When the Housing Allowance Project opened its doors in 1973, the idea of providing people with assistance to pay their rent was a novel concept.
“Giving people a housing allowance was a radical concept, but poor people were concentrated in projects and high-rises that had become real problems, especially in large cities,” said Peter Gagliardi, president and chief executive officer of Way Finders in Springfield and Holyoke. “Many were poorly built and filled with children who had no place to play other than the hallways and elevators, so the idea was to stop building projects where the poor were all housed in one place, and give people choices about where they could live.“
HAPHousing, which changed its name to Way Finders on March 31, was one of 10 sites across the country selected to host a three-year experimental federal pilot program to provide this rental assistance. The project led to the creation of Section 8 housing, a federal program that provides vouchers to low-income families, the elderly, and people with disabilities to help them afford decent, safe places to live in the private market.
When the pilot program morphed into Section 8, HAPHousing was tasked by the state to administer it in Hampden and Hampshire counties. But today, that is only a small part of the scope of its work, which has extended into many arenas.
The organization holds periodic strategic planning sessions, and in 2014 it became clear that its name and narrative did not convey the agency’s purpose and may have led potential clients to believe they couldn’t find the help they needed from their staff.
“Our old name didn’t provide a sense of the magnitude of our work,” Gagliardi said, noting that, although the Section 8 housing program still exists, 28,600 people in Hampden and Hampshire counties and more than 100,000 people across the state are on waiting lists. Since new vouchers are not being issued given today’s turnover rate, the statewide wait equates to 166 years.
“People need better options than vouchers that don’t exist,” he continued, explaining that the agency’s clients have needs ranging from finding jobs to getting an education, improving their credit scores, and other measures that open up opportunities for a better life.
“Getting people into homes is important, but having a roof that is affordable over your head is just the beginning,” Gagliardi noted, as he spoke about difficulties homeless families face and the multi-faceted approach Way Finders takes to connect clients to appropriate resources.
The organization’s history has been marked by many twists and turns as it responded to crises caused by changes in the economy, so choosing an appropriate new name was important to everyone who worked there.
HAP hired TSM Design in Springfield to facilitate the effort. The name Way Finders resulted from a collaborative brainstorming effort by staff members dedicated to ensuring their moniker reflected their mission, coupled with the creativity of TSM Design, which was responsible for suggesting names that matched the passion and commitment of the staff. Every employee participated in a survey that asked them about the most important part of their job, and a committee of 12 was eventually formed to represent the findings and share the thinking of the staff as a whole.
“Our mission came down to finding a way to help people solve problems. It begins by finding them a decent place to live, but we wanted to let the public know that we offer a wide range of programs through collaborations with partners that include finding jobs for people who don’t know where to start,” Gagliardi said, noting that, in the past three and a half years, the agency has helped place 480 people into jobs as an alternative to those non-existent housing vouchers he talked about.
Indeed, the new name is fitting because clients literally need help finding their way to a better life.
“We started out with a staff of about 20, and this year we have 250 employees who are very mindful of our philosophy,” Gagliardi said. “When they go home at the end of a day, they know that someone has a better home or opportunity in life than they did when they arrived.”
Over the past four decades, the organization has grown from an experimental housing-assistance program to an agency that provides rental assistance, housing-support services for homeless families as well as prevention, education about home ownership, foreclosure counseling, real-estate development, property and asset management, and community building and engagement in neighborhoods to improve health and safety.
For this issue and its focus on nonprofits, BusinessWest looks at the storied history of Way Finders and how the agency stepped in to help people and improve the community through the many changes in the economy.
When the Housing Allowance Program morphed into the Section 8 housing program, the state Department of Housing and Community Development hired eight regional agencies to administer it, including HAPHousing.
“For the first time, people in every town and city in the state had an opportunity to live where they wanted,” Gagliardi noted.
During the early ’80s, HAP added a program for first-time homebuyers that included information about how families could strengthen their credit so they would be eligible for bank loans. Some were purchasing multi-family houses, so they also needed to learn how to become a good landlord, and HAP published a manual that contained all of this and more, which has undergone multiple revisions and is sold on Amazon.
By the mid-’80s, homelessness had become a glaring problem, and HAPHousing opened Prospect House in Springfield, which was the first family shelter in Massachusetts funded by the state.
“We started out with nine families and a manager,” Gagliardi said, noting that the shelter is still operating and the program has served thousands of people.
In the ’90s, when the U.S. entered a recession, HAP took action again and focused its efforts on distressed properties on Byers Street in Springfield. Its work led to the creation of the Armory Quadrangle Civic Assoc., which still exists and plays an active role in the neighborhood.
