A Small Housing Authority with a Big Vision: How Bath Housing Broke the Mold

By Maya Brennan

What does it take for an organization to break out of its silo and contribute effectively to the needs of people and places? This question lies at the heart of the work of How Housing Matters. The answer, in its many different shapes and sizes, always seems to be leadership.

The story of Bath Housing’s Community Aging in Place (CAP) program is no different, although the inspiration for the program came from the most unlikely of places: a routine medical appointment and a daylong conference in Washington, D.C.

Bath Housing is a cobranded housing authority and nonprofit development corporation that serves a small community of six towns (total population: around 10,000) along the coast north of Portland, Maine. The housing authority operates 97 public housing apartments for senior or disabled residents and 134 housing choice vouchers, while the affiliated development corporation owns 65 apartments, 40 of which are restricted for elderly or disabled residents.

When Bath Housing was searching for a new executive director, Debora Keller applied with a clear purpose. “When the board was hiring, I said to them, ‘If you want somebody to administer the public housing and the housing choice voucher programs business as usual, then don’t hire me,’ ” recalls Keller. “But if you want an executive director [who’s] going to come in, understand the needs in the community, and understand how this organization can play a different role in meeting those needs, then I think I would be a good candidate.” The board decided it was time to try something new. She started in January 2014.

Listening and Learning

First on her to-do list was to spend six to 12 months listening and learning. Keller spent her whole career in housing development, including multifamily tax credit properties and a housing-first program for homeless women, but she had never worked at a housing authority before.

With city support and some external funding, Bath Housing brought in a consultant to conduct a community housing needs assessment. The results, which showed a strong desire among community members to age in their own homes, were not surprising to Keller, but the process itself proved quite valuable. First, the external engagement of the focus groups gave Bath Housing a presence in the community beyond its residents and partners. Second, a client survey evolved into a new housing navigation program for prospective applicants. Rather than handing out applications when people enter their office seeking housing assistance, Bath Housing’s staff members now talk to prospective applicants about their needs before referring them to appropriate resources—whether that’s within Bath Housing or outside.

“A lot of people coming in and getting on our waiting lists for elderly disabled housing are looking at an 18-month wait. In talking to them, we learned that many didn’t necessarily want to move into our housing, but there were home maintenance issues that they could no longer handle,” says Keller.

While learning about the community and Bath Housing’s clients, she also turned her eyes on the organization itself. What she found was “the state’s biggest man cave” in the form of the 7,000-square-foot (650 sq m) maintenance department and a caring and dedicated staff.

“The maintenance technicians are our first responders,” says Keller. “They see firsthand what’s going on with people. They know when Mrs. Smith has three work orders for a lockout that she might have some dementia issues starting.”

It started to become clear that Bath Housing had assets that could improve housing stability beyond its traditional client base—but it wasn’t yet clear how to pull it all together.

From the Doctor to a White Paper

By autumn, the missing pieces came together one by one.

In a story that seems impossible outside of fictional depictions of small-town life, Keller and her doctor sat brainstorming about housing and health care instead of going through her physical examination. In the process, she learned that Mid Coast Medical Group was sending occupational therapists out to conduct home assessments to identify in-home hazards and advise patients about modifications that could help them stay safely at home. “But what happens then is they get this list of items to do, and they don’t have any way to get it done—they can’t afford it and they don’t know [whom] to call."

Then Keller heard about an upcoming How Housing Matters conference and booked a flight to D.C. “It resonated with me profoundly because I had spent [the prior] nine years building multifamily housing and feeling like we could be doing more to connect the people [who] were moving into these tax credit apartments with the community in a variety of ways,” says Keller. The conference was hosted by the National Building Museum and cosponsored with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (the principal funder of this website), the Office of Policy Development & Research at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the National Housing Conference.

It was a packed agenda, with very little time to network. Just 90 minutes focused on Bath’s primary concern about housing and aging, but the whole day showed Keller that she was not alone in thinking that housing could be about more than production.

