Data Can Inspire Targeted Services for Children in DC Public Housing

by James Gastner and Mark Treskon

More than one in five families with children living in Washington, DC, have income below the federal poverty level. For these families, rental assistance can free up limited household resources for food, health care, and child enrichment activities. But the evidence about the outcomes for kids in public housing is mixed. Fredrik Andersson and his colleagues found that additional time spent living in public or voucher-assisted subsidized housing as a child is associated with increased annual earnings as an adult and a decreased likelihood of incarceration. Other research indicates that one-third of families in public housing live near the worst-performing schools in their state. In addition, high-poverty neighborhoods—where public housing tends to be locatedexacerbate disadvantages for low-income children and parents, and a move to a low-poverty neighborhood presents long-term benefits.

To use public housing to improve child well-being, the District of Columbia Housing Authority (DCHA) has decided to focus on meeting the needs of its youngest residents through its Impact 5000 Initiative aimed at improving opportunities for the 5,000 youths who live in its developments. The DCHA provides essential housing affordability for its residents, but public housing in the District is largely concentrated east of the Anacostia River in Wards 7 and 8, where the poverty rates are 27.2 percent and 37.7 percent, respectively. To better inform its work around children in its developments, the DCHA commissioned the Urban Institute to produce a comprehensive needs assessment of families in its family public housing developments. Urban worked with partners from Howard University, the University of the District of Columbia, and with DCHA residents. Assessment topics included economic opportunities, safety, health, and service use. The assessment found that while many children are thriving, many face serious challenges.

Adults surveyed reported not only their own health challenges (30 percent reported fair or poor health), but also their children's: one-third reported having a child with asthma, one-fifth reported having an overweight child, and 14 percent reported a child with a chronic health condition requiring regular, ongoing care. Older children (ages 13 to 17) also faced significant educational challenges: one-third of parents with older children reported that their child had been suspended, excluded, or expelled from school; 37 percent reported their child had repeated a grade or had been contacted by school about behavioral problems; and 29 percent reported having been contacted by Child Protective Services.

These findings demonstrate the need for services and supports to address children’s health, educational, and behavioral challenges. The DCHA’s expertise is in delivering affordable housing, not other supports and services, but Impact 5000 is designed to attract public- and private-sector partners to improve the lives of youth and their families in public housing through building on current programs and resources and creating new ones.

Sasha Bruce Youthwork (SBY) is one such partner that plans to use Impact 5000 to better understand and address the needs of children in DCHA housing. Founded in 1974, SBY helps disconnected youth, such as those experiencing homelessness or runaways. In 2010, residents of Richardson Dwellings, a public housing development in Ward 7, asked SBY to create a youth center within their building. This differed from SBY’s previous work with youth because it was initiated by parents who requested that SBY operate in their development to address an uptick in neighborhood violence. The Impact 5000 assessment found the parents of DCHA youth are strong assets for their children. Yet despite familial supports, children in DCHA housing face challenges, and families need and value additional assistance, such as SBY programs.

Sasha Bruce Youthwork hopes to hone its theory of change with data analysis. Through work with The Bridgespan Group and the creation of a new position, a director of evaluation, data can ensure that the services organizations provide are effective. Deborah Shore, founder and executive director of SBY, said, “It’s a major focus for us to enhance our capacity to know that what we are doing are the right things.” Data collection can allow organizations like SBY to know they are reaching their desired populations, and it can prove these programs are moving the needle for their participants. For example, SBY’s youth center supports and mentors high school youths who live in Richardson Dwellings and has provided a direct path for exiting participants to enroll in SBY’s Workforce Development Program.  But SBY lacks the capacity to track graduates from its Workforce Development Program, limiting its ability to assess the program’s impact. This prompts various questions: Is the job training program a pipeline to successful, sustainable careers? Does the job program improve long-term outcomes? Or does SBY need to adjust its programs, including those offered at the youth center, to better assist these youths as they transition to adulthood? Sasha Bruce Youthwork has data on placement in higher education or training programs for the high school students who are being mentored, but cannot track their success over a longer period.

Additional data could demonstrate SBY’s program’s impact, and when compared with a benchmark, such as the Impact 5000 baseline data, SBY could better understand whether and how its programs could be integrated into other public housing developments to assist youth in improving outcomes now and developing the tools for success later in life. “There would be more interest in expanding to other sites if good data was available,” said Shore.

Impact 5000 documents the steep challenges faced by children in DCHA housing. But the data can do more than describe a problem. They can inspire supportive institutions, such as SBY and its youth center, to participate in a solution.

An earlier version of this post was published on Urban Wire, the blog for the Urban Institute. Mark Treskon is a research associate at Urban.