August 2018, Volume 7 Issue 02

Alternative Modes of Housing Counseling: What to Know

When we think of going online, most of us jump to connecting socially with friends and family through apps and websites or checking out the latest season of our favorite show on Netflix. However, while the internet offers social connection and entertainment, it also provides a platform for online education and training opportunities. Housing counseling agencies are encouraged to attend webinars sponsored by both HUD and HUD-approved training agencies, and they are also allowed and encouraged to offer their own online homebuyer education and counseling resources to clients who may not have the time or ability to access in-person services.

In HUD’s study, The First-Time Homebuyer Education and Counseling Demonstration: Early Insights, participants were offered housing counseling services either in-person or through an online platform. As a randomized controlled experiment, housing counseling clients were enrolled in the study at first contact with a bank. The study excluded participants who were required to get counseling or education as a condition of their loan. Thus, the study participants are a true snapshot of first-time homebuyers who may not otherwise take advantage of housing counseling services.

Only one-fourth of those who were offered in-person homebuyer education and counseling had initiated services within the first months of the study, while two-thirds of study participants who were offered services through the online platform initiated the services. In addition to the low take-up rates for in-person services, there was a similar difference in completion rates between the groups.

After approximately one year from the start of the study, just 14 percent of participants who were offered in-person services had completed all of the education and counseling services offered, while one-fourth of those offered online services had completed them. Those who did not take up in-person housing counseling services cited scheduling difficulties, course length, and the agency’s location as deterrents to participation. HUD’s findings are intriguing and may demonstrate the value of incentives for housing counseling, as well as the possibility of reaching more and different types of clients through online counseling and education. Upcoming research reports will discuss whether there are any differences in the impact of online or telephonic services versus in-person services.

What is allowed and not allowed when it comes to alternative methods of counseling and education, such as online? HUD allows housing counseling agencies to be creative when building methods of counseling for clients; however, an agency also must be mindful of the guidelines from the HUD Housing Counseling Handbook 7610.1 (Rev. 5). In Chapter 3, Section 1, under “C. Setting/Format” (Handbook 3-1, C) the handbook states that:

Counseling services may take place in the office of the housing counseling agency, at an alternate location (for example, the client’s home), or through an alternative format, if the alternative format or location is mutually acceptable to the housing counselor and client. Alternative formats can include telephonic counseling or remote counseling systems designed using Skype technology, video cameras, or the internet. Skype technology systems can also be used to deliver group education and workshop sessions. However, all participating agencies that provide services directly must offer and provide in-person counseling to clients that prefer this format.

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In addition, housing counseling agencies also need to do the following if they are providing alternative modes of counseling, such as online counseling:

  • Counseling and education services must be limited to the geographic area specified in the agency’s approved work plan. For example, agencies offering online education may only offer this service to clients in their approved geographic scope. (Handbook 3-1, E)
  • The housing counseling agency’s work plan must address the alternative settings or formats for the provision of counseling services. (Handbook 3-2, A3)
  • Housing counseling agencies must offer individual counseling following a client’s participation in an online homebuyer education program. (See FAQ)

If you are adding an online or telephone component to your services, be sure to inform your HUD Point of Contact of the change in your program and update your workplan accordingly.

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