Two evictions and horrible credit — that’s not what most landlords want to see on their tenants’ records.
Luatonya Girtman, 34, says that’s why she and her two children spent much of the last year bouncing in and out of homelessness, even when she had hustled together enough money from temporary and part-time jobs to put her family in a new home.
“I’d never even had a criminal record, but I felt like I did when I started looking for housing again,” said Girtman, 34.
According to King County’s Committee to End Homelessness, there are at least 1,000 homeless people in the county who have the resources to pay for housing, but because of their credit or criminal histories can’t find landlords to rent to them.
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A King County-based program called the Landlord Liaison Project (LLP) — funded by cities, King County and local philanthropies — has helped many of them, including Girtman. Last month, she was finally able to move her family into an apartment in Kent when LLP persuaded her landlord to take a chance on her.
“When these guys helped me, I just felt like angels had come — I get teary-eyed even talking about it,” Girtman said.
The program reimburses landlords for any damage tenants do to a unit or, if necessary, for the cost of evicting them. It also provides them 24-hour access to a help line. The program’s clients must be working with case managers at other nonprofits and must complete budgeting classes.
Since LLP started in 2009, 94 percent of the almost 1,800 parties they’ve been able to house have been able to maintain their housing for more than a year.
But recently, LLP has been struggling to find enough landlords, with King County rent rates skyrocketing and affordable-housing options decreasing.
“It’s trickier now because the vacancy rate is so low and [landlords] have a lot of great choices,” said Mona Tschurwald, LLP’s program manager. “To ask them to be willing to do this is a lot tougher.”
Right now, 213 King County landlords are renting to LLP tenants at about 400 properties.
Tschurwald is hoping that last week’s launch of the One Home campaign, a new partnership and publicity effort to promote LLP and its supporting programs, will help those numbers grow.
The kickoff for One Home, held on Tuesday, was hosted by Zillow at its Seattle headquarters. It included a number of meetings with landlords, and recognition for those already participating in LLP.
LLP is one of the sponsors of One Home, along with a number of government, nonprofit, and philanthropic groups.
“We respect landlords’ right to make a profit, but we’re saying you can also be part of the solution,” said Tschurwald. “And we all need to be part of the solution — it can’t just be nonprofits, religious organizations and government.”
Raj Kumar, a software engineer and property manager who lives in Kirkland, understands why landlords hesitate to become part of LLP.
He was skeptical himself when Alena Rogers, 38, expressed interest in renting at his Des Moines apartment building last year. Rogers told him about her criminal history, bouts of homelessness that began in 2005, and past drug use. But she also said she had been sober for five years and was attending school to become a chemical-dependency specialist.
Kumar decided to take the risk and rent to her through LLP, and he now says she is one of his best tenants. Eighteen months after she moved in, Rogers has a bachelor’s degree from The Evergreen State College-Tacoma and a job as a sobriety case manager.
Without stable housing, Rogers doubts she could have finished school or landed a good job.
“It’s been essential to helping me turn my life around, absolutely essential,” she said.
Now Kumar is renting to three more tenants in Des Moines and Kent through the LLP. Although he has come close to evicting some of them, he said LLP has always stepped in to help solve problems, and he hasn’t lost money.
“I generally rent at the current market rate,” Kumar said. “I just open up my criteria a bit more and if something goes wrong, LLP stands by me to alleviate some of the fears any landlord might have about a worst-case scenario.”
Tschurwald would eventually like to see some landlords offer a unit or two at below-market rates, especially in high-rent areas such as Seattle and the Eastside. Even with financial assistance through programs such as Section 8, it’s difficult to find any affordable housing in those areas, she said.
Affordable housing is so hard to come by in Seattle now that its City Council passed a resolution last month, signaling its intent to charge developers fees to help build more housing for middle- and low-income families. But there’s no definitive timeline and, to Tschurwald, the beauty of LLP is that it empowers landlords themselves to alleviate affordable-housing problems quickly.
She says several landlords, such as Kumar, have started offering one unit through LLP and then were inspired to offer more to the program.
“Our mantra has always been, ‘Give us one unit, and if it doesn’t work, that’s fine,’” Tschurwald said. “There really are a lot of good landlords out there, and I believe if we can talk to more of them one by one and try to hear all sides of an issue, we can get them more involved.”