Training and Technical Assistance

Jennifer Emmerling/ There Is More Work To Be Done

Every year, dozens of communities and community-based organizations turn to HAC for assistance in building their capacity to meet their areas’ unique housing, community, and economic development needs. The provision of comprehensive technical assistance allows HAC to meet its core mission of facilitating the development and delivery of housing, community, and economic development programs in underserved rural areas in a sustainable manner.

HAC has a long history of working with organizations in underserved rural populations and geographic areas. HAC maintains a special focus on rural high-need groups and regions, including Native American Lands, the Mississippi Delta, farmworkers, the Southwest border colonias, Central Appalachia and the poorest of the poor in the most rural places. HAC uses innovative solutions to address some of the most difficult challenges facing underserved communities.

HAC’s Technical Assistance Services

Rural housing organizations have incredible potential to address the distinct needs for their rural communities by: a) expanding the stock of affordable rental and ownership housing to reduce housing cost burden and overcrowding; b) promoting economic mobility through employment opportunities afforded by housing and infrastructure development c) increasing family wealth and income by improving housing quality/value; c) helping rural populations qualify for and access credit; d) expanding the stock of accessible housing – particularly for rural areas’ rapidly expanding older and disabled populations; and e) supporting fair housing, ending discrimination against rural minorities.

The following are a few examples of how HAC’s Technical Assistance and Training Division work to build the capacity of these organizations to meet the needs of their communities.

HAC developed a Capacity Assessment Toolkit to measure the capacity of rural housing and community development organizations quantitatively and qualitatively. This tool is scalable allowing for targeted and comprehensive assessments and easy-to-evaluate improvement longitudinally. Measuring 7-15 dimensions on each of the 12 activity types, assessors review the organization’s ability to undertake activities they are currently engaged in or plan to engage in the next 1-3 years. Under each activity type, assessors also provide supplemental narrative on the identified capacity gaps and recommendations for proposed and future technical assistance. The assessment tool is used on all organizations receiving ongoing assistance under HAC’s technical assistance programs and data is captured in HAC’s customer relationship management system.

HAC’s Strategic Planning tool begins in earnest with a one-day staff and board retreat. Trainers use collaborative decision-making techniques to determine the organization’s highest priority goals and then break up the staff and board into groups to develop SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound) objectives. Post workshop, the organization’s Executive Director (or designee) and the HAC Facilitator draft the plan into a final document which is presented to the organization’s Board of Directors for adoption. While there are more comprehensive long-term processes used for strategic planning, HAC has found this approach to help rural organizations with small staff and boards define their most important goals and objectives in a quick and cost-effective manner.

HAC’s in-house evaluation tool has two facets of measurements. The first component is a longitudinal comparison of capacity assessments completed on organizations as they progress in capacity from beginner to advanced housing development organizations. The second is a closeout evaluation including a series of questions to determine the beneficiary organization’s satisfaction of assistance received. The closeout evaluation survey asks the organization to measure progress against each outcome identified in the workplan:

  1. To what extent has your organization achieved the outcome?
  2. What factors contributed to the improvement?
  3. In your opinion, which of the following prevented your organization from fully achieving this outcome?
  4. How likely do you think it is that your organization will sustain improvement in the future?

Market analyses, which provide an accurate representation of housing needs in a given community at a particular period in time, are critical to the success of rural affordable housing development – and a requirement for LIHTC and other key federal and state programs. However, rural housing providers with limited capacity often struggle to gather and analyze data that accurately represents the broad geographies they represent. These rural housing providers require intensive coaching to gather complete and accurate data from credible sources and develop analyses which properly position projects for success, balancing key supply and demand predictors in the housing environment. HAC assists rural housing organizations to complete thorough market analyses to help organizations make smart, data-driven decisions regarding potential projects.

Rural developers struggle to plan, secure financing for, and complete predevelopment activities, including feasibility and market studies, environmental and engineering work, zoning requests, preliminary cost estimates and architectural materials, preparation of funding and loan applications, preparation of projections, surveys, appraisals, and other third-party predevelopment expenses. The inability to undertake predevelopment is a significant barrier to rural housing and economic development projects. In fact, as many as 38% of rural stakeholders surveyed in 2017 identified predevelopment assistance as a key area for future training and investment. HAC provides support to rural housing organizations to address common predevelopment barriers, such as planning, design, and environmental and structural assessments for projects that are proceeding to construction.

