Journal of Housing & Community Development

Providing Scholarships for Success in Pharr

August 5, 2021
by Libby Miller

The Housing Authority of the City of Pharr (HACP) won a 2020 Award of Excellence for Administrative Innovation for funding scholarships for graduating seniors using payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) contributions. Nominated from among the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials Award of Merit winners each year, the Awards of Excellence winners are chosen by national juries and honored at the annual National Conference and Exhibition in November. They represent the very best in innovative programs in assisted housing and community development.     

For several years HACP staff looked for ways to give graduating high school students the opportunity to attend college or attain higher education. Money to fund these scholarships was raised by staff and tenants through fundraisers, such as bake sales. This required a lot of work for a small return. HACP was limited to awarding a little over $7,000 in scholarships annually. HACP approached the school district and city leaders and by building strong relationships, convinced both entities to donate the payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) HACP paid to a nonprofit for scholarships. 

“In order for us to keep this going we needed to talk about other opportunities,” HACP Executive Director Noel De Leon said. “This housing authority has always had a good relationship with the city and school district, which really helped facilitate this partnership.”  

Hoping to leverage the housing authority’s strong relationships with local stakeholders, HACP created the Residents Earning Advanced Degrees (READ) Project nonprofit. This allowed the agency to seek contributions for scholarships  

“At first the school district only wanted to give it to school district students. But we have families that we help that have students in other schools, such as charter schools or schools outside the district,” De Leon said. “So, we convinced the city of Pharr to donate as well.”  

This resulted in a commitment from both the school district and the City to fund the scholarship program for up to 10 years. Now, on average HACP has about $65,000 to $70,000 worth of funding to distribute to graduating students. De Leon said that on average, students who apply receive between $2,500 to $4,000.  

“It is very important to give (the students) an opportunity to continue their education,” Public Housing Director Erica Salinas said. “A lot of these kids do not have transportation, extra income, or technology to further their education.”  

HACP recognized that some graduating seniors from low-income housing may have other scholarships or forms of financial aid, but this scholarship is useful in other ways such as aiding with buying a computer or other materials for school. 

“This is for our students to become our future,” Salinas said. “…This is an opportunity to break that cycle of poverty.” 

De Leon said the scholarships are awarded based on merit. “You might be surprised to learn how bright our students are; when you think of low-income housing, you might get the wrong impression that these students are not bright, that is simply not case.” 

Year after year more students from Pharr are applying to college and earning a scholarship provided by HACP. Salinas said last year about 35 students received scholarships. Part of that success, Salinas said, is that the housing authority has strong relationships with the students to encourage them to apply. Additionally, students maintain their relationship with the housing authority to track their progress as they continue their education.  

“We don’t just want to give them the scholarship. We want to see them conclude and complete their career goals,” De Leon said.  

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