Seljos San Diego Harbor [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

by Shawn Flanigan

To learn why the San Diego Housing Commission’s Achievement Academy – a suite of workforce development programs – is effective in supporting families receiving Section 8 vouchers, we continue conducting interviews in our longitudinal data collection with Achievement Academy families. Our conversations have put a spotlight on a key factor: a strong personal touch. The Section 8 recipients highly value the intensive, personal, positive interactions they have with Achievement Academy staff, and almost all of them point to positive outcomes that come from the personal investment of their “caseworkers”.

Achievement Academy staff are not actually caseworkers; their job title is Workforce Readiness Specialist. Nonetheless, Achievement Academy participants and others use the word caseworker broadly, undoubtedly because the poor interact with caseworkers and similar staff quite frequently. Though policy goals of eradicating poverty may vary with the political winds, scholars such as Piven and Coward[1] assert that the poor nonetheless perpetually endure as a problem to be managed and in turn are a population to be governed. This process of “poverty governance” requires poor people to interact with the state frequently and repeatedly. On the front lines of this poverty governance landscape are street-level government staff.  Everyone has experiences with government frontline workers. Teachers work with our children. TSA agents screen us at the airport. However, poor and minority communities have disproportionately high levels of interaction with government, and the frontline staff who work in government agencies have disproportionate influence on the lives of the poor.[2] In the lives of poor families, the role of the “caseworker” becomes key.

The fact that interviewees view their Achievement Academy “caseworkers” positively is something to be celebrated, because this certainly is not always the case. Frontline workers determine eligibility for services and oversee the services individuals receive, and there are many instances where interactions are negative for the potential recipient. Poor people are denied housing vouchers, informed that their nutrition assistance will be reduced, or told that there is no childcare program available during the hours when they work. In addition, the process of determining eligibility can be onerous and invasive. Individuals may be asked to disclose basic information about their income and health status, but sometimes also are required to disclose criminal histories, information about guests staying in their home, and even detailed accounts of their sexual history.[3] This is not the fault of the frontline staff per se; many street-level workers themselves are troubled by certain rules and limits placed on them by their agency.[4] Nevertheless, frequent repeated interactions lead many poor to have a negative image of “caseworkers”.

In contrast, our interview participants have a very positive impression of Achievement Academy staff, and these positive relationships are part of what keeps participants engaged in programs.  The nature of the Achievement Academy’s activities is an important factor. Achievement Academy staff do not determine eligibility for Section 8 Vouchers, and in large part provide additional supportive services and incentives, rather than deny services. Still, in an environment where many agencies struggle to keep lower income clientele engaged in non-mandatory programs, two thousand clients each year make use of the Achievement Academy’s entirely voluntary programming.

Achievement Academy participants paint clear differences between their experience in the Achievement Academy and their experiences with other bureaucracies that authorize services, including verification of eligibility for Section 8 vouchers. One mother captures a common theme among our interview participants: “It’s like you are going in and applying for a benefit. Like you are going into the Medicaid, the welfare office, social security office, or something like that. It’s really strict, tight security. It’s a totally different environment.  With the Achievement Academy, it’s more of a learning environment, and there they assist you. It’s totally different. I feel like I’m relaxed. I feel like they are there to help me achieve. (In other offices) you are just a number and they are like, “Okay, get out of here.””

Achievement Academy leadership restructured their programs to provide a warm and welcoming environment, in a separate location from the area where Section 8 voucher eligibility is determined. Staff are expected to have very frequent interactions with participants, and participants are given customer satisfaction surveys to ensure that those interactions are predominantly positive. Participants most often come for assistance with job searches, but a wide array of other services are used. The pie chart illustrates the broad spectrum of services offered, and shows that more than 65% of service interactions are for types of services that represent less than one percent of all services offered. In other words, most of the assistance participants seek is for small niche needs, and the Achievement Academy stands ready to assist.

Achievement Academy staff interact with participants regularly, and in a variety of formats. Our data covers an average of 15 months of interactions for each of 175 Achievement Academy participants. During this time, staff had an average of forty service interactions with each individual client, for an average of nearly three service interactions per client per month. It should be noted that these are interactions during which participants received a concrete form of assistance; check-in calls or e-mails to inform participants of upcoming opportunities or check on their wellbeing are not included in these figures.  This volume of participant-staff member interaction is quite impressive.

Participants come by the workforce development center for assistance, but also can receive some types of help via phone and e-mail. Flexibility in communication is very valuable for Achievement Academy participants, most of whom do not live in a single housing development, but use their vouchers to obtain housing on the private market all around San Diego. In a city that covers 372 square miles, using public transportation to get downtown to the Achievement Academy is not always easy. Participants report being grateful that they can also request assistance by phone or e-mail.

Most interviewees describe being pleased with the amount of contact with Achievement Academy staff, and the flexibility in types of contact. As one participant describes, “I hear from (my assigned Achievement Academy staff) for the schedule of the classes that they do, and then once or twice a month I hear about different job things. Every month, she sends, “Hey don’t be a stranger, let me know if there’s anything you need.” So she’s always in contact, you know, “If you need anything just call me,” and I do.”

Overall, the participants we are following report returning for services because of the warm atmosphere, the open door environment, and past successful experiences with the Achievement Academy staff. When staff successfully help participants navigate one of life’s challenges, and with positivity, participants are more likely to return for additional services. As one participant summarizes, “They (in the Achievement Academy) treat you like a human being and don’t have a bad attitude. That’s kind of uplifting for people. It’s supportive, the way they act. It’s encouraging and they can give some of the people on Section 8 hope.”


[1] Piven, Frances Fox, and Richard A. Cloward. 1971. Regulating the Poor: The Public Functions of Welfare. New York: Pantheon. As other examples, see for example Schram, S., Fording, R. C., & Soss, J. (2011). Disciplining the Poor: Neoliberal Paternalism and the Persistent Power of Race. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
[2] See for examples, Michael Lipsky’s classic work Street-Level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services (1980, Russel Sage Foundation).
[3] For some example, see Joe Soss’s 2000 book Unwanted Claims: The Politics of Participation in the U.S. Welfare System (University of Michigan Press).
[4] Lipsky, Street-Level Bureacracy, 1980.