Residents of public housing enroll in the five-year program, and in doing so, they set goals for themselves in terms of their education, lifestyles, and job prospects. People in the program must meet with case managers on a regular basis to ensure they're fulfilling the goals. FSS encourages participants to return to school, look for better jobs, take classes in budgeting and parenting, and try to lead healthier lives.
As the enrollees begin to land better jobs and earn higher salaries, FSS allows them to put that money into savings instead of paying higher rent. (Typically, public-housing rental payments are on a sliding scale based on residents' incomes.) So, for example, if an FSS participant's salary increases from $1,200 to $1,500 a month, the $300 difference would go into an escrow account instead of toward higher rent. Once FSS participants have completed the program, they can access all of the money in that savings account. Roughly 14 percent of FSS graduates became homeowners after finishing the program, according to HUD's 2011 study.
Jane Ssemanda, a 29-year-old Maryland resident, knows the benefits firsthand. She enrolled in FSS in 2011 through her local public-housing authority, Housing Opportunities Commission of Montgomery County.
Ssemanda landed in public housing after escaping an abusive relationship. At the time, she had two small children under the age of three and worked a low-paying job as a certified nursing assistant for $10 to $12 an hour. She struggled to pay her bills and received government benefits such as food stamps, health insurance, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children.
Through the FSS program, Ssemanda underwent counseling, took parenting classes, finished her master's degree, and landed a new job at Montgomery College helping to teach its students life skills. She now earns $56,000 a year. In 2014, she graduated from the FSS program, and with her roughly $14,000 in savings, she purchased an $183,000 townhouse in a new development in Silver Spring.
She moved into the three-bedroom, two-bath home, with its own garage and a community pool, just in time for her daughter, now six, to start kindergarten in what Ssemenda says is an excellent school district. "To be honest, it hasn't really sunk in yet," she says, when asked how it feels to live in her own place. "FSS really taught me how to be self-sufficient and to have some confidence and self-esteem."
Montgomery County's FSS program, hailed as one the best one in the country by the Center for Housing Policy, primarily serves single parents between the ages of 35 and 50 who have two or more children. The Maryland program distinguishes itself from other FSS programs by having both professional staff case managers and volunteer case managers who are professionals and mentors from the local community. (This was the agency's creative work-around to a budget shortfall.)