Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has announced an initiative that will use USDA's rural development resources to help fill the need for transitional housing for people recovering from opioid and other substance use disorders. In January, President Obama tasked Vilsack, who is chair of the White House Rural Council, with leading a federal interagency effort focused on rural opioid use. The initiative is the result of a conversation Secretary Vilsack had in May in New Hampshire at the Hillsborough County Superior Court, where individuals involved with the state's drug court program told him that a lack of access to affordable housing made it challenging for participants to successfully complete their recovery from addiction.
The initiative includes:
*Encouraging the use of USDA Community Facilities financing for transitional housing projects;
*Making vacant USDA housing properties available for lease or sale to qualified non-profits to transform the properties into transitional housing;
*Launching a pilot project to make vacant USDA multifamily rental units available to tenants participating in treatment programs;
*Releasing a suite of data that will better link existing USDA facilities with treatment service providers across the country.
"The journey from having a substance use disorder to recovery requires understanding, treatment, and support," said Vilsack. "But too often that journey is not completed because of a lack of safe, affordable housing options for those on their way back to being healthy, contributing members of our communities. The opioid epidemic is hitting rural America especially hard and there are few options for transitional housing. Today's actions will lead to more options for those in recovery."
In the first of the transitional housing actions announced today, USDA Rural Development's Rural Housing Service is instructing its field staff that Community Facilities program financing may be used for the construction, expansion and improvement of transitional housing facilities. The CF program provides affordable funding to develop essential community facilities in rural areas, such as hospitals and schools. Additionally, the CF program can be used as a financing tool for non-profit organizations considering the purchase of existing properties for the purpose of transitional housing. In order to be eligible, transitional housing facilities must provide supportive services to rural residents to help them recover and prepare them to live independently within two years.
Rural Development also instructed staff today that it is encouraging the sale of single-family homes and multi-family properties that are exiting USDA's Real Estate Owned (REO) housing program to qualified non-profit organizations that would convert them into transitional housing facilities. REO properties are houses owned by USDA as a result of foreclosure. The single-family REO initiative is effective in the 22 states where the REOs are managed by that state's Rural Development office.
As part of this effort, the Secretary also announced a "Contract for Deed" pilot in the Single Family Housing program that would make USDA-held REOs available for purchase at below-market-rate cost by qualified non-profits providing housing for homeless individuals recovering from substance use disorder. The local non-profit would manage the property for the benefit of the individual and community, paying the taxes, making needed repairs and handling other responsibilities. They would have two years to complete the purchase transaction, and may use RHS financing, if available. The pilot is limited to a maximum of fifteen REO properties in the states of New Hampshire, Vermont, Nevada and Missouri.
The third action is a pilot project that would incentivize owners of USDA multi-family rental housing properties to rent to those in recovery by making hard-to-fill vacant units that are currently unsubsidized eligible for rental assistance if they are occupied by a current participant of a drug court program. Drug court programs have been proven to successfully reduce substance dependence and reduce criminal recidivism because they require participants to fulfill court mandated treatment and recovery requirements. The pilot program is open to facilities in New Hampshire, Vermont, Nevada and Missouri.
Finally, USDA is harnessing the power of open data in order to most effectively target our resources and to allow individuals in recovery to better locate USDA assistance. USDA's Rural Housing Service has released data on its portfolio of Community Facilities loans, guarantees, and grants across the country, which include hospitals, health clinics, group homes, and mental and behavioral health treatment facilities, to Data.gov and policymap.com, an online data mapping platform, where it can be visually overlaid with other indicators on substance use and recovery services. This new data supplements existing multi-family property and single-family housing data that the Agency recently released publicly. For example, the public can now map USDA multi-family and single-family housing properties and locate nearby Drug and Alcohol Treatment Centers using the latest Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) data. Users can further determine which centers provide opioid addiction treatment and use telemedicine, among many other attributes.
During a roundtable discussion in Abingdon, Va., in June, Secretary Vilsack heard from community health leaders that collocating services for individuals in recovery can be a successful tool, so that individuals in rural areas are not faced with long drives from one facility to the next, such as from recovery housing to a treatment facility. This new data will allow USDA to better target resources where they can have the most effect.