King County put out the call for organizations to design a Housing Resource Center to help people get into housing by acting as an intermediary between landlords and potential tenants.
The proposed program will be a souped-up version of the Landlord Liaison Program, a city-based initiative that tries to do much the same, but with a very limited scope.
The program will get $465,000 annually for staffing and other costs, money that will come from Seattle, King County and United Way. Employees will engage with landlords to reduce screening criteria that can keep people out of the market, such as requiring a high credit score or rejecting people out of hand based on an eviction.
The Housing Resource Center is one of many recommendations in Mayor Ed Murray’s new plan to combat homelessness called Pathways Home, which was based on recommendations by consultant Barbara Poppe. The plan aims to get all unsheltered people inside by the end of 2017, a bold aim that will require new housing stock and better utilization of existing resources.
The existing Landlord Liaison Program works well, but it’s underfunded and doesn’t have the coverage that it needs to fulfill the promise of Pathways Home, said Sean Martin, spokesperson for the Rental Housing Association of Washington.
The Rental Housing Association promotes the liaison to its members, but that covers between 3,400 and 3,500 landlords in Seattle, a fraction of the total number. The number of units available through the program is further constrained by its voluntary nature.
“Right now it’s not difficult to find qualified tenants,” Martin said. “People participating in the project are doing it because they want to help people get into housing that don’t have the advantages other people might.”
The liaison program’s strength is giving landlords the structure and security to take a risk on a tenant they otherwise might not.
“It’s the support network to get them over the final hurdle,” Martin said.
Service providers remain skeptical that the proposed center will be able to meet the goals. They describe the difficulty working with landlords with whom they have good relationships to get people an apartment, even when the bulk of their rent will be handled through a Section 8 voucher or other subsidy.
Section 8 is a federal program that guarantees people pay no more than 30 percent of their incomes on rent. Payments are capped, meaning that a voucher holder will not be able to rent just anywhere. In Seattle, Section 8 voucher holders have to find housing that ranges from a maximum rent of $1,050 for a market rate studio to $3,400 for a market rate six-bedroom apartment.
That means that even when a rent check is a sure thing, transferred directly from the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) to the landlord, business people are taking other options because they seem less risky.
It’s not that the vouchers are poorly received, the market is just that hot, said Cynthia West, director of Rental Assistance programs at SHA.
“In this market with low vacancy rates and high costs, it is difficult for anyone to find an apartment unit,” West said. “For our folks, it’s as hard if not harder for a variety of reasons.”
SHA builds relationships with landlords to help with the process and provides counseling to its clients so they know how to sell themselves a prospective tenants, West said.
That sounds similar to the Housing Resource Center model, and it should. SHA has been coordinating with King County and All Home, formerly the Committee to End Homelessness, to help design the program.
“Our model is very similar to what is going to be done at the countywide level,” West confirmed.
The center is one part of a multi-pronged strategy to make it easier for people with low incomes to rent in Seattle’s headline-making property market.
Councilmember Kshama Sawant has championed legislation to cap move-in fees for apartments and allow renters to space out payments of those fees.
The legislation was sent back to committee at the Oct. 17 City Council meeting, but is expected to come back to council by mid December.
Councilmembers also signed off on “source of income protections,” meaning that people cannot be denied housing for using Section 8 or Social Security for their rent. It also prohibited “employer preferences,” instead requiring landlords to take the first qualified applicant for an apartment.