Partnering to prevent evictions

Ms. B is an elder caring for the young child of a deceased relative. Recently diagnosed with cancer, she is unable to work and facing eviction from her home. Her story is all too common for people across the nation.

In an effort to bring social workers to the forefront of solving housing instability, the Steve Hicks School of Social Work has partnered with Main Street Renewal, a for-profit property management company, to create a pilot eviction-prevention program. The program, designed to help residents like Ms. B., allowed her to stay in her home after helping her locate $1,700 in rental assistance.

“Thank you so much,” she said in an email to the Client Assessment Resources Empowerment Services (CARES) team at MSR. “You are a God-sent angel to me. I want to let people know about this landlord who actually cares about people.”

A majority of low-income families allocates more than half of their earnings to pay for housing because of stagnant and falling incomes, rising housing costs and shortfall in federal housing assistance. Research conducted at the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows “poor single mothers with young children, particularly African Americans, are at an especially high risk of eviction.”

Maria Geary-Brautigan CARES team

Social work student Maria Geary-Brautigan speaks with residents at MSR’s call center. Photo by Montinique Monroe

A percentage of MSR residents fall into delinquency and become eligible for eviction – putting residents at risk for negative social and health outcomes. Research shows evictions are directly correlated with job loss, inability to secure future safe affordable housing, poor physical and mental health, suicide and more.

Social work professor Joan Asseff is the program director for the CARES team at MSR. The CARES team, which consists of social work students, communicates daily with the MSR evictions and collections team  to advocate for residents who are delinquent in rent or anticipate having difficulty paying for it. By conducting phone-based needs assessments, the team is able to gather and organize resources to aid MSR residents.

“We look at every case comprehensively. We engage and try to figure out what is in the best interest of the resident, what resources are best for them and what the barriers are,” Asseff said. “Facing eviction and being in eviction is an immense stressor and so we try to help the resident problem-solve and make a decision about what they want to do next.”

The first-of-its-kind program integrates social work and for-profit property management, bringing new perspectives to each client situation and the systems affecting them. Asseff says that interprofessional work is a major factor in successful eviction prevention.

“The interdisciplinary piece of this work is very important,” Asseff said. “We are not just receiving referrals from MSR and supporting residents. We are collaboratively working with collections as a team to look for solutions to prevent an eviction, one resident at a time. This is what makes our program so innovative.”

The program began in 2017 with four first-year master’s social work students, who conducted research to build the program structure. Master’s student Natalie Burtzos, who was in this first cohort, became so passionate about the program that she continued to work on the CARES team, serving as a team leader and trainer for social work students entering the program. Burtzos was recently hired as MSR’s first full-time social work supervisor. In her position, she will monitor eviction prevention efforts and lead relational skills workshops for MSR employees on topics such as de-escalation.

Natalie Burtzos at CARES meeting

Natalie Farci-Burtzos speaks with social work students during MSR’s CARES team meeting.

“I came to the school wanting to work in criminal justice reform only, but I now have new blinders on,” Burtzos said. “The students from my original cohort and I are so invested in housing policy. My current focus in social work is housing policy, advocacy and expansion. The experience at MSR really helped us grow as social workers.”

Since the program started, the CARES team intervened with 537 households to promote a journey toward financial stability, making a positive impact in the lives of 306 children. It provided 988 referrals to vital community resources and supported 12 veterans and their families. The team improved the quality of life for residents, proving that through relationship building, communication and understanding, evictions can be prevented. Burtzos said she firmly believes social work advocacy is needed in housing policy.

“It’s important to be invited into a space where social workers aren’t usually present, whether it’s a school or medical setting,” she said. “It’s so important to build relationships with entities like Main Street Renewal because when we’re invited into a space like this, and we’re able to show how social work actually solves a lot of the problems, doors will continue to open and we’ll continue to help create better outcomes for residents.”

By Montinique Monroe. Published April 10, 2019.