HAPHousing continued to acquire properties and create affordable housing as the years went on, and eventually became involved in the Old Hill neighborhood after a Springfield College study showed it was home to 4,500 people and 150 vacant lots and boarded-up buildings.
“About 10% of the residential properties were blighted, and we worked with the neighborhood, the city, Springfield College, and our housing partners, Springfield Neighborhood Housing Services and Habitat for Humanity, to renovate properties that could be saved and replace housing that couldn’t be repaired. We also filled in some of the vacant lots with new homes,” said Gagliardi, adding that the collaboration between Springfield College, HAPHousing, and Habitat resulted in 50 new or renovated homes.
After the recent recession hit in 2008, HAP again took the lead in helping homeless families. It created a new partnership with the Center for Human Development and New England Farm Workers Council in anticipation of the state’s new HomeBASE program, and when the tornado hit in 2011, representatives from all three groups were able to work with the city and others to help more than 400 displaced families.
“These groups had never joined forces before, and the way everyone worked together was unprecedented. By the time FEMA showed up, we were already getting people into housing,” Gagliardi noted.
After that was accomplished, HAPHousing began implementation of the state’s new HomeBASE program, which offers an alternative to living in a shelter for families at serious risk of becoming homeless. It provides them with time-limited assistance that allows them to find long-term accommodations and get help from stabilization services, which is paid for buy the state.
But this avenue wasn’t new to HAP, because it had pioneered a program in the ’80s that worked with landlords and tenants to negotiate settlements to prevent homelessness. It had attorneys on staff and was able to resolve many situations that would otherwise have resulted in eviction.
Programs to prevent homelessness continue to be offered, although they have changed over the years. Gagliardi said many clients have lost jobs and fallen behind in their rent, missed work due to illness, or been part of a family breakup that led them to get behind in their rent. “These situations can easily spiral out of control if they are not addressed,” he told BusinessWest.
The current program, known as RAFT (Residential Assistance for Families in Transition), serves 600 to 700 families a year at an average cost of $2,500, which is a small investment compared to the $3,000 a month it costs the state to house a family in a shelter, especially since the average length of stay is six months.
But HAP has always stepped in when it was needed, and in 2008, it played a significant role in the formation of the Western Mass. Foreclosure Prevention Center.
“The number of people losing their homes was staggering, and we helped families through a partnership with the attorney general’s office that saved their homes or allowed them to make a graceful exit without completely ruining their credit,” Gagliardi said.
He noted that the agency has assisted thousands of property owners over the past eight years, and although the worst of the crisis has passed, over the past year, it helped 85 homeowners. “Thirty-five managed to preserve their homes, 25 were successful loan modifications, eight were able to bring their mortgage current, and two refinanced into more sustainable mortgages,” he continued, adding that another 43 were referred to legal assistance, and only two lost their homes.
Over the years, HAP also became involved in developing affordable housing and managing rental properties. Today, it has its own management company that oversees 700 units in towns and cities including Amherst, Hadley, Southwick, Southampton, Easthampton, Northampton, Charlton, Ware, Wales, Springfield, and Holyoke. It has also built and renovated properties, and has 10 projects underway, including construction of a $19.9 million, four-story, mixed-use building on Pleasant Street in Northampton that will have 2,600 square feet of retail space on its first floor and 27 studio apartments and 43 one-bedroom units in its upper stories.
“We also played a leadership role in creating the Western Mass. Nonprofit Housing Developers Group 20 years ago, and partnered with Nueva Esperanza in Holyoke and another organization to restore a number of four-story apartment buildings in South Holyoke,” Gagliardi said, as he recounted decades of work in Hampden and Hampshire counties.
The mission of Way Finders continues to expand, and Gagliardi said its new name belongs to the next generation of leaders.
“We found that the best way to create affordable housing and revitalize a neighborhood is to collaborate, and in several situations organizations have become our affiliates,” he noted, explaining that news of the name change was accompanied by an announcement that Way Finders is forming strategic partnerships with Common Capital Inc. of Holyoke and MBL Housing and Development LLC of Amherst that will allow the parties to develop and finance projects that will benefit area residents, businesses, and communities.
Common Capital provides small loans to help businesses, while MBL Housing consults with developers interested in building affordable housing. That group was in danger of closing because the owner wanted to retire, but Way Finders found a way to allow it to stay in business.
“We know that no organization can do everything, but we have played a leadership role, and collaboration has always been important to us,” Gagliardi said. “Stable housing is a starting point, not an end point, and we have seen many former voucher holders move into new homes.”
So, although the sign in front of its Springfield office reads “Way Finders Housing Center,” the hope is that this rebranding will attract people in a variety of situations who need help finding a path to a better life.