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Guest Commentary | A people-first approach to affordable housing

By RACHEL WALKER - Regional vice president of Urban Strategies Inc. | Feb 16, 2024

Rachel Walker

Southwest Florida is home to residents of all ages and economic backgrounds, and the need for affordable housing is growing. Everyone deserves a safe place to call home and the opportunity for a successful future, and it’s critical for our community to rally together for solutions.

Urban Strategies is honored to partner with the Housing Authority of the City of Fort Myers to bring people-focused, life-changing resources to the Fort Myers community through a large-scale revitalization project in the heart of Dunbar called The Greater Dunbar Initiative. Having grown up in an affordable housing community myself, I know how important our role is. Because of our partnership, residents living in affordable housing communities are given more than a roof over their head. They are given a supportive community full of people here to lift them up and help them reach their full potential through resident services, including quality out of school programming to supplement classroom instruction, employment readiness, job placement, health and wellness programs, comprehensive family support services and more.

With a system called LEARN (Learning for Effective Actions to Revitalize Neighborhoods), we can assess children, adults and seniors and compile data, explore trends and commonalities and connect them to both onsite and offsite programs. Every household is different, and this tool allows us to pinpoint their struggles and link them to applicable resources. Because of these programs and services, residents can decrease their dependency and grow toward self-sufficiency.

However, it takes more than one partner to make this all possible. Lee Health is our champion for health and wellness programs, specifically providing seniors with classes and instructors. The School District of Lee County has provided our school-age youth with free tutoring sessions that include assistance from on-site case managers. We also can depend on organizations like Goodwill, Dress for Success and CareerSource to help residents who may be experiencing job loss or are having difficulty securing a steady job. With their help, job seekers can get interview training and an outfit that helps them feel like their most confident self. All it takes is a little support and knowing your community has your back.

Our residents are proof that circumstances can be temporary. They work hard to overcome challenges and make the most of what they have. Residents even work for the Housing Authority or volunteer their time in our housing communities because they want to be part of the transformation of this community. Upon completing the Opportunity Accelerate three-day program, one of our residents was recently employed by the Florida Department of Children and Families. Two more went into homeownership by year two, which is not typically achieved until year four or five. These residents are leading by example and inspiring others to take advantage of the resources accessible to them. These resources are truly changing lives.

Our residents can achieve so much more than they think possible, they just need to be given the chance to shine. One opportunity can turn someone’s life around and send them reaching for the stars. Every person has something unique to offer, and we all deserve a chance to showcase our talents.

As a champion for distressed families, we keep families at the core of everything we do, and our residents see us as their lifeline. We have the power to work with these residents to create individualized plans and offer resources that meet their needs. We aren’t here to judge or criticize, we are here to support and lead them on a path to success.

Seeing the work of our mission takes me back to my time living in affordable housing. As a little 9-year-old, I said to our office manager “when I get big, I’m going to have your job and help my community,” and I’d like to think that is just what I’ve done. I’m living my 9-year-old dream, and I can’t imagine being anywhere else.

If you’d like to learn more or become part of this initiative for our community, visit HACFM.org.

Rachel Walker is the regional vice president of Urban Strategies Inc., a national nonprofit with extensive experience in the design and implementation of place-based human capital development strategies in communities that are undergoing comprehensive physical revitalization. To learn more about its partnership with the Housing Authority, visit HACFM.org.