One of the key tools in the effort to end homelessness has a weakness. The “housing first” approach adopted by communities across the country involves helping people find housing and, in many cases, subsidizing their rent. Facing a shortage of rental housing, Santa Cruz County has set out to recruit landlords to rent to people who have been homeless.
In Brad Schwartz’s case, finding a landlord who would rent to him took about six months.
Sitting on his couch sipping a beer, he explains that in 2007 or 2008, after two decades of homelessness, he applied for a Section 8 voucher -- a federally funded rental subsidy for people with very low incomes or disabilities.
“I got tired of being on the streets,” he says. “I decided I’d done everything I’d wanted to do while I was out there and that I wanted to tie up all my loose ends.”
He continued sleeping in the woods for about five more years until county staff called and told him his name had come up on the waiting list.
“ ‘Now go get your voucher and look for a place. You have two months to find one.’ It was like a game show thing and I couldn’t find one.”
The 60-day time limit is supposed to keep vouchers from going unused. But for Schwartz it wasn’t enough time to find a landlord who would take his voucher. He’s not alone, says Santa Cruz County Housing Manager Julie Conway.
“We’ve got a number of property managers whose approach with the properties they manage is to just not even consider tenant-based subsidies,” she says.
One landlord recently told her he was afraid: “‘I’m just going to have this person in here who’s got major substance abuse issues and so do all of their friends. He’s just going to come in and trash the unit and cost me lots of money and why would I do that.’”
In Conway’s account, the landlord ended up renting to someone he had known previously who had become homeless as the result of a health issue. The person became a model tenant.
“That person was so relieved to have a housing unit that the last thing they were going to do was blow it.” she says.
This is a theme in the campaign Conway is launching to encourage landlords to take tenants who have been homeless. The campaign is part of the county’s “All-In Strategic Plan to End Homelessness.” Counter to stereotypes, people who have been homeless are often quiet, reliable tenants.
A Business Based on Renting to the Formerly Homeless
A video she plans to show to the local Rotary Club and other civic groups opens with the slogan “Landlords: You are the key to ending homelessness in Santa Cruz County.” The video includes testimonials from landlords. One of them, Jack Cross, owns about 40 small units. He says renting to subsidized tenants is good business.
“I don’t like turnover, because turnover or vacancies is a headache of cleaning and advertising again and screening tenants,” Cross says. “Whereas these tenants stay for a long periods of time. The cash flow’s good and you don’t have any down time.”
As an incentive, the county will cover rent, if a tenant fails to pay. Conway says that’s unlikely because rent subsidies already automatically deposit into property owners’ accounts. The county will also pay a limited amount on top of the security deposit if a property gets damaged. These financial bonuses follow a model the county tried in a small program years ago. In that experience, Conway says only two small damage claims were filed.
In his search, Brad Schwartz had to request two extensions on the deadline for his voucher. He eventually got some help finding a place from John Dietz, a volunteer with 180/2020. That’s Santa Cruz County’s program that aims to make a 180-degree turnaround for the homelessness problem by the year 2020.
“John called me one day -- Saturday or something like 8 in the morning,” Schwartz says. “And he calls me and goes, ‘I just talked to a lady and she wants us there 2 o’clock for an interview. Got a place near the beach that you’d like where you can smoke tobacco.’ ”
His house has just two rooms. It’s in a part of Santa Cruz dominated by apartment buildings. The ivy and blackberry in the yard require regular trimming. Schwartz thinks his enthusiasm for yard work might have persuaded his landlord to pick him.
“I help out with the ladies in front, I help with the front yard and do a lot of raking. And do little things that help me feel like I’m being responsible,” he says. “It’s the place I live, it’s not just this box I’m renting and they can do what they want with it.”
Conway says getting more landlords to take formerly homeless tenants is just part of the answer to the homelessness problem. Ultimately, the county needs more affordable housing.