Ferndale Housing Commission Sets New Vision, Seeks Board Member UPDATED

Ferndale Housing Commission Sets New Vision, Seeks Board Member  UPDATED

(Crystal A. Proxmire, Dec. 16, 2016)

Ferndale, MI – As Ferndale Housing Commission Director Heather Van Poucker prepares for her presentation to City Council on Monday, her main thought is on the residents of the housing program and how to show that they are the ones who come first.

“Our mission in the past been very basic.  It’s been about affordable housing, shelter.  But we want to go beyond shelter.  This is home.  I want people to be proud of where they are and to feel supported, to be part of the community,” Van Poucker said.

Along with staff and with Ferndale Housing Commissioners, there is a new strategic plan in place that Van Poucker will present to Council on Monday. Also before Council is a change to the ordinance governing the FHC that would allow for up to two Commissioners to be from outside of the city limits.

Commission members make policy decisions and give direction to the Director of the program. They are responsible for setting the budget, making sure the program remains in compliance with Federal regulations, and they are responsible to the residents and the taxpayers.  Commissioners are appointed by the Mayor to five year terms which are staggered.  Previously the members were required to live in Ferndale, making it difficult to recruit members with the appropriate skills and time to dedicate to the position.  “The board is hoping to find someone with a strong financial background,” Van Poucker said. She added that the FHC serves people beyond Ferndale through the housing voucher program.

The strategic plan presentation was also given at Wednesday’s FHC meeting, which was remarkably short of visitors.  Prior to Van Poucker’s appointment to Director, the meetings had been filled with frustrated residents and housing activists who railed against the policies of the former Director and Commissioners who were dismissive of the residents’ rights.  A HUD investigation following the former Director’s arrest for stealing medication from residents uncovered many violations and new Commissioners have been tackling the clean-up process. Now no one comes to complain.

Van Poucker came on board in March, bringing a level of professionalism and care that is evident by walking into Withington West where the housing offices are located.  For one thing, there is a person behind the desk instead of just a walk up window with the blinds drawn down behind it.

“The counter is open from 8-4 during the week so residents or potential residents can be greeted and have their questions answered.  We want them to know that we are here to serve them,” Van Poucker said.  “And we don’t just want the questions answered, we want them to feel welcomed.  Are they treated warmly?  That’s what we are aiming for.”

A mystery shopper program is in place so employees don’t know if a person coming to the counter or calling on the phone is rating them or not.  Another part of the welcoming environment is giving residents magnets with important phone numbers on them, and a policy of making sure work orders are handled promptly and with care.

“Sometimes we may not be able to fix something right away.  Maybe there is a part we need to order.  Or sometimes there are other problems that take precedence.  But we now make calls on open work orders, to give them updates so they know what is going on and that their concern is being heard.”

There are active resident groups in both Withington West and Autumn House, focusing mainly on social activities. Residents at Withington had a Thanksgiving dinner that was catered by Ferndale Foods, the owners of which decided to donate catering for their Christmas meal.

That’s just one way the community has come together to uplift the FHC.  A mystery donor covered the cost of new smoke detectors for all the rooms.  Local cleaning company Royal Services has stepped in to make the buildings sparkle.  The Ferndale Library has begun delivering books to the residents. Another donor gave $2,000 which residents used for a TV in the common area. Easter Seals has come in to do programming on how people can recognize signs of need or distress in neighbors.  The Ferndale Police have come to talk about safety. And The Boys and Girls Club of Oakland and Macomb Counties club kids delivered holiday baskets to ten residents of each building. Van Poucker is working on a wish list and a way to manage all the newly formed ties to the community.

Change is not just happening in the external connections residents have.  They will soon have more autonomy in their personal spaces as well.  “We’re working on options that give residents more choices. There are little details that make an apartment feel like a home. People want the simple things, like being able to pick out their own curtains. We’re looking at policy changes that would let residents have curtains they want as long as they are white to the outside.  And we’re picking out a palate of paint colors so that when it’s their turn to have their apartment painted they’ll have some choice,” she said.

Many of the changes at the FHC have been fixing issues of policies, procedures, accounting and other administrative tasks that may not be evident to the residents. But things like bingo games, professionally cleaned carpets, visits from outside groups,  and smiles at the front desk seem to be making a difference.

“We are really still working on building trust. Culture change does not happen overnight.  It takes years.  There is so much more to do, but we are working on it.  And we are putting residents first,” she said.

Even with compassionate leadership, Ferndale faces the same challenges faced nationwide.  “There are 19 million people in this country that need access to affordable housing, and only 7.3 get accepted,” Van Poucker said.  “And the demographics are changing.  The number of children in need of housing is declining, while the need for seniors is increasing.”

Her hope is that as the FHC grows in stability, it can be a model for other communities in terms of serving the aging population.  “Ferndale is an ideal place for seniors because it is close to public transportation.  Seniors can walk in the downtown and get everything they need without having to drive.  And it’s a community where everyone is welcome. There is a mix of all ages.”

Education about affordable housing is also on Van Poucker’s radar.  “A lot of places put their public housing somewhere off to the side, not right in their downtowns.  But the people that live here are part of the community.  They shop at the stores. They are part of the economy. There is this idea that everything is handed to them and they live here for free.  Most people don’t realize that they pay rent. Their rent is 30% of their income.  I don’t know many other people who spent a third of what they have on their rent or their mortgage. That is not easy, especially when their income is so low to begin with. We need affordable housing, and as people continue to age we’re going to need more of it.”

The new mission statement for the FHC is about more than just a roof over the residents’ heads.  ”

“The Ferndale Housing Commission assures high quality, affordable housing and access to social and community services, where those we serve feel secure and welcome within a diverse and inclusive community that is caring, participatory, and values each person.”

Ferndale City Council will vote on the change at Monday’s meeting which is at 7pm at City Hall.

UPDATE:  Ferndale has approved the ordinance change, so people outside of Ferndale are welcome to apply.

Learn more about the FHC, or to apply for the vacant position, go to http://ferndalehousing.com/.

For previous FHC related stories go to http://oaklandcounty115.com/?s=ferndale+housing+commission.

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