Streamlining Access to Housing
With implementation of the HEARTH Act, local homeless assistance systems are under increased pressure to ensure that people facing homelessness have rapid access to permanent housing. Over the past several years, Rapid Re-Housing and Housing First programs across the country have tested a range of strategies to streamline access to housing. The most promising of these strategies include: lining up a supply of housing resources through landlord recruitment, master leasing, and the engagement of Public Housing Agencies; coordinating housing application processes and wait lists; using technology to match housing to people; and delivering individualized housing search and financial assistance.
Problem or Challenge:
Most people experiencing homelessness have extremely low incomes, which makes it very difficult for them to find housing within their means even if they have a rent subsidy voucher or sufficient income to pay rent. In addition, many have difficulty accessing permanent housing due to poor credit, a prior eviction, previous involvement with the criminal justice system, or other issues. As a result, people stay in shelters, transitional housing programs, or on the streets for extended periods of time.
Streamlining access to housing involves practices designed to facilitate rapid housing entry by people experiencing or at imminent risk of homelessness. Before adopting a strategy to streamline housing access, programs often find it helps to do some leg work to find answers to the following questions:
Who needs to be housed and what types of housing do they need? Many communities have found that collaboration around housing access is difficult in the abstract but much easier once you are talking about specific people. Information can be drawn from surveys of people who are experiencing homelessness or from data gathered through the Rapid Re-Housing or Housing First intake process to identify the type of housing needed by households and their specific barriers to accessing housing. For example, communities participating in the 100,000 Homes Campaign conduct a Registry Week to survey people experiencing homelessness to create a by-name registry and prioritize people for housing placement based on findings from the Vulnerability Index.
What housing resources already exist that could serve the target population and what are the current barriers to accessing them?
Who will do the work? Delineating roles and dividing up the work can ensure that many strategies can be employed at once. One organization or team may do landlord recruitment for a defined geographic area, another may engage the local housing authority to target rent subsidies, while another may hire a housing specialist to provide one-on-one housing search assistance to program participants.
There are several approaches utilized in a number of locations that have shown effectiveness in mitigating barriers to housing access, and are often used in combination:
Line Up Supply
Effective programs negotiate “wholesale” with mainstream sources of housing – instead of trying to find housing opportunities for one person at a time. These mainstream sources include private and nonprofit landlords, public housing agencies, and other administrators of housing subsidies.
Since most apartments in the community are owned by private landlords, recruitment and cultivation of positive relationships with them and their property managers is especially important. Landlord relationships take time to build, but successful relationships can help programs expand their network and build relationships with other landlords. Here are some tips on recruiting landlords drawn from experiences of organizations around the country:
Establish a landlord advisory group. This offers a means to learn from landlords what concerns they have about accepting the program’s participants, and what it would take to get them to change their minds. It also offers a way to introduce them to the program and enlist their help.
Think like a sales person. Housing search and placement requires a market-oriented mindset in which property owners are also viewed as customers, and selling points that speak to landlord needs, address their concerns, and mitigate actual or perceived risks. It is helpful to lay out these selling points in professional marketing materials. Be clear and upfront regarding who will be housed and how the program will support them.
Target medium-sized landlords. Some housing search agencies have found that the biggest return on their investment of time comes from recruiting independent landlords of medium-sized buildings, who are typically less risk averse than owners of small properties but who cannot absorb the cost of vacancies as well as large property management firms.
Create incentives for landlords to relax screening criteria. The three most common concerns of landlords in leasing to people experiencing homelessness are non-payment of rent, property damage, and the burden of having to deal with potential problems caused by the incoming tenants. Several communities have developed programs that offer landlord incentives such as: 1) a guaranteed, timely response to landlord concerns; 2) the agreement to provide services to the tenant over a defined period of time; and 3) in some cases, coverage (to capped limits) for damage claims if physical damage is done to the unit, non-payment of rent if the tenant does not vacate the apartment in good standing, and/or court costs and attorney fees where necessary to terminate a tenancy for serious lease violations.In exchange for these guarantees, the landlord is asked to adopt a set of negotiated screening criteria, such as greater flexibility in accepting people referred by the agency who have prior evictions, poor credit, and/or prior convictions. These guarantees on the part of the landlord and the agency may be embodied in a written partnership agreement.
The commitments made while recruiting landlords need to be maintained after lease signing and move-in. Check-in calls to landlords and property managers, home visits to clients, and other promised services must occur within stated time frames. Experienced programs emphasize the importance of ensuring that landlords know who to call to receive a timely and appropriate response.
Master leasing is another means used to expand access to private market housing. Master leasing is a legal sublease arrangement in which an entire building or a group of apartments is leased to an organization (the “master tenant”), which then sublets the units to individual households using a sublease or occupancy agreement. The owner receives one monthly rent check from the master tenant, regardless of occupancy levels. The owner retains its responsibility for renovation and repairs in the building while the master tenant controls operations, taking care of day-to-day maintenance, management, and tenant selection. Typically, a source of funding is identified to provide a rent subsidy for the units to make them affordable (such as HUD Continuum of Care leasing funds or other sources).
Depending upon the requirements of funding sources, master leasing arrangements may not have to be long-term and have been used effectively on a time limited basis, often lasting no more than six to twelve months. This transitional period provides sufficient time for tenants seen as high risk to demonstrate their reliability to landlords, who then become willing to transfer primary control of the lease to them.
