May 23, 2017

From Jemila Hart, Employment and Education Services Coordinator for the Housing Authority of Clackamas County, and MSW Intern at Trauma Informed Oregon

Low-income public housing providers are tasked with the responsibility to foster communities where people who have experienced tremendous adversity and poverty can find stability, healing, and opportunity to build a future for themselves and their families.

My work in public housing is as a Resident Services Coordinator where I meet with new residents who, while on our nine year waitlist, are likely to have experienced multiple periods of homelessness. New residents, having finally gotten into housing they can afford, where rent is based on 30% of income, say that they experience a tremendous sense of relief. Housing, at least initially, provides a sanctuary that is in stark contrast to their previous life on the streets, in shelters, and on the couches and in the garages of friends and family.

Impact of Trauma on Our Neurobiology

Residents, however, who have complex trauma histories that involve physical, emotional and sexual abuse, domestic violence, poverty, and oppression often have trauma related coping mechanisms that can make maintaining the housing that they waited so long for precarious. Our developing knowledge of the impact of trauma on our neurobiology is helpful for understanding why. What we know about trauma is that survivors often struggle with emotional regulation, managing relationships, maintaining boundaries, and trusting others. Often, trauma survivors can also be hypervigilant and have trouble with memory and cognition. People who have these signs and symptoms of trauma often find themselves facing eviction when, for instance, their use of substances to manage daily life impacts the community, when they fail inspections, miss appointments, or are triggered by and get into conflict with their neighbors, the property manager, or maintenance staff.

Preventing these evictions from occurring rests on making public housing trauma informed and providing opportunities for staff to receive training in de-escalation practices and Trauma Informed Care (TIC). Understanding and training in these approaches has been enormously helpful to me in my work in housing and has helped me to recognize and reframe problematic behaviors as coping mechanisms that survivors use to manage the impact of a history of trauma on their lives. I have learned the importance of paying attention to the sense of safety, power, and self-worth experienced both by individuals and by the community as a whole as a way to deescalate volatile situations. Other examples of trauma informed accommodations include recognizing substance abuse as a coping mechanism and working with residents and systems to remove barriers to accessing treatment. Accommodations can also involve finding simple solutions, such as sending reminder calls and texts, to help residents with cognitive and memory issues related to trauma make appointments and pay their rent on time.

Non-payment of rent, however, is the most common reason that people are evicted from housing. Even though rent is subsidized so that it does not consume more than 30% of household income, every month, perhaps 5 to 10% of households fall behind. Recently, my housing agency, in the hopes of discouraging this behavior, raised the fee for late rent from $25 to $50 but this policy change has had little impact. Doubling the late fee didn’t make a difference because the reason why people pay their rent late has to do with the psychology of scarcity and the conditions of poverty that are constants in the lives of people living in public housing where the average household income is just $13,000 a year.

Experience of Poverty that Leads to Tunneling

The experience of poverty, like the experience of trauma and abuse, has an impact on our neurobiology and changes our behavior. The authors, Sendil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, in their book, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, lay out a compelling argument about how experiencing scarcity shapes our behavior as human beings in particular ways and that understanding these dynamics is an essential to designing effective anti-poverty programs.

One of the main impacts of scarcity, they argue, is that it causes us to tunnel, narrowing our focus of vision to meet our immediate needs for survival in the present moment. Residents who regularly pay their rent late are often juggling multiple bills, obligations, and family crises. Property managers, partly due to high court fees, often delay moving forward on eviction notices until a resident is at least a couple of months behind. This can create the perception of leeway for residents who then opt to pay the obligation that is the most pressing in the moment; their electricity bill, medical co-pays, school clothes, car repair, obligations that fall inside the tunnel, and as a result, they delay paying rent despite the costs of doing so.

Under conditions of scarcity, there can also be a benefit to tunneling. Mullainathan and Shafir call this the focus dividend, a benefit of focused attention that makes many poor people experts and innovators in making a $1 stretch to make ends meet. Tunneling, however, as a coping mechanism also has its costs, the most detrimental of which is that tunneling causes us to ignore, neglect, and put off important things that fall outside the tunnel. Things that fall outside the tunnel are still important to people but less pressing. As a result of tunneling we ignore the future impact of accumulating late fees and a potential eviction, we neglect our savings, and we put off investing in education for ourselves and our children. Always focusing on addressing immediate needs makes it difficult to plan effectively for the future.

Without a savings buffer, the impact of tunneling is exacerbated when unexpected expenses appear such as when a car, necessary to employment, breaks down.  It is under these circumstances that people living in poverty turn to the very costly financial services, pay day lenders, and car loans with 30% interest rates that are available to the poor. The price of these and the multitude of other high cost financial services that target public housing communities often effectively eliminate the benefit that the housing subsidy is supposed to glean.

Tools and Resources Needed to Build Financial Resilience

Many low-income housing programs have worked to address the impact of scarcity faced by residents by providing resources and tools that help to build financial resilience. One such tool is the Individual Development Account, a matched savings account that incentivizes residents to save for important assets like reliable vehicles, education, and homeownership that allow them to invest in their future. Matched savings accounts are paired with education that teaches in concrete ways how to build financial stability and how to minimize tunneling behaviors that result from and compound poverty.

The impact of trauma and the psychology of scarcity on human behavior are both important frameworks for understanding root causes and finding effective solutions to the challenges that we see in low income housing programs. Applying this knowledge about trauma and scarcity is essential to designing and reforming systems that work to alleviate poverty.


Mullainathan, S., & Shafir, E. (2013). Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much. New York: Henry Holt & Company.