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May/June 2019, Volume 7 Issue 09

From the Field: A Rural Agency’s Approach to Certification

Established in 1985, NeighborImpact represents and serves economically disadvantaged residents in Oregon. With just four housing counselors on staff, the agency’s housing counseling program – HomeSource of NeighborImpact – serves Deschutes, Crook, and Jefferson counties and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.

Over the last year, the agency has been working to prepare its housing counselors for HUD’s Housing Counseling Certification Exam. So far, two have passed! But as anyone who has taken or started studying for the exam can confirm, certification can feel like a journey in which the path forward isn’t always clear.

In fact, when the counselors at HomeSource learned how comprehensive the exam is, they were a bit overwhelmed. “The number of topics that the exam covers was a concern at first,” recalled Sonia Capece, HomeSource Director. “We don’t provide counseling in all of the areas, so there were some pieces – like rentals and eviction prevention – that we just weren’t familiar with,” she said.

To encourage studying and preparation, HomeSource incorporated certification into counselors’ professional development plans and identified the end of FY 2019 as an agency deadline. With that end date in mind, each person developed their own timeline for passing the exam. “Even though these were just internal deadlines, it was important to set a goal for them to work towards,” said Capece.

The counselors started their preparation by first taking a pretest to help identify what they did and didn’t know. Then, it was time to get studying. HomeSource dedicated paid time to support counselors’ preparation, allowing them to periodically block off a couple hours on their calendars for exam review. To ensure that the counselors were making progress, Capece used recurring check-ins to discuss how the studying was coming.

The counselors initially relied heavily on preparing via virtual courses. “A few things really worked well for me,” said Jeffrey Belzer, a Financial Coaching Specialist at HomeSource. “I studied all of the online modules and then took the practice exam, which provided information about what I needed to study further. I then focused on those modules, creating flash cards for all of the terms and important ideas in those modules.”

But studying virtually wasn’t working for everyone. For Senior HomeSource Specialist Victoria Vale, online learning just wasn’t the right method. Fortunately, HomeSource is a NeighborWorks member organization that frequently attends the NeighborWorks Training Institutes (NTI). Vale was able to participate in an in-person preparation course at one of these events and greatly preferred her learning experience. “NeighborImpact paid for and I attended the NTI workshop on how to prepare for the exam,” said Vale. “I received helpful tips about how to study, along with test-taking strategies.”

The lesson, says Capece, is that, “Some people are better suited for online training and studying alone, while others might need face-to-face engagement. It’s important to understand how your staff learn best.”

As the first exam date approached, the agency had to prepare their office space. HomeSource is located in rural Oregon and having the exam proctored online was the best option. The agency was glad they would save money by not having to send counselors to a distant testing site, but ensuring the testing environment met requirements was somewhat intimidating. “We had to buy a webcam, install the special equipment, and do multiple trial runs to make sure everything worked,” Capece noted.

Ironically enough, they still experienced some technical difficulties on the day of the exam. The issues were resolved, but they learned a valuable lesson. When it was time for the next counselor to take their exam, an IT person was alerted and on-call to provide support in the event of technical issues.

Like many things, the road to certification isn’t easy, but it is rewarding. “At the end of the exam, I immediately learned that I had passed. I literally did a dance of joy!” Vale shared.

And while certification is a major milestone for the counselor, it also holds great value for the industry and, most importantly, the client.

“Certification creates quality standards for the industry and strengthens the credibility of housing counselors, who have to demonstrate significant knowledge to pass the exam,” Capece notes. “No matter where in the country a client is located, they can walk into a HUD-approved housing counseling agency and know they’ll receive quality services.”

Jeffrey Belzer

Pictured R: HomeSource Financial Coaching Specialist, Jeffrey Belzer

Victoria Vale

Pictured R: Senior HomeSource Specialist, Victoria Vale