Nonprofit Evolves Into an Affordable Housing Landlord for Former Foster Youth

Posted February 7, 2022
Woman holding a young toddler on her hip, and she's smiling and covering her mouth with her hand, as if in excited shock.

Photo of Tatiana and child courtesy of WJAR, Providence

Tears of joy flowed at Fos­ter For­wards Jan­u­ary 2022 rib­bon-cut­ting cer­e­mo­ny. The Rhode Island non­prof­it had spent months prepar­ing a mul­ti­fam­i­ly house that it had pur­chased, ren­o­vat­ed and fur­nished with help from donors. And, at long last, it was ready.

The emo­tion­al mile­stone is the first of many for Fos­ter For­ward, a site of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Jim Casey Youth Oppor­tu­ni­ties Ini­tia­tive® that is ded­i­cat­ed to help­ing cur­rent and for­mer youth in fos­ter care succeed.

Sta­ble Hous­ing and More

The house’s new ten­ants — three young women and their chil­dren — have gained more than a new address for the next three years. They’re also get­ting a rare fresh start in a hous­ing mar­ket where afford­able rentals are scarce.

As part of the oppor­tu­ni­ty, each young person:

  • Pays only 30% of their income toward rent. 
  • Receives sub­si­dized rent sup­port­ed by fed­er­al and oth­er hous­ing vouchers. 
  • Gets aid through the Jim Casey Initiative’s Oppor­tu­ni­ty Pass­port®, a match sav­ings pro­gram that helps young peo­ple build their finan­cial capa­bil­i­ties.
  • Receives help with edu­ca­tion and employ­ment, two areas that — in addi­tion to hous­ing — address basic needs that sup­port their suc­cess to live independently.

What Fos­ter For­ward is doing is crit­i­cal because they are knit­ting togeth­er a strat­e­gy that pro­motes con­nec­tion to school, work and oth­er oppor­tu­ni­ties for young peo­ple who have expe­ri­enced fos­ter care,” says Cather­ine Lester, an asso­ciate direc­tor with the Casey Foun­da­tion. It is excit­ing to see this hous­ing option come online as a brick-and-mor­tar resource that can help with begin­ning to pro­vide the sta­bil­i­ty young peo­ple need to begin to heal so that they real­ly are able to learn, to work, and to nur­ture the rela­tion­ships that mat­ter most to them.”

A Famil­iar Challenge

The prop­er­ty is locat­ed in Paw­tuck­et, where apart­ments can rent for any­where between $990 to $1,200 a month, depend­ing on the loca­tion, size and con­di­tion of the unit. This price range is dis­heart­en­ing­ly high for hun­dreds of local youth who have exit­ed fos­ter care, are liv­ing inde­pen­dent­ly and lack the sup­port and safe­ty net of a per­ma­nent family.

Assum­ing the role of land­lord is a piv­ot for Fos­ter For­ward, which has spent years help­ing home­less youth search for clean, safe apartments.

An esti­mat­ed 200 Rhode Island young peo­ple ages 18 to 24 are home­less, says Fos­ter For­ward Exec­u­tive Direc­tor Lisa Guil­lette. About a third of these youth are par­ent­ing or are preg­nant, accord­ing to the state’s 2018 Point-In-Time Count, which uti­lizes snap­shots and sur­veys of the home­less pop­u­la­tion. Youth of col­or, youth who iden­ti­fy as LGBTQ and youth who have expe­ri­enced fos­ter care are dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly rep­re­sent­ed with­in this age group, the data indicates.

The pre­vail­ing solu­tion to date, hous­ing vouch­ers, help young peo­ple pay for shel­ter. But many fac­tors — includ­ing a reluc­tance to rent to young ten­ants and a lack of safe, clean afford­able options — pre­vent youth from using the vouch­ers to secure suit­able apartments.

A Nec­es­sary Pivot

Upon decid­ing that the prob­lem was intractable” in the region served by Fos­ter For­ward, the orga­ni­za­tion began house hunt­ing, accord­ing to Guillette.

After more than a decade as a sup­port­ive ser­vices provider for young peo­ple leav­ing fos­ter care, we were at an impasse help­ing them find safe and afford­able rental options,” says Guil­lette. A gen­er­ous dona­tion from a pri­vate char­i­ta­ble foun­da­tion and the advent of the fed­er­al Fos­ter Youth to Inde­pen­dence vouch­ers pro­pelled us from bystander to landlord.”

But the shift to land­lord — and the task of trans­form­ing a fix­er-upper — was far from seam­less. Fos­ter For­ward encoun­tered local zon­ing restric­tions that pro­hib­it­ed it from cre­at­ing a fourth unit in the house. The prop­er­ty also lacked suf­fi­cient park­ing to sup­port anoth­er unit, and a request for a vari­ance was denied. 

Today, Guil­lette remains unde­terred. While hard­ly inex­pen­sive or easy to exe­cute, this high­ly tar­get­ed small test of change cre­ative­ly lever­ages and braids fund­ing in sus­tain­able ways that will ulti­mate­ly spring­board our efforts to repli­cate and scale,” she says.

The scale she’s envi­sion­ing is sig­nif­i­cant: Guil­lette has set a long-term goal for Fos­ter For­ward to estab­lish more than 100 homes just like its Paw­tuck­et house. Real­iz­ing this vision would help young peo­ple through­out the state access afford­able hous­ing — and get a much-need­ed jump­start on their path to success.

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