From her seat in the museum’s great hall, Keller heard a fellow housing authority executive director, Michael Mirra, talk about the Tacoma Housing Authority’s education project. “He said, as a housing authority, we’re really good at pushing paper. These are the things we’re good at, and we’ve capitalized on that with this community partnership,” recalls Keller. “And I thought about that as we started planning this aging-in-place program. Well, what are we good at? We’re good at filling work orders in elderly people’s apartments. That’s what we do day in and day out.”

But Tacoma, Washington, has Moving to Work authorization. Bath Housing does not.

Like others in what Keller refers to as “a new breed of housing authority directors,” she still found a way to fulfill her vision. Some turn to partnerships to fill the gap. Bath Housing, however, had the benefit of a 501(c)3 development arm, allowing funds to come in from external sources.

On the plane home, Keller drafted the notes for a white paper about a new program, and a list of partners that included Mid Coast–Parkview Health, Habitat for Humanity 7 Rivers, two foundation prospects, and an evaluation partner. She mapped out the expected cost per house, the tasks her maintenance staff would do, the time involved, everything.

One year after Keller flew home from the How Housing Matters conference, Bath Housing’s CAP program was off the ground and modifying its first homes.

Getting Started

Once back in Maine, Keller talked to everyone she could about the CAP idea, which seemed so simple that she could hardly believe it did not already exist. As it turns out, a similar effort existed through Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, the Community Aging in Place—Advancing Better Living for Elders (CAPABLE) program.

The head of CAPABLE, Sarah Szanton, came to Maine and met with Bath Housing’s team members to advise them in program development and best practices to date. CAPABLE involves six home visits by an occupational therapist, four home visits by a registered nurse, and home modifications ordered by the occupational therapist. The CAPABLE model has given Bath Housing a head start and its evaluation partner at Johns Hopkins.

The rest of the partners came through as Keller had mapped out. The John T. Gorman Foundation has been an enthusiastic foundation partner, funding the costs of home modifications and the development of the program’s assessment and evaluation tools. Any jobs that go beyond the capacity of Bath Housing are handled by the local Habitat affiliate, Habitat for Humanity 7 Rivers. Through its home health agency, CHANS, Mid Coast–Parkview Health donates consultation time with an occupational therapist to help identify appropriate solutions for residents’ specific needs.

In the program’s trial run, CAP modified 15 homes, assisting local homeowners who are over the age of 60 or disabled with an income under 80 percent of the area median. As Bath Housing rolls out the program on a bigger scale, Mid Coast–Parkview Health’s community health and wellness staff are ensuring that their staff are actively referring potential clients. The Gorman Foundation grant should allow CAP to assist 100 homeowners with home modification needs over the course of a year.

The next piece to tackle is an expansion of CAP’s health programming to fully replicate CAPABLE’s in-depth, three-pronged approach.

Serving the Community and Bath Housing’s Residents

While CAP focuses on homeowners, Bath Housing remains committed to the housing and health needs of people receiving housing assistance through its rental programs. The organization has enhanced resident services programming, incorporated aging-in-place features as a standard part of its unit turnover protocol, and begun offering medication reconciliation clinics with Mid Coast Medical Group and University of New England pharmacy students on rotations there.

Bath Housing’s rental programs are stronger through these efforts, as well as the seemingly unrelated CAP program. By keeping eligible families stably housed in their own homes, CAP reduces pressure on the waiting lists for housing assistance, allowing the limited resource to serve those with the greatest need.

What made it possible for a small housing authority and nonprofit developer in Maine to add value for its residents and others in the community?

An executive director’s willingness to pause and learn.

The commitment of the board to allow the organization to change and play a different role in the community.

The dedication of its maintenance staff.

An array of partners all willing to lend a hand.

By asking, “What do I do better than anyone else?” and by engaging others in the community to add capacity, a small organization can do big things.