Could an Anti-Homelessness Program Also Stabilize Affordable Housing Supply?

Posted by Miriam Axel-Lute on August 1, 2016

Periodically in the affordable housing world, a few of us acknowledge the fact that the vast majority of low-income people live in unsubsidized rental units located within one- to four-unit buildings. And then we ask, how do we improve the quality of these homes and preserve their affordability? What programs could help these landlords and also help their tenants?

The conversations I've heard have mostly focused on the financing and capital investments side, but a panel I attended about rapid rehousing last week at the National Alliance to End Homelessness conference made me wonder about support on the operations side as well.

Rapid rehousing is part of the growing housing-first approach to homelessness, which stipulates that stable housing is the first step toward dealing with homelessness, not the last. A rapid rehousing program helps with housing location, provides financial assistance for a short period of time (often four to six months), and case management. They tend to be run by nonprofits, using a combination of public and private funding.

Why would a landlord want to work with such a program, especially since the rents are generally limited to the fair market rent?

The presenters (Zachary Brown, WV Coalition to End Homelessness; Ben Catell Noll, Friendship Place; Beth Fetzer-Rice, Salvation Army in Central Ohio; and Michael Shore, HOM Inc) had a number of potential answers. Along with giving the feeling of doing something good and being part of something larger (which they absolutely worked), they said, the programs can provide some other benefits that landlords, especially smaller ones, often appreciate:

  • Filling units. Depending on the market, the advantage here would either be in keeping a unit full or not losing time and energy sorting through applications, but in many ways a partnership with a rapid rehousing organization reduces one piece of a landlord's job--locating and screening new tenants. Sometimes they even help with modest turnover costs, like painting a unit.
  • Support if things go wrong. Even though the leases are directly with the landlords, rapid rehousing programs take responsibility for their placements for a period of time, and will intervene, resolve conflicts, or negotiate move-out terms if things don't work out, lowering the landlord's need to deal with conflict and housing court. When approaching landlords, Fetzer-Rice said she tells them, "These are people you are renting to anyway, but they have a better shot of making it working with us than they do alone." Some organizations even maintain a "landlord mitigation fund" for the rare instance in which a placed tenant damages the unit. Most of these funds go unused, as most rapid rehousing clients are fine tenants, but Fetzer-Rice did have a very dramatic story of her organization stepping in to clean up and even remove carpet after the departure of one tenant who left an apartment full of dog feces. The landlord had many units and they couldn't afford to lose him. Rather than being angry, in the end he was so gratified by the hands-on work the organization did he turned down their offer to pay for replacement carpet and kept working with them. 
  • Easier to work with than some government programs—many small landlords would be willing to accept social services housing stipends if it weren't for issues like delayed payments and super stringent inspections. The panelists all agreed on the importance of working with their organizational finance department to process checks quickly and about developing relationships with housing inspectors to get inspections done fast and without unecessary nit-picking. (NB: Obviously this does not mean placing people in housing that doesn't meet appropriate standards.) Also, it sounds like sometimes these programs are doing things like negotiating shared housing/roommate arrangements that more bureaucratic programs might not allow.

Noll reported that in a recent survey, 80 percent of the landlords his organization works with in the D.C. metro area said being part of the programs was good for their bottom line.

In talking with other people at the conference, it seems, unsurprisingly, that these things are not always enough, especially in the hottest market areas with rising rents, to entice all landlords, but they do carry some appeal even in some fairly low vacancy areas. 

I'll admit after reading Evicted I was in no mood to be sympathetic to the landlords raking in profit by renting to the poorest of the poor, using tenants who were behind on rent to get away with keeping apartments in terrible condition and bouncing families out the door for the slightest reason.

Nonetheless, I know there are good landlords who would not only welcome being part of such a program, but who might get a bit of needed financial stability and the ability to invest in their apartments. It seems like it could be one part of an answer to that question being asked in a different part of the field about supporting this form of affordable housing, and a good example of how the homelessness services sector and the affordable housing and neighborhood revitalization sectors could benefit from more interaction.

If so, could those other sectors bring some of their tools, skills, and resources to bear? For example, if new programs were instituted to allow for rehab money to get distressed apartments into better shape (including, for example, dealing with lead hazards) in exchange for participation in a program such as this, perhaps we might be able to hit several birds with one stone? It seems there could be many possibilities.

(Photo credit: Flickr user hildgrim, CC BY-SA)

About the author more ยป

Miriam Axel-Lute is editor of Shelterforce and associate director of the National Housing Institute. Her email is miriam at nhi dot org.

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COMMENTS

Dan Immergluck
9 Aug 16, 11:02 am

Nice piece Miriam! This is very helpful, and a key issue.

We need more ways for small landlords to be incentivized to do high-road property management. This is important both to get folks housed, but also to keep the properties maintained and reduce neighborhood resistance to rental housing in small buildings and single-family homes. One challenge of course is the difficulty/cost of operating such programs across many small landlords. We have a program in Atlanta that does similar work with landlords accepting homeless and harder-to-house households
( http://www.opendoorsatl.org/ )  that is a great collaboration between housing assistance/counseling groups and responsible landlords) but it seems to focus on larger buildings, probably to get to scale faster.

Beyond the benefits to landlords you discuss, we need to think about feasible ways to make the numbers work for small, responsible landlords renting at affordable rents (and maintaining quality). Property tax adjustments/incentives are one possibility. Of course they need to be tied to inspections and affordable rents and income targeted. Creative collaborations with good public housing authorities (who have some needed infrastructure here to do inspections etc.) might be useful in qualifying units for tax breaks. Rehab and purchase loan programs for investors are another possibility, but reaching scale may be more of an issue.

-Dan Immergluck
Georgia Tech School of City and Regional Planning

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