To build confidence and community investment in their development approach, rural housing providers need to develop thoughtful strategies to engage community members. Such engagement is critical to build a sense of legitimacy and support for projects; build stronger networks across racial, ethnic, generational, gender, and socioeconomic divides; and ensure that residents are involved in local and regional decision-making processes. However, limited staffing and knowledge of effective engagement strategies curtail authentic community engagement, potentially resulting in projects that do not reflect rural community needs. HAC assists rural housing organizations to pursue community outreach strategies to local area residents and businesses – developing partnerships with area churches, schools, tribes, community colleges, job centers, social service agencies, local housing authorities, local banks, and area employers – ensuring proposed projects truly align with priorities identified in plans.

It can be a struggle for rural housing providers to understand how to meet Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing requirements in their communities. Capacity building is essential for many rural housing providers to improve methods of increasing public awareness of individual rights and protections over a broad geographic area; as well as to partner to facilitate greater outreach and improved enforcement. These efforts ensure that HAC’s TA recipients are proactively and affirmatively complying with requirements, and most importantly protecting vulnerable populations including disabled and aging populations, racial minorities and Native American families. HAC expands the knowledge and capacity of rural housing organizations to prevent housing discrimination ensuring that their staff, policies, processes, and forms are proactively and affirmatively complying with federal and state Fair Housing protections.

Rural organizations often struggle to budget their projects well and stitch together financing – limiting the scale of their development. HAC’s 2017 Assessment also revealed that for the 2013-2017 period, about a third of respondents developed, rehabilitated, or preserved fewer than 25 homes. To increase the scale of this development, rural housing providers require education and coaching to formulate accurate development budgets that thoroughly detail all sources and uses. Furthermore, they need capacity building to better understand, access, and combine the myriad funding sources necessary to make the budget work – including such federal sources as LIHTC, CDBG, and HOME funds, as well as funding options available at the state, county and town level. HAC provides assistance to rural housing organizations to detail the project budget’s sources and uses. HAC also assists organizations to delineate potential financial limitations or enhancements (the potential for loss or reduced funding, or increased funding) and assistance in evaluation and assembling project financing including loans, grants, tax credits and potential federal funding sources.

Rural housing development is complicated by a variety of factors including the lack of water and sewer infrastructure, the economics of building at a scale that is appropriate for small towns and assembling the financing for small scale developments. Compounding these challenges is the dearth of project management for an often widely scattered portfolio over a number of different counties. Rural housing providers require extensive skill building to help them to efficiently oversee two or more developments simultaneously; and actively move projects forward from acquisition to completion of construction and lease – including financial analysis and applications, design and construction, and transfer of the completed project to the property management function. HAC assists rural housing organizations to create a Construction and Completion Schedule with benchmarks for completing land acquisition, infrastructure improvements, constructing units, and conveying units. HAC works with organizations to adhere to this schedule and can provide TA to them at the first signs of project delays.

Rural housing providers with more limited capacity require special and measured attention to become effective affordable housing providers and access and manage HUD program funds. Capacity needs for these rural organizations may include assistance gaining their 501(c)3 certification; establishing strong systems of financial accountability and control; ensuring low income community representation on the board; conducting effective community outreach; partnering effectively with their local participating jurisdiction; assessing/aligning potential federal program resources for their programs; developing applications for such resources; and maintaining systems for proper investment into eligible uses, strong accountability, and reporting. Capacity needs also include expertise and infrastructure in federal funds management, such as 2 CFR 200 requirements.

Rural housing providers with varying levels of capacity continually require training and education to access and manage HUD program funds effectively. With initial capacity investments (such as organizational and financial infrastructure), rural organizations can progress to the stage where designation (e.g. RHDO, CHDO, etc.) and access to HUD program funds to scale their development to become feasible and desirable.