Editorial: Worcester Housing Authority’s A Better Life program is working

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On Thursday, Jan. 21, the Worcester Housing Authority released data on its program A Better Life, which began in 2011 and now includes provisions requiring residents in state-subsidized housing to work, attend training or provide 30 hours of community services each week.

Initially decried by housing advocates who feared the program would be an unfunded mandate at best, racist and punitive at worst, A Better Life has once again showed itself to be a valuable and efficient self-sufficiency program.

Ray Mariano and Worcester Housing Authority's A Better Life self-sufficiency program is working.

Courtesy WHA / YouTube

Ray Mariano and Worcester Housing Authority’s A Better Life self-sufficiency program is working.

The first study after the work-school requirements became mandatory last year and published in July, showed the program was working. The highlights of the latest update, covering 154 participants and using data collected through Dec. 1, include:

  • The percentage of residents employed full-time is 59.7 percent, up from 22.1 percent at the program’s inception;
  • Overall employment is 73.4 percent;
  • Total annual wages, in aggregate, rose to $2.89 million from $1.1 million;
  • Average annual wages rose to $25,625 from $17,505;
  • The percentage of residents who are participating in education or certification programs is 45.6 percent, up from 12.3 percent;
  • Overall personal savings/escrow, in aggregate, rose to $212,855 from $9,676;
  • Overall personal debt of former clients decreased, in aggregate, to $107,287 from $177,806.

In an interview with the Sun Friday, Jan. 22, WHA Executive Director Raymond V. Mariano reflected on his legacy program.

“There’s a great quote from Bill Rodgers, the marathon champion, after one of the races that he won,” he said. “They told him his time, and he said, ‘That’s not possible. I can’t run that fast.’ And that’s the sense that I get with this. When we started we had certain lofty expectations, and we’ve blown those away.

“The numbers on their face look impressive, but when you understand the backstory, the challenges that individuals face, the fact that we’ve accomplished so much in the face of those challenges is rather remarkable.”

A Better Life, enacted legislatively as a pilot program, has put the Worcester Housing Authority in a leadership position in housing policy.

We hold that the success of the program is a result of execution and the staff’s strong devotion as much as strategy. Key to that success, as we noted in September, has been the program’s coordinator and Mariano’s hand-picked successor, Alex Corrales.

Alex Corrales, soon to be executive director of Worcester Housing Authority

Fred Hurlbrink Jr. / Worcester Sun

Alex Corrales, soon to be executive director of Worcester Housing Authority

Mariano said, “Most of the folks who come into our program come with no work history and very little training. So we have to begin by getting them ready to go to work.”

Indeed, despite its success the program may not return elsewhere the results it achieves in Worcester.

“Most housing authorities won’t want to do this, and the reason is fairly simple. This is an incredible amount of hard work,” Mariano said. “You don’t simply say we’re going to have a requirement and then you’re done.

“The amount of work that the Housing Authority does is equal to the amount of work that each of the residents does, times the number of people in the program. So it’s a great deal of hard work from the executive director down to the line staff.”

We believe the dedication to its clients is what has made this program a true investment in people and community, and not an unfunded mandate that exacts a toll on some of the city’s most vulnerable. In this regard, A Better Life is public policy at its best because it uses common sense and a great deal of effort to make a genuine difference for people.

“What’s most impressive to me, what sticks out most in my mind, are the people that I talk to who are in this program,” Mariano said.

“When I talk to them about what they’ve achieved and how they feel about that achievement, more often than not they start to cry.

“And they say — it’s very emotional for them — they say they thought that they could never do these kinds of things. They never thought these options were available to them. Not only are they going to work, but they’re going to school, they’re increasing their credit scores, and they’re looking at other options outside of public housing that haven’t been available to some of their families for generations.”

Putting people first — and putting in the work — is making this program live up to its name. Along the way, A Better Life is making Worcester a better city.

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