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Housing on Merit – a bridge to affordable housing


The story

Keeping a roof over your head can be a challenge, especially in some parts of the country, where affordable housing may be difficult to access. That’s where Housing on Merit (HOM) comes in.

Jennifer Litwak, executive director, founded HOM in 2011 as a one-woman team. HOM’s mission is “to create a bridge to permanent affordable housing for vulnerable populations,” according to their website. They find and partner with developers who also want to preserve and develop affordable housing. Then, they “build communities where residents can access support services and growth opportunities to maintain safe, stable housing and make positive life changes.”

So far, HOM has constructed, preserved and renovated nearly 10,000 affordable housing units in 45 senior and multifamily housing communities nationwide, according to Daniel Rubin, director of services and grants. Most of their properties are in California, where HOM is based, but they also have developed in South Carolina and Washington, D.C., and they hope to expand into Florida, North Carolina, Maryland and Georgia.

“The biggest part of our mission is to bring as many units to the market as possible to help with the affordable housing crisis as much as we can,” said David Cottingham, vice president of real estate.

This housing organization is unique both as a nonprofit and as a service provider in the affordable housing realm. The organization is 100% fee-based, which frees them to focus their attention on helping current and future residents, rather than fundraising.

HOM, currently a team of 17, supports more than 22,000 residents throughout their housing journey. The services they provide don’t end once a resident has secured housing in one of their communities. The HOM staff works with them to help ensure they remain housed by offering a comprehensive support system, which makes HOM unique among housing nonprofits.

“It can be really hard to maintain housing,” Rubin said. “There are so many cases where someone will get into a home, but they don’t have any more support, and they can’t maintain it. We provide that wraparound care in order to keep supporting residents and help them maintain the housing that many of them spent years trying to get access to.”

And HOM knows that the low-income housing community “isn’t a monolith” and remains flexible to meet each resident where they are and support them individually. “We go in, get to know the residents, figure out their needs and then my team and I do our part to meet those needs,” Rubin said. They will help with life skills such as budgeting, financial literacy and planning, resume writing and other skills as needed.

Beyond the services that HOM provides to help residents maintain their housing, Rubin’s team also supports individuals as they transition out of affordable housing and are able to move into marketplace housing (traditional rentals) or eventually, their own home.

Rubin says that they hope to continue expanding their services beyond the HOM communities in 2023. HOM plans to hire case managers to work with individuals outside of the HOM units who may be falling behind on rent and at risk of losing their housing. Their goal is to prevent those individuals from being evicted and also to provide them with the skills they need to prevent future rent emergencies, like they currently do with HOM residents. “If it’s a case where they had an emergency expense (that resulted in a missed rent payment), we’ll help them connect to local resources,” Rubin said.

As HOM strives to improve the world around it, its staff also puts effort into maintaining a positive, cohesive and supportive company culture. This was extremely important recently when they experienced rapid growth as they added more team members and effectively doubled their staff.

“Our culture is strong enough where we were able to not only withstand such rapid expansion in staff, but also thrive,” Rubin said.

Cottingham also aims to create an environment in which his staff feels comfortable coming to him and other leaders with ideas, concerns, questions or needs. Rose Ty, executive assistant, said she regularly chats with Cottingham and Litwak to better understand their organization and the affordable housing market.

HOM also has a culture that supports internal growth for professional development, Rubin says. HOM promotes from within when possible, and leaders are encouraged to mentor up-and-comers.

One other team-building activity that HOM staff enjoys is a quarterly book club, which is open to staff and the HOM executive board. It is run by a professional facilitator and the books are always about housing. “I’ve never worked for a nonprofit where regular employees can so readily access the board,” Rubin said.

Being a small nonprofit with such lofty aspirations and goals can feel overwhelming, especially when it comes to handling the day-to-day HR administrative tasks. Cottingham said that he knew where he wanted to take the organization and that they needed help to take HOM to new heights. His goal is to grow HOM to a staff of 50 in the next five years.

After working with Insperity at a previous company, Cottingham understood the benefits of working with a PEO, such as being able to offer employees access to a robust 401(k) plan, different options for health insurance and HR support as they grew. And these benefits and support are key to attracting and retaining employees.

“Being able to recruit good-quality candidates and people who have a passion for doing this and also offering the opportunity to have good benefits goes a long way,” Cottingham said.

After switching to Insperity, Rubin said that he noticed a big difference in their onboarding process and benefit options. In the past year, their staff has doubled, growth that he says “wouldn’t have been possible” without Insperity. The onboarding process was streamlined and, what took them two weeks now takes an hour, Rubin said.

“With Insperity’s support on that back-end stuff, it’s really allowed us to focus less on the logistics of ‘How would we get this person [onboarded as] an employee of our organization?’ and focus on bringing in passionate, smart people to really help drive our mission,” Rubin said.

“If it wasn’t for us partnering with Insperity, we would not be growing the way we’re growing. There’s just no way,” Cottingham said.

Community impact

When the staff at HOM heard that the nonprofit was being honored as an Insperity Community Hero, “it was an amazing feeling,” Cottingham said. “Every area has a dire need for housing. So having this award and being recognized allows us to open up the doors to find and work with other like organizations to help bring more [needed] housing.”

“It’s a really good reminder that we’re doing really good work,” Ty said of the honor. “We’re so happy we’ve been able to partner with Insperity, who obviously shares our values,” Rubin said.

“We provide that wraparound care in order to keep supporting residents and help them maintain the housing that many of them spent years trying to get access to.”

Daniel Rubin
Director of services and grants
Housing on Merit