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Grand Forks housing program aims for self-sufficiency

Emily Walsh met her goals in the Grand Forks Housing Authority's Family Self-Sufficiency Program which aims to help people on housing vouchers become independent. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Emily Walsh’s goal was to take care of her young daughter.

But to participate in the Grand Forks Housing Authority’s Family Self-Sufficiency Program, Walsh had to come up with “measurable goals” — graduate from college, get a better paying job.

In April 2011, the then-single mother signed those two goals into a contract with the Family Self-Sufficiency Program.

Walsh, 31, graduated from the program last December, having met all of her goals and earned an escrow check of money she saved through the program.

Walsh is looking at moving out of an apartment and into a house with her 7-year-old daughter, her fiance and their 1-year-old son.

“Mindset-wise, this program helped me to realize that that’s a possibility,” Walsh said.

The Family Self-Sufficiency Program is through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, locally administered by the Grand Forks Housing Authority. Participants must qualify for Section 8 income-based rental housing vouchers.

Grand Forks was the first city in North Dakota to have the FSS program, starting in 1992, said Terry Hanson, executive director of GFHA. The program aims to help people on housing assistance become self-sufficient, with better paying jobs and better education, he said.

Sens. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and John Hoeven, R-N.D., recently announced continued federal funding for all three North Dakota cities’ programs; other programs are located in Fargo and Minot. Grand Forks’ program has been awarded $103,514.

Meeting goals

FSS program participants must meet measurable goals within five years, like Walsh did, to graduate from the program, said DeAnn Kerzman, FSS coordinator at GFHA.

The goals are always associated with attaining a higher income, Kerzman said. “The goal is to have less dependence on public assistance and to rely more on yourself,” she said.

Federal regulations also require participants to not receive cash welfare for one year before graduating the program.

After graduating from the program, Walsh is pursuing her master’s degree at UND and is working as an intern at GFHA, hoping to land a full-time job there.

Twenty-one people graduated from FSS last year in Grand Forks, Kerzman said. There are 72 people enrolled in the program, she said.

FSS participants are “rewarded” for increasing their income while in the program with an escrow account, which holds savings earned while participating in the program.

Housing vouchers are income-based, so typically as someone’s income increases, the amount of money they receive through the voucher decreases, and they have to pay more for rent in proportion to their income.

But FSS participants pay the same amount of rent throughout the program, based on their income when they started the program, Kerzman said. Additional income earned goes into the escrow account, which can be accessed after successfully completing the program.

Walsh said she is using most of her escrow money to pay for her tuition at UND.

‘Gives people hope’

Typically participants receive an escrow check of about $5,000 or $6,000 when they graduate, Kerzman said. The highest escrow check ever awarded in Grand Forks was $16,790, she said.

“(That client) had nothing when she started,” but she got a job to earn those savings, Kerzman said.

FSS participants can also access their escrow account in specific situations during the program, to help them meet their self-sufficiency goals, Kerzman said. For example, many participants use the account to fix their car, since a car is considered necessary to drive to work or school.

Walsh said having goals and an escrow savings account through the program helped motivate her to achieve personal goals she had already had in mind, such as creating a better life for her daughter.

“It gives people hope that they can save up a little bit of money and that home ownership is a possibility,” Walsh said.

And the five-year deadline didn’t cause any pressure for Walsh, she said. “I had the goals anyway, and it didn’t feel so much pressure as it was more motivation.”

On the Web: For more information on the Family Self-Sufficiency Program, visit www.grandforkshousingauthority.org.

Charly Haley

Charly Haley covers city government for the Grand Forks Herald. As night reporter, she also has many general assignments. Before working at the Herald, she was a reporter at the Jamestown Sun and interned at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, Detroit Lakes Newspapers and the St. Cloud Times. Haley is a graduate of Minnesota State University Moorhead, and her hometown is Sartell, Minn.

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