"Right now, across metro Atlanta, there are intense conversations about how to deliver critically needed affordable housing," says Lisa Wise, Executive Director of Initiative for Affordable Housing. "At Initiative, we know that with sufficient resources and a focus on families, we can fill the gap. We have been successfully providing safe, permanent affordable housing for working families for over 30 years.”
With a Bachelors of Social Work from Florida State and a Masters of Social Work from UGA, Wise became the first paid staff member of Initiative, later becoming Executive Director. She has grown the 501(c)(3) nonprofit into a major affordable housing provider, with 355 units under management and a $3 million annual budget. Initiative succeeds largely because it also provides social services designed to break the cycle of poverty and shape a brighter future for local children.
Although Initiative serves over 600 families each year, Wise believes that the organization’s work is all about helping one family at a time. "A fundamental principle for me has always been that children should have a better life, a safe environment where they can learn and grow," she says, "and this doesn't happen without helping the parent provide a home where they all feel safe."
The mission of Initiative is to provide long-term affordable housing to homeless and low-income families. It also provides its constituents with a holistic program of social services to help them attain financial independence, household management skills, and permanent housing. "The average length of time that a homeless family resides with us is 24 months," says Wise, "some a bit less and some a bit more. Since we take our families where they are and help them down the road to where they need to be, the length of time can vary."
It is always a very eventful 24 months for the families, according to Wise. "They have to find employment, arrange daycare, get a bank account if they don't have one, rebuild damaged credit, perhaps, and save for the deposit on their own housing," she says, "and then often they will have to deal in a constructive way with the underlying issues that led to homelessness in the first place – perhaps domestic violence, family trauma, a medical condition, mental health challenges, and others issues. We assist with all of this."
All families encounter one or more of these problems at some time or another, but those with means - healthcare insurance, a car, a little spare cash - can deal with these problems much more easily than a family at the lower end of the economic ladder, says Wise.
"For many poor families, any one of these problems alone could totally disrupt their lives," she says. "As you may know, the single largest cause of bankruptcy in the US is unforeseen major medical expenses, medical debt, and job loss due to illness. The coronavirus pandemic has raised awareness of just how vulnerable we can all be when our housing and work security are endangered. These are challenges poor families face every day, and our constituents show remarkable resilience. Initiative provides the support these families need to overcome their difficulties.”
"Each of our families has a social worker who works with them, takes them to the doctor, the grocery store, pushes them to succeed," says Wise. "Frequently, the social worker is the only person they can turn to." This sometimes mean teaching them things that they did not learn growing up. "Judicious use of money is something we help them learn, and we also give them time to practice, practice, practice new life skills," she says.
Clearly, financial independence is simply not possible without stable income. Many of Initiative’s constituents arrive with limited job skills and experience, in addition to their other life challenges. In 2009, Initiative developed an employment and training program to help homeless women enter or re-enter the workforce. re:loom—weaving a better life helps adults who may have struggled in the past to secure or maintain jobs build the skills and confidence to succeed in the workplace. As they are trained to weave handmade products, the employees also learn accountability, teamwork, and other habits essential to steady employment. The stable salary and 100% healthcare coverage help employees gain a financial foundation and a sense of purpose and accomplishment.
"Obviously," says Wise, "there are not necessarily a lot of jobs for weavers in the marketplace today. That's not the point. The goal for our re:loom employees is to learn to engage in work, build a pyramid of success, and feel confident that they can work in the future to support their families." The products made by the weavers are upcycled from donated textiles including old uniforms from supporting companies, such as UPS. So re:loom also provides an important environmental sustainability service to the community, and proceeds from the sale of items produced go to help support the work of re:loom.
While Initiative is not a housing policy advocacy organization, Wise is always eager to share the organization’s experience with delivering permanent housing for working families. "Our affordable units in low-rise complexes integrate seamlessly into their communities," says Wise, "and provide easy access to public transportation, area schools, and local services for our families."
The success of all multifamily housing, Wise argues, depends on high quality property management. “Our Kirkwood Gardens complex, for instance, gave us the opportunity to preserve affordability in a rapidly gentrifying area,” says Wise. “Having an experienced and proactive management staff is essential to both meeting tenant needs and protecting the value of our property investment.”
Wise believes that having human services at the heart of Initiative’s affordable housing program has been a recipe for long-term success. The organization is now working to expand its budget and programs to serve even more families in need.
"We've had thousands of success stories over the years, but there are so many more people we could help if we had the financial support to do it," says Wise. “With stable housing and the guidance of caring professionals, struggling families can overcome poverty and housing insecurity, which ultimately improves the quality of life for all Atlantans.” To learn more about Initiative and re:loom, please visit their websites at: http://affordablehousingatl.org and http://reloom.org.