Housing is an equalizer

Author Vera Beech is the Executive Director of Community Rebuilders. The non-profit agency, founded in 1993, is dedicated to ending homelessness and creating safe, affordable housing opportunities in Kent County, Michigan.

Many times I have heard homeless services providers talk about the reported 1-3% vacancy rates of apartments in our community. A 2015 Zillow article reported Grand Rapids, MI, had the nation’s lowest vacancy rate in 2015, coming in at 1.6%.

I also hear about the barriers consumers have in securing housing: criminal history, evictions, no income, bad credit or a criminal sexual conduct charge. It doesn’t surprise me when they haven’t secured the housing they need.

At Community Builders we have a belief: Housing is a basic human right and we can help anyone get housed if they desire housing and agree to the full rights and obligations of tenancy.

And we live this belief. In 2015 we housed 1,791 people using the private rental market. Of the adults served:

  • 32% had a diagnosed disability
  • 15% were domestic violence survivors
  • 29% were Veterans
  • 95% exited to a permanent housing destination

Housing is an equalizer. It’s a stepping stone that builds hope and inspires the people we serve to achieve their goals. Just as we ourselves search for housing when we move, so do our currently homeless consumers. Sometimes they turn down units that don’t meet their needs. And that’s just fine with us. Like all of us, our consumers stay longer in a place they like, want, and choose!

We rely on three keys to secure housing for people who don’t meet standard rental criteria.

Key 1: Shared vision and mission

Our immediate focus is to establish shared goals that complement the individual goals of each partner.

Housing Resource Specialists (HRS) explain the program as a partnership between Community Rebuilders, our consumer and their chosen landlord. Everyone in the partnership has wants, needs and goals, and there must be a clear understanding of each partner’s desires and expectations.

Consumers are asked to paint a clear picture of their ideal housing. Reference points and assumptions are checked throughout the process to ensure mutual understanding and commitment to next steps.

We also work to identify the personal strengths of the consumer, and discuss how they can be applied to the goal of securing housing. This focus on strengths and partnership adds to motivation and infuses the process with energy and excitement to achieve long-term success.

Key 2: Racing for rentals and closing the deal

We use the phrase “Racing for Rentals” to describe the friendly competition between our HRSs to see who can lease the most households in the shortest amount of time. This is an open display to our consumers that housing is achieved every day. They may open our door feeling hopeless, but they leave inspired by those who came before them and believe that they too can achieve housing in the next 20 days.

There are several ways our consumers access the rental market. First, landlords call us and tell us when they have a unit open. Landlords know we have people searching and they often avoid advertising so that we can send 3-5 people to look at the unit while it’s being prepped. If one of our consumers chooses the unit, the landlord packet is initiated, a lease review conducted, and — as soon as the unit passes inspection — the keys are handed over and the landlord begins collecting rent. Many of our consumers use the statewide housing locator, but we also encourage them to visit the area they want to live, look for for-rent signs, or to stop by to a property management office and introduce themselves.

Second, our consumers take the lead in finding their unit. The level of support provided from the HRS is based on need. Community Rebuilders provides a landlord packet to the consumer so they can convey important program information to the landlord. When we ask landlords what is most valuable to them in this arrangement, it is often the close connection to an agency representative. The HRS promotes a level of personal communication between the landlord and tenant which may not develop otherwise.

Closing the deal happens when all parties understand the transaction, benefit from it, and feel valued through the process. Lastly, we give landlords credit! Our programs depend on their partnerships and we value them and make sure they know it. Our landlords are helping to solve the problem of homelessness in our community and we regularly celebrate their contributions.

Key 3: Everyone is a VIP

Our process relies on treating each partner like a VIP. We adjust our schedules and adapt to meet their needs. We are flexible, respectful and honoring of their self-determination. A once-a-week meeting is standard for people searching for housing. Once a consumer has signed a lease, they talk with their HRS and update their goal and action plan to address the next stages in achieving long-term sustainability.

In all partnerships, disagreements and disappointment can occur. The important thing to remember is to handle frustrations and disappointments quickly and consistently. When addressing problems we:

  1. Reevaluate strengths and natural supports to see what might be applied to resolve the situation.
  2. Offer extra support in a particular effort
  3. Realign goals
  4. Clarify expectations or accountabilities
  5. Focus on leaving no persons worse off than they were before the partnership began

Landlords in our community understand the mission of our agency and we understand their perspective. They trust us to represent them, and we trust them to provide quality housing.