March 14-- Mar. 14--WORCESTER -- The employment rate in Worcester's two largest public housing projects has jumped by 24 percent in the past five years, housing authority figures show -- evidence, officials say, that their self-sufficiency programs are changing lives.
"I'm thrilled that the numbers are what they are," Alex Corrales, executive director of the Worcester Housing Authority, said Wednesday, fresh off a recent trip to accept a national award for one of the efforts.
In New Orleans last month, the agency received a Resident Service Award from Nan-McKay & Associates, a large provider of professional services to the affordable housing industry.
The award, given annually and also presented this year to the city of Philadelphia, recognized Step-Up, a WHA apprenticeship program that helps residents train for and acquire jobs.
"It definitely taught me leadership," said Iliana Maldonado, a program graduate who now works full-time for the WHA and is saving money in the hopes of moving out.
Step-Up is one of several self-sufficiency programs -- including the better-known A Better Life program -- that have led to sizeable jumps in resident employment.
According to statistics provided by Mr. Corrales, the employment rate at Great Brook Valley and Curtis Apartments, the agency's two largest housing projects, has jumped from 39 percent in 2014 to 62 percent in 2019.
In Great Brook Valley -- where Step-Up and another service, Family Self-Sufficiency, are voluntary for residents -- 511 of 873 adults (58 percent) are working, up from 342 of 854 adults (40 percent) in 2014.
The jump is higher at Curtis, where qualifying residents, under the mandated A Better Life program, are required to work or go to school to maintain housing.
At Curtis, 348 of 497 adults (70 percent) are working, Mr. Corrales said. That's up from 181 of 489 adults (37 percent) in 2014, before A Better Life was mandatory.
Instituted in 2012, with some growing pains, by the previous WHA executive director and former mayor Raymond V. Mariano, A Better Life requires abled-bodied heads of household under age 55 to work or go to school to keep their housing.
The state since 2015 has allowed the program to take place at Curtis -- which is funded with state money -- but the federal government has not allowed the mandate at Great Brook Valley, which receives federal money.
Still, the 18 percent increase at Great Brook Valley is welcomed by Mr. Corrales, who says investment in self-sufficiency programs is paying off.
"I don't mind spending the money if you're seeing a return on the investment," he said.
A Better Life costs around $500,000 a year, Family Self-Sufficiency about $400,000, and Step-Up costs about $1.1 million, he said. State and federal funds are used.
While participants in Step-Up have their rents frozen for two years as an incentive, they begin paying higher rents after that since they are making more money, Mr. Corrales said.
Across public housing, WHA saw a $1 million increase in resident rents in the past year, Mr. Corrales said, showing that people are making more money.
The idea is that as residents make more, they can afford to move out, paving the way for families on the authority's lengthy waiting list to get their chance.
Ms. Maldonado, who moved to Curtis about a decade ago with her young daughter, signed up for A Better Life in 2015, which is how she ended up in Step-Up.
Started in 2014, Step-Up is a two-year program that gives residents access to education, job skills and employment opportunities in four areas: landscaping, custodial, apartment preparation and clerical services.
Mr. Corrales said that for many participants, the apprenticeship is their first job, and focuses on basic skills like punctuality, work ethic and accountability.
"It's helped me a lot," said Ms. Maldonado, who was already working but said the program helped her develop valuable patience, teamwork and conflict resolution skills.
Every participant is assigned a "family life coach" who helps them with education, employment, finances, health and personal affairs. So far, more than 40 apprentices have graduated from the program and found full-time employment in the public and private sectors, WHA said, including 17 who have been given jobs at WHA.
"They have so many options to help you better your life," said Ms. Maldonado, who now works full-time at WHA in its modernization division.
Ms. Maldonado said neighbors and friends who participate in Step-Up and A Better Life give positive reviews.
"Everybody I know loves it," she said of A Better Life. "Sometimes it (requires) changes. But if you're trying to better your life, there's going to be a change."
In Step-Up, all apprentices start at $12 an hour and get quarterly raises as they make progress.
"We couldn't be prouder of the accomplishments they have achieved so far," Mr. Corrales said of participants. He also thanked Step-Up staff for their work.
"It's very exciting to be recognized on a national level as this provides an opportunity to inform the public of the innovation and creativity employed at the WHA," Mr. Corrales said.
Emily Frampton of Nan-McKay said in a news release that WHA received the award over a "very competitive" selection of competitors.
"The time and commitment they have spent on this initiative will certainly benefit Worcester for years to come," she said.
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