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Pathways to Opportunity: HUD’s Self-Sufficiency Programs

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Pathways to Opportunity: HUD’s Self-Sufficiency Programs

Image of a family landscaping the yard in front of a home. A woman using a gardening tool and a child sitting near her are shown in the foreground, and a man, pushing another child in a wheelbarrow, is visible in the background.
HUD’s housing assistance can help families obtain quality, stable housing; however, even with this assistance, low-income residents may face major barriers to self-sufficiency.

Over the past 30 years, HUD has implemented various strategies to help HUD-assisted residents develop new capabilities, earn more, and become economically self-sufficient. Today, an array of HUD programs support and encourage residents in pursuit of these goals. These programs help families become more economically stable in the long run, which in turn enables governments to stretch their limited housing dollars further. But people can face many barriers on the path to self-sufficiency. This article describes two major HUD self-sufficiency programs: Family Self-Sufficiency (FSS) and Jobs-Plus. New research on FSS — based on promising initiatives in communities nationwide — and new Jobs-Plus sites will help us better understand how to help residents overcome those challenges.

The Context for Self-Sufficiency

Quality, stable housing, which housing assistance makes possible, is a foundation for self-sufficiency. Children learn more in stable housing; children who move frequently often perform worse in school. Stable housing can allow adults to re-enter the workforce, pursue higher education, and develop new skills.

Even with housing assistance, however, low-income residents can face major barriers to self-sufficiency. The long-term effects of poverty and stress cause both physical and mental health issues that limit people’s capability to work and to learn. Low-income jobs are more likely to be unstable or temporary — losing a job, or the fear of losing a job, can aggravate other issues such as depression. Many families struggle to afford child care or transportation to work. Low-income workers often work unpredictable schedules, which can make arranging child care or going back to school difficult. People can also encounter practical and psychological barriers as they leave assistance; the point at which families earn enough to feel stable is not necessarily the same point at which benefits end.

Family Self-Sufficiency

In 1990, Congress authorized FSS as the first HUD program to offer rent incentives for tenants. HUD-assisted families normally pay higher rents when their incomes increase. For families that voluntarily enroll in FSS, however, the public housing agency (PHA) puts the difference between their original and new rents into an escrow account. Families receive that money plus interest if they fulfill their 5-year contracts of participation. These contracts establish goals based on each individual’s path to self-sufficiency, such as enrolling in school or buying a home. To complete the FSS contract, the head of the family must be employed and must certify that no member of the family has received Temporary Assistance for Needy Families welfare for at least a year.

Approximately 700 PHAs now participate in FSS, serving about 72,000 families through various strategies. Traditionally, PHAs manage cases and coordinate services, connecting participants with social and economic assistance, local employers, and educational opportunities. HUD funds the FSS service coordinators but not the services themselves, which are up to local communities to arrange. Although federal law defines the basic requirements of FSS, communities have considerable flexibility to design local programs.

Some of the most promising FSS strategies leverage community resources to directly address barriers to self-sufficiency. In Montgomery County, Maryland, local health care providers provide participants with mental health services. In Santa Ana County, California, the PHA addresses language barriers by working with local ESL volunteers who connect participants with training and employment opportunities.

Other programs have experimented with the structure of FSS. In Portland, Oregon, the FSS program has moved away from service coordination to “coaching,” in which FSS coordinators work with residents to overcome challenges and build independence. Portland has already seen positive results from this model, as its participants are less likely to drop out of FSS.

FSS is a challenging program to evaluate. Because communities have implemented FSS in many different ways, there is no single FSS model to study. In addition, self-sufficiency is an ambitious goal; many factors could influence individual outcomes, and the program’s effect might become apparent only after considerable time has passed. The evaluations so far have been limited in scope, although some suggest that FSS has had positive outcomes when well implemented.

A national, HUD-funded study of FSS will evaluate the program more rigorously and test how families respond to a range of social services such as housing counseling and job training. Preliminary results from that study are expected in 2017.


HUD and the Rockefeller Foundation designed Jobs-Plus in the late 1990s as a program aimed squarely at addressing the unique obstacles public housing residents face. Jobs-Plus includes three elements: employment services at onsite job centers; new rent rules that offer financial incentives for residents to work; and neighbor-to-neighbor conversations that support working. The employment services were substantial, encompassing job search assistance, education programs, vocational training, and other support services such as child care and transportation assistance.

Six public housing developments in six cities tested Jobs-Plus from 1998 to 2003. In the three sites where PHAs fully implemented the program, MDRC found that Jobs-Plus had a sustained impact on residents’ income even after the program ended. Over the long term, participants earned an average of $1,517 per year (19%) more than did nonparticipants.

Along with the core program, these communities took steps to address barriers to self-sufficiency. The Dayton, Ohio, program, for example, partnered with an organization that helps ex-felons enter the workforce. In St. Paul, where many residents were foreign born, the program hired multilingual staff and sponsored a Hmong Women’s Support Group.

A decade later, HUD revived Jobs-Plus. In 2014, HUD invested $24 million to implement the program in nine PHAs and local partners over 4 years; the programs in these areas will be evaluated. New York and San Antonio are also implementing the program without HUD funding.

Self-Sufficiency Moving Forward

FSS and Jobs Plus complement HUD’s broader mission to employ housing as a platform to improve families’ quality of life. At the local level, communities’ innovative efforts to support residents can identify promising strategies, and ongoing research by HUD will help explain which models work best, where, and why.



The contents of this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Government.