How housing counseling helps multicultural communities

How housing counseling helps multicultural communities
Jun 11, 2021
Our community development experts share how meeting with a housing counselor or taking a homebuyer workshop can help buyers with limited English proficiency
Most homebuyers get their information and advice from two sources: real estate agents and mortgage brokers. These sources, while helpful, aren't always working in the best interest of a family's housing goals and strategies. In fact, many families enter into the largest financial commitment of their lives without meeting a housing counselor or taking an introductory homebuyer workshop, which are offered from thousands of housing counseling agencies across the country today.  

"When I first heard the term 'housing counseling,' I was unsure what it meant, who it was for, or how it functioned. I wondered how it could be helpful for families, particularly those purchasing a home or even losing their home after the last decade of disasters where I live on the East Coast. I thought of New Jersey homeowners after Superstorm Sandy in 2012, who were profoundly affected through damage and/or loss of their homes," shares public sector communications expert Jennifer Folsom.  

What is housing counseling  

Housing counseling helps a variety of families, not just first-time homebuyers. In fact, housing counseling agencies approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) provide education and support to anyone at any part of the homebuying or refinance process. They also support renters or those at risk of homelessness.  

How housing counseling works 

HUD collaborates with and awards grants—through a competitive application process—to housing counseling agencies, as well as national and regional organizations, including state housing finance agencies.  

These agencies then collaborate with community groups to target specific populations with very individualized needs to promote accessible, safe, responsible housing. This includes support for populations with limited English proficiency (LEP). 

HUD-certified housing counselors help their clients learn more about affordable housing options, fair housing and fair lending laws, and accessibility rights. They also help their clients improve their financial situations by creating budgets, reducing debt, increasing savings, and improving credit scores.  

"The key to successful housing counseling is to work with families on their housing goals, which may include spending their funds differently, or saving for a home. It can also include developing a household budget and a client action plan that provides a family’s goals and strategies to address these goals," explains community development expert Shawna LaRue Moraille

Why housing counseling is important 

Next to food and clothing, shelter is one of humankind’s three basic needs. It's also one of the largest expenses and investments in most households. Challenges to housing include systemic racism and legacy redlining (a refusal to loan to specific populations or communities). 

Housing counseling agencies have long worked in multicultural communities, including those with LEP, through translated materials and the provision of in-language counseling. But it’s not enough to simply translate counseling documents into other languages. This type of one-way communication is not terribly effective. Successful communications understand and integrate cultural norms and leverage trusted messaging tools and messengers to alleviate barriers to clear and accurate information. 

Further, decades of research—starting with the Department of Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968 that authorized the use of funds for housing counseling—show that pre- or post-purchase counseling substantially reduces default rates. And even if you are not a recipient of housing counseling, this type of market stability benefits all Americans.  

The Role of Multicultural Communication 

Many populations have been discriminated against and are fearful of hearing from strangers or have different cultural norms (e.g., saving cash rather earning interest on savings in a bank) that make homeownership difficult.  

"This is why it's critically important to engage with housing counseling agencies," Jennifer explains. "These agencies include housing counselors who are trusted advisors working with diverse communities when, where, and how they normally communicate."  

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Superstorm Sandy 

This was never more evident than in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. Three years after the storm, many residents still lacked basic housing. The state of New Jersey turned to our marketing, communications, and digital transformation agency—ICF Next—and our partner Diversity Marketing. Together, we designed and implemented a communications and outreach plan to reach 11 LEP groups in nine counties to promote disaster recovery housing options available through the state. 

To do this, we layered three sets of data: U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey, Federal Emergency Management Agency damage classification maps, and LEP data from the U.S. Census Bureau. 
"Our team created detailed maps to guide the outreach efforts of our partners at Diversity Marketing and ensure that program messaging was delivered to families at the right time, in the right place, and in a culturally appropriate manner." —Melissa Walker, Senior Project Manager
Using the targeted information we compiled, seven housing counseling agencies were able to reach 101,000+ households and distribute 266,000+ program materials through outreach efforts. When combined with in-language paid media, these efforts resulted in 1,000+ applications to the Low- to Moderate-Income Homeowners Rebuilding program and 3,200+ applications for the Tenant-Based Rental Assistance program. 

Behavior change + communications = return on investment 

Through decades of research and analysis, we have seen that there is a positive return on investment, whether we’re talking about a broad economic cycle or a specific event. This was startlingly clear after the last financial crisis. In 2021, HUD found that a $75 million investment in housing counseling reaped $29 billion in measurable economic benefits. As we saw after Superstorm Sandy, housing counseling was a critical factor during the lengthy recovery. Successful housing counseling programs work collaboratively with LEP populations and move beyond simply translating documents but consider true multicultural strategic communications strategies. With these factors combined, housing counseling can and will play a tremendous role in working towards racial equity in housing. 
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