Master leasing benefits property owners because they receive a guaranteed income; the master tenant takes on the risk of tenant nonpayment of rent or damages to the unit. As an alternative to master leasing some providers will co-sign leases for “high barrier” tenants for a limited period of time. This is a similar risk-sharing approach that can appeal to otherwise reluctant landlords and enable tenants to develop a payment record, and it may be allowed by funding sources that do not permit programs to transition households from leasing arrangements to rental assistance in the same location.
Public housing agency engagement
Public housing agencies (PHAs) in a variety of communities have helped to ensure the availability of housing units for people experiencing homelessness through a variety of strategies:
Unit set-asides in private housing. Offering project-based rental housing assistance to owners of existing rental housing in exchange for unit set-asides is an effective means of ensuring access to private-market units for people experiencing homelessness. Under the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program, most PHAs may use a portion of their voucher authority to provide project-based rent subsidy vouchers and may establish a waiting list specific to the housing site. The site-based waiting list may give priority to people who are homeless or chronically homeless.
Unit set-asides in public housing. Some programs have successfully partnered with PHAs to set aside some units within public housing for people who are experiencing homelessness. On-site services are then provided by the program or another community partner.
Targeted rental assistance. Many PHAs have established preferences or set-aside programs through which people experiencing homelessness are prioritized for tenant-based rent subsidy vouchers. However, waiting list preferences are typically applied only to applicants who are already on voucher waiting lists. This can present a challenge if the PHA waiting list is closed. A few PHAs have implemented solutions to this challenge by amending their PHA Plan to allow opening of the waiting list for homeless applicants who qualify for a preference because they meet specified criteria. The waiting list may remain open for a limited time period, or the PHA may establish a “limited preference” for a specific number of vouchers.
Coordinate Application Processes and Waiting Lists
A relatively new means of facilitating access to housing is through the creation of a universal or common rental application for affordable or supportive housing properties operated by different organizations. The approach often includes a web-based application form that meets the basic needs of the participating housing programs and can be used by households to apply for tenancy at multiple sites without having to complete multiple forms. Some communities have developed a universal waiting list for a set of supportive housing programs or other housing assistance that is targeted to people experiencing homelessness. Applicants are screened by a central intake entity or committee, and those meeting the criteria of the programs are placed on the waiting list and referred as vacancies occur.
Match Housing to People through Technology
A number of states have developed searchable online databases of publicly-assisted rental housing that enable users to search for apartments based on location, size, rent, and accessibility features. Supportive housing databases in some communities also allow users to search for options based on target population. In Chicago and Indiana, the Corporation for Supportive Housing created a web-based Housing Options Tool that utilizes basic information covered in most existing agency intake forms to generate a ranked list of housing options that are appropriate given the particular characteristics of the household. The household’s referral and application data can then be sent directly via the tool to the desired housing program.
Deliver Individualized Housing Search and Financial Assistance
Most experienced Rapid Re-housing and Housing First programs offer participants individual one-on-one assistance in locating housing, negotiating with landlords, signing leases, and moving into apartments. Often there is a dedicated housing specialist on staff to work with participants from one or more programs. The specialized focus and expertise of the housing specialist ensures that adequate attention is paid to this critical aspect of the program.
Some programs have developed useful tools to help participants with their housing search, particularly those who are searching on their own. Samples of several of these tools can be found in HUD’s Housing Search Assistance Toolkit.
Another strategy used to address rental barriers is the development of a community tenant education program endorsed by the local landlord association. Several communities around the country have established Ready to Rent programs, based upon the tenant readiness curriculum originally developed in the late 1990s by the Portland Housing Center.
Rapid Re-housing and Housing First programs commonly assist participants with move-in costs and payment of security deposits. They may also pay housing-related arrears to remove household debt as a housing barrier. Some negotiate furniture packages with local vendors and provide gift cards for household necessities so that the unit is furnished and ready for the household to move in.
Strategies to streamline access to housing for people experiencing homeless have become essential components of many successful rapid re-housing and Housing First programs, including HomeStart in Boston, Community Engagement Program in Portland, Pathways to Housing, and many others. These programs have demonstrated a high level of effectiveness in helping homeless families and individuals with multiple barriers secure permanent housing quickly.
To date, however, there have been few studies that tell us about the relative impact of the various streamlining methods. One exception is a 2010 evaluation of the Landlord Liaison Project (LLP) in Seattle, WA. During the program’s first 10 months, it placed 147 households who were experiencing homelessness into permanent housing, and signed 73 landlords on as partners. 85 percent of the landlords reported that they would not have rented to this population without the LLP. Landlords rated the financial guarantees of LLP as most important to their participation.
Resources for Follow-up:
Housing Search Assistance Toolkit, 2007, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Homelessness Resource Exchange.
Rapid Re-Housing for Homeless Populations: Program and Community Strategies for Recruiting Private-Market Landlords & Overcoming Housing Barriers, December 2010. Beyond Shelter, HomeStart, Inc. and National Center on Housing and Child Welfare.
Public Housing Agencies and Permanent Supportive Housing for Chronically Homeless People, February 2012. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, Office of Disability, Aging and Long-Term Care Policy.
Evidence-Based Practice: Housing First
Evidence-Based Practice: Permanent Supportive Housing
Evidence Based Practice: Rental Housing Assistance
Promising Practice: Vulnerability Index
Promising Practice: Rapid Re-Housing
Promising Practice: Homeless Prevention
Model Program: Community Engagement Program (Portland, OR)
Model Program: Homeless Action Response Team (Norfolk)
Model Program: HomeStart (Boston)
Model Program: Landlord Liaison Project (Seattle)
Model Program: Pathways to Housing
Model Program: VASH Plus (Washington DC)
Model Program: Front Door Assessment (Dayton, OH)