Alaska Innovates First Program To Subsidize Housing For Victims Of Violence

The need for safe housing for women and children in Alaska who have suffered from domestic violence has sparked a first in the nation program to help meet the demand. The Empowering Choice Housing program was created with 1.3 million in Governor Sean Parnell’s 2013 budget plus another million from the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation’s federal moving to work program.

Peggy Brown is the executive director for the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and sexual assault, the agency that partnered with AHFC to develop the concept. She says the idea came from group discussions prompted by the Governor’s initiative to address the high rates of domestic violence and sexual assault in the state.

“Legal services and housing are usually the top two barriers to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. So it kind of started with conversations in these work groups,” Brown said.

Governor Parnell has made addressing the chronically high levels of violence against women and children a priority during his administration. Cathy Stone is the director of public housing for AHFC. Stone says they will issue housing vouchers based on recommendations from the Alaska Network on domestic violence and sexual assault and member agencies across the state. When someone goes into shelter to escape violence, they may be referred to AHFC.

“We don’t make any kind of determination about their status. We just receive the referrals directly from the network. I think there’s a good level of trust between our two agencies and also because they only have a certain number of vouchers, I think they’re going to make sure that the people they’re referring are really in the situation and are in need of the assistance,” Stone said.

Stone says of the more than 3000 public housing authorities in the U.S., AHFC is one of only 35 that are designated as a Moving to Work agency which means they can get waivers from the federal department of Housing and Urban development for new ideas such as the empowering choice program. She says in the past subsidy programs used a complicated formula of issuing points for assessing who would get the vouchers first. The new program sets aside a certain number of vouchers that are then issued on the referrals of partner agencies.

“First in the nation and the only one that I’m aware of and we’re getting a lot of positive feedback and a lot of questions from the other agencies asking us, how we did it and how it’s going and it really just started, we just opened it to the public starting November one, so all of the feedback isn’t in, but we’re really pleased with how it’s gone thus far,” Stone said.

She says some states and municipalities have similar programs, but no other public housing authorities. There are 250 vouchers statewide. 115 are for Anchorage and the others are spread across Alaska. Stone says the process is fast, after a referral, verifying income and a background check, the participant gets the voucher, usually within a week and can then shop for housing. Typically they pay 30 percent of their income for rent and AHFC pays the rest. Participants can receive the subsidy for three years.

A companion program, also launched on Nov. 1 will provide housing assistance for young people aging out of foster care.

“And one of the unique components of that program is, each of these youth that are going out and renting a unit will also have someone called an independent living specialist. This is an employee of the Office of Children’s Services that will work with them to make sure that they’re successful in renting probably their first apartment ever, that they’re understanding how to pay their bills, how to be on time for things and hopefully how to transition successfully into adulthood,” Stone said.

Stone says the two new programs are a testament to the state’s commitment to end the epidemic of high rates of domestic violence and sexual assault. Alaska consistently ranks at or near the top in the nation for violence against women.

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Lori Townsend is the News Director for the Alaska Public Radio Network. She got her start in broadcasting at the age of 11 as the park announcer of the fast pitch baseball games in Deer Park, Wisconsin. She has worked in print and broadcast journalism for more than 24 years. She was the co-founder and former Editor of Northern Aspects, a magazine featuring northern Wisconsin writers and artists. She worked for 7 years at tribal station WOJB on the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibway Reservation in Wisconsin, first as an on-air programmer and special projects producer and eventually News Director. In 1997 she co-hosted a continuing Saturday afternoon public affairs talk program on station KSTP in St. Paul, Minnesota. Radio brought her to Alaska where she worked as a broadcast trainer for Native fellowship students at Koahnic Broadcasting. Following her work there, she helped co-found the non-profit broadcast company Native Voice Communications. NVC created the award-winning Independent Native News as well as producing many other documentaries and productions. Townsend was NVC’s technical trainer and assistant producer of INN. Through her freelance work, she has produced news and feature stories nationally and internationally for Independent Native News, National Native News, NPR , Pacifica, Monitor Radio, Radio Netherlands and AIROS. Her print work and interviews have been published in News from Indian Country, Yakama Nation Review and other publications. Ms. Townsend has also worked as a broadcast trainer for the Native American Journalist’s Association and with NPR’s Doug Mitchell and as a freelance editor. Townsend is the recipient of numerous awards for her work from the Alaska Press Club, the Native American Journalists Association and a gold and a silver reel award from the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. Townsend was the recipient of a Fellowship at the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting in Rhode Island as well as a fellowship at the Knight Digital Media Center in Berkeley. She is an avid reader, a rabid gardener and counts water skiing, training horses, diving and a welding certification among her past and current interests. ltownsend (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  |  907.550.8452 | About Lori