Can a partnership with landlords get homeless into housing?
Just a couple of weeks ago, Taigan Conway was living in her car while her five-year-old daughter lived with a relative.
She said they had to leave their previous housing because it went into foreclosure and the owner didn’t notify them until just before the place went up for auction.
Conway faced a long road and some challenges to get into housing. She has a past criminal history and she’s still looking for work. But she had help.
he’s enrolled in a short-term rental subsidy program known as Rapid Re-housing, so her deposits, move-in costs and the first couple of months of rent were paid for her.
And the property company she rents from now works with Housing Connector, a new nonprofit under the umbrella of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce which aims to build bridges between service organizations trying to house homeless clients and the private rental market.
The organization acts as a broker of sorts between landlords with affordable housing and case managers who are trying to house clients.
Funded with over $1 million from Seattle and King County, it’s the newest tool to try to make the housing search process easier for people exiting homelessness with the help of rental subsidies and case management.
"We know that people need homes today and so this is an opportunity for us to find a solution that can get them housed and also allow a whole sector of this industry — the property owners and managers —to be a part of the solution,” said Shkëlqim Kelmendi, executive director of Housing Connector.
Kelmendi’s organization tries to help meet the needs of renters, service providers and the landlords.
A model that doesn’t feel risky
Property owners and managers partnering with them agree to lower or waive screening criteria, making housing more accessible to people who may face challenges to renting because of something like an eviction or a criminal history.
“A lot of property owners and managers, one of the concerns that they have in renting to individuals who might have low credit score or past evictions is the risk that they’re taking on,” Kelmendi said.
In return for lowering the barriers, Housing Connector gives landlords access to a pool of tenants to fill vacant apartments and a safety net. There’s $5,000 in damage mitigation available. And the organization will step in and pay up to three months of rent at any point in the first two years of the tenancy.
They also serve as a single point of contact if there are concerns and guarantee that the tenant will be supported by case management for the first year of the lease.
“If an issue ever arises, we can step in and mitigate it so that the stability of the resident’s housing is not jeopardized,” Kelmendi said.
Housing Connector currently has at least 35 housing partners, according to Kelmendi.
Those partnerships have resulted in about 270 affordable units with lowered screening criteria being made available over the past few months. About 80 are located in Seattle, the rest are elsewhere in King County.
"They're offering a model that provides some assurances and security that really allows people to partner in a way that doesn't really feel risky," said Alison Dean with HNN Associates, a large property management company that's partnering with Housing Connector.
Dean said it’s clear there’s a homelessness crisis in the region and, as a business with affordable housing, they have an obligation to look for ways to be involved in solutions.
Heidi Anderson, resident relations manager for HNN Associates, said they haven’t seen significant differences in outcomes so far with families coming through a program like Housing Connector and those coming through a more traditional market route.
“We have unit availability and it makes a lot of sense, both business-wise and community-wise, to partner in this way,” said Anderson said.
Housing Connector is the latest iteration in the region's attempt to lower barriers for people who are homeless to enter the private market. The model builds on the Landlord Liaison Project, which ran for several years.
A streamlined housing search
Housing Connector is designed to take much of the burden of finding housing off case managers. It provides a database where service providers can search geographic areas, unit size, rent limits, and see where there are properties that will fit the needs of their clients.
And even more: A flawed rental history or other challenges in a client’s background won't return an automatic no from the landlords in the database.
Walter Washington, with Wellspring Family Services, said traditionally case managers spend hours upon hours looking for landlords that will take their clients, often making cold calls.
"Begging them to take on their participants. And that is not a very efficient way of doing things," Washington said.
As part of the deal, service organizations agree to provide case management for the first year of their client’s lease, in case any issues come up and to help stabilize their clients.
That extends the current timeline of support for people who might be enrolled in Rapid Re-housing, a city and county funded short-term rental subsidy program, which provides support on average for about 7 months.
Not a silver bullet, but another piece of the puzzle
Housing Connector isn’t a silver bullet. It won’t single-handedly solve the homelessness crisis. And it won’t help everyone experiencing homelessness.
Those who are unable to work or face significant challenges like ongoing mental, physical or behavioral health issues may not be a good fit for the currently available units.
The program also doesn’t create more affordable or supportive housing.
But it's an extra tool to make sure that the affordable housing that does exist is accessible to those exiting homelessness.
It’s designed to work in the background to help people like Conway get into permanent housing, but there are still challenges.
"I'll probably have to work two jobs, like a 40 hour a week job plus like a bar tending job or something on the weekend, to afford this and the electricity and everything," she said.
Still, having a place for her and her daughter to call home has meant a lot.
"I can cook food, like I can actually cook dinner,” she said. She can do her laundry, she can take a shower whenever she wants, her daughter has her own room and space to play.
“Just the normal things people take for granted, I guess,” Conway said.
In the first few months of piloting, executive director Kelmendi said the group has helped connect 213 people to housing, the vast majority being people of color.