Bay Area Landlords Are Opening Their Doors to Formerly Homeless Residents Amid Mounting Vacancies

A woman standing in front of apartments, wearing a mask that reads 'housing is a human right'
Jasmine Yohai, a housing locator for nonprofit Bay Area Community Services. She spends most of her time finding places to live for her clients who are coming out of homelessness. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

It all started with a Zillow ad. Meilin Liu posted two rooms for rent in a duplex she owns near downtown Oakland.

And she waited. She expected the rooms to be rented in a matter of days.

“Usually it's one move out, one move in. But this is the first time, after I managed for 20 something years ... I have to sit on the market for months,” she said.

Liu said before the pandemic her inbox would be flooded with requests from people eager to move in.

But now, with the economic fallout from the pandemic, the rental market is changing. Layoffs and remote work have led many workers to flee the Bay Area. In response, prices are plummeting — median rent on a two bedroom apartment is down 13% in Oakland and 24% in San Francisco since March, according to Apartment List.

That’s opened up an opportunity to get more landlords like Meilin Liu to rent to people who have been homeless — something they have been reluctant to do in the past. Bay Area homeless service providers see private landlords as a vital part of their effort to find permanent housing for people who have been staying in Project Roomkey hotels during the pandemic.

As Liu’s rooms sat vacant, her Zillow ad caught the attention of a woman named Jasmine Yohai. She is a housing locator for nonprofit Bay Area Community Services, and she spends most of her time finding places to live for her clients who are coming out of homelessness.

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Yohai was hoping to convince Liu to rent to some of her clients, so she gave her a call.

“I immediately told her that I was not interested but she wouldn’t let me go. I almost hung up,” Liu said.

Liu’s resistance is not unusual. Landlords want stability in their tenants. They often turn down people who have bad credit, low income or a prior eviction on their record — all common for people who have been homeless.

“I just would like it to be simple. I don't want too much trouble,” Liu added.

But something that Yohai said made her change her mind, about renting to someone who had been homeless.

“She said that they are trying very hard to start a new life,” Liu recalled. “They just need someone to give them a chance. And I said usually I won’t, but because of you, I'm willing to give it a try.”

Yohai knows from experience that her call can make a difference.

“Building that relationship with landlords is really the important piece to our success in being able to house our clients,” said Yohai.

Liu agreed to rent the rooms to two of Yohai’s clients. Since then, she’s increased her commitment, agreeing to rent a five-bedroom house in Oakland to more people who have recently been homeless. Each person placed will pay their rent with the help of a rental subsidy, which means Liu gets a guaranteed monthly payment.

“She's a business woman, but at the same time she has a huge heart and cares,” Yohai said. “Meilin was able to understand that people change and ... she believes in [second chances], with the proper support."

Jasmine Yohai stands in front of an apartment building.
'Building that relationship with landlords is really the important piece to our success in being able to house our clients,' Jasmine Yohai said. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

From Hotels to Apartments

The need to find additional housing is urgent in the Bay Area.

Since the pandemic began, thousands of homeless seniors and medically vulnerable people have been placed in Project Roomkey hotels to help protect them from the virus. But that was always meant to be a temporary solution. Now, Bay Area officials and service providers are scrambling to transition people to more permanent housing so they don’t end up back on the streets or in a shelter.

But there’s a shortage of affordable housing options, so recruiting more landlords like Liu is a top priority.

Alameda County maintains a database of landlords who have available units and has added 65 names to the list since September.

The county coordinates with nonprofit agencies, who help match clients staying in Project Roomkey hotels with a new place to live. The agencies include Bay Area Community Services, where Jasmine Yohai works, and Abode Services, a homeless service provider that operates in six Bay Area counties.

Vivian Wan is the chief operating officer at Abode Services. Her organization has been able to increase the number of apartments rented thanks to pandemic relief funding from the state and federal government. The softening rental market means they can compete for places that were once out of reach.

“We're seeing that the market opened up a little more, you know, because our rents are a sure thing. We look a little bit better than maybe we once did,” Wan said.

Wan says Abode used to rent one place at a time as the need arose, but now they’re renting units in larger numbers, sometimes paying landlords upfront to hold their availability. That way they can quickly place people who are ready to leave the hotels. She says the program has tripled its acquisition of rental properties in recent months.

“We've engaged higher level real estate specialists who are really working with bigger property management companies to secure deals with them,” Wan said.

“If we could access those vacant units, if those are made available to us and not sitting off the market for one reason or another, then we could really move the needle, not only for the folks in these hotels now, but more long term for homelessness,” Wan said.

She said that since September, 174 people in Alameda County have been housed through this program.

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More Than Rent

People who get housed through one of these programs pay 30% of whatever income they have for rent, and the subsidy they receive picks up the rest.

But the subsidy does more than that — it pays for wraparound services as well. That could include help with grocery shopping, budgeting or moving expenses.

Each person also gets a case manager who helps them access those services, and serves as a liaison between the tenant and the landlord if any problems arise.

“We're not just moving someone in and then abandoning them right there,” said Stephany Ashley, Northern California director of housing services for the nonprofit Brilliant Corners.

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“There's going to be someone working around the clock to make sure that this housing match is successful for everybody involved,” Ashley said.

In July, Brilliant Corners teamed up with the city of San Francisco and philanthropic donors to create an $11 million fund to pay for rent subsidies and support services. Ashley said the goal is to move 200 people from hotels into market-rate apartments by the end of January.

Ashley said the current rental market has created a lot of choices for people.

“We can say, 'Hey, where do you want to live? Is it Bernal Heights? Bayview? Do you want to live in North Beach or do you like the Tenderloin?' People get that level of choice,” she said.

Since the pandemic started, Ashley said an influx of landlords and property owners began reaching out to Brilliant Corners wanting to partner with them. A guaranteed rent payment has become more desirable in a struggling economy.

“I feel like now is the moment to end homelessness for a whole bunch of people,” Ashley said. “The need is great and the opportunity is great.”

For people who have moved from the hotels into their own apartment, the program has been life changing.

A person standing outside of an apartment building, clasping their hands together
Mina at her home in North Berkeley on Dec. 22, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Mina, who only wanted to share her first name for privacy reasons, was living in an emergency homeless shelter in Berkeley earlier this year when the pandemic hit. She had become homeless after she lost her job as a part-time caregiver.

“Oh my God, I was so worried,” said Mina, who was also getting chemotherapy treatments after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. “My immune system is very weak. I was afraid I might get COVID."

Because of her medical condition, she was moved into a Project Roomkey hotel and connected to a case manager. Since she was recovering from cancer, Mina had specific housing needs. She wanted to be near a major bus line and needed a first-floor apartment, because walking up stairs was too difficult.

“I was always crying, crying,” Mina said. “I thought I’m never going to find housing.”

But last month she got the good news: She was getting her own place in North Berkeley.

Mina got her keys and moved into the one-bedroom apartment with the help of Jasmine Yohai from Bay Area Community Services. After living at a homeless shelter for years, Mina said having her own place doesn’t feel real.

“It's like I'm still dreaming. I have my own housing again, I’m so proud,” she said. “All I have to do now is take care of myself.”

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