Many Landlords Don’t Accept Rental Vouchers, Adding To Homeless Problem
Millions of dollars are pouring into programs to help the homeless find permanent housing in San Diego. But even with subsidized rents and incentive programs, many landlords refuse to accept government-backed housing vouchers.
Ksey Motes is a single mom with three sons. She became homeless after back problems forced her to stop working. Motes went on disability leave from her job at Walmart in San Marcos. And after losing her rental arrangement with a friend, she spent weeks living in her car.
Then, when she finally got help from Interfaith Community Services, and money from a rental assistance program called "Rapid Rehousing," she couldn’t find a landlord who would accept the government housing voucher.
"I called so many apartments and nobody takes third-party checks," she said. "And that’s what Rapid Rehousing is — a third-party check. I guess Section 8 would be a third-party check, also they don’t take them. No one takes them anymore."
Federally subsidized Section 8 housing vouchers pay up to three-quarters of the rent for an apartment, but the waiting list to get one is eight to 10 years. Rapid Rehousing vouchers pay the full rent, but for only a few months and it is much faster to qualify for one. However, finding a landlord who will accept it could take months.
Motes said she visited dozens of apartment complexes in Escondido and San Marcos.
"I found one apartment and they wanted me to make four times the (rent) amount of $1,650," Motes said. "If I was making that I wouldn’t be needing help — I’m a single mom ... so it doesn’t make any sense to me at all."
Motes eventually found a place at the Quince Park Apartments in Escondido, where Eddie and Nancy Walker are the property managers.
The apartment complex consists of 43 units situated around a central courtyard with a pool. Rents for the one- and two-bedroom apartments run from $1,150 to $1,450. Because the rental market is tight, the Walkers could simply refuse to consider renters who have been homeless.
"A lot of landlords figure, 'Why should I take the risk?'" Eddie Walker said. "Why bother when I have such a large pool (of applicants) I can pick from?"
It’s not illegal to refuse housing vouchers in California, though lawsuits in Los Angeles and San Francisco are challenging that. But the Walkers are willing to consider people referred to them by agencies like Interfaith Community Services.
"I guess it’s what Nancy and I stand for," Eddie Walker said. "We believe everyone is entitled to a second chance. Circumstances in life happen, sometimes it’s no fault of your own. But if you’re earnest about it and come to us and sit down and — full disclosure — tell us about your situation, Nancy and I usually ask (each other) after they leave, 'what’s your gut?'"
Walker said 90 percent of the time they get it right, but not always.
"When Nancy says they didn’t pay, I’ll first have a 'come to Jesus' meeting and sit down and ask them what’s going on, because the (apartment) owner isn’t in it to be philanthropic, he’s in it because it’s an investment — it’s a business and the bottom line is you have to pay your rent. You can’t live here for free," Eddie Walker said.
Nancy Walker manages the finances at the apartment complex. She knows the benefits of having a tenant on a government-backed housing voucher. Rapid Rehousing covers the whole rent for an initial period of a few months and Section Eight housing vouchers reliably cover most of the monthly rent indefinitely.
"If they aren’t paying, you are not going to have to go after them for all the rent," she said. "You are just going to have to go after them for, say, a quarter of the rent, you have that much guaranteed. So that is a plus," she said. "It’s definitely a plus."
Landlord Incentive Programs
Both the city and the county of San Diego are offering landlords incentives to encourage them to help house people who are homeless, whether they be single moms, those dealing with health issues, or veterans.
Some programs offer a security deposit as well as subsidized rent. Other programs offer landlords the security of up to $5,000 for a two-bedroom apartment if tenants leave the place damaged.
"Because, for the most part, (the tenants) are great," Nancy Walker said. "But once in a while, oh my gosh, you’re really eating it because they’ve destroyed the place."
The Walkers wish the guarantees were more widely available. As far as they know, the guarantees are only available for programs that help house homeless veterans.
The San Diego County Housing and Community Services administer housing vouchers for Escondido and much of the county — except the city of San Diego and four other cities that have their own housing authorities. The agency's Chief of Operations Nick Martinez said fewer than 5 percent of participating landlords have had to use damage mitigation money in the last year.
The county’s landlord incentive programs offer up to $500 for each unit newly leased to a person experiencing homelessness. But Martinez said the incentives only cover programs supporting homeless veterans and homeless individuals with serious mental illness. And the damage mitigation fund cannot be used for people using Rapid Rehousing vouchers.
For landlords and property managers like the Walkers, the different criteria can be confusing.
Scott Marshall of the city of San Diego’s Housing Commission said the city has expanded its landlord incentive program, LEAP, to cover not just homeless veterans, and is offering it to landlords in certain ZIP codes who work with anyone who was formerly homeless. Like the county, it offers landlords up to $500 for the first unit rented to a homeless family or individual, and has a $1.5 million contingency fund to cover unforeseen repairs or vacancies. Marshall said the "LEAP" incentives do apply to people who need rapid rehousing but not to people on Section 8.
Case Workers Help
Eddie Walker walked up the stairs to a recently vacated two-bedroom apartment.
"We’re repainting the whole apartment including the ceiling," he said, "because the last tenant smoked. We’re going to brighten it up, paint it eggshell."
Walker said paying landlords incentives and the security of a regular, government-backed rent subsidy is one thing, but from his perspective, the best thing is when a tenant with a voucher comes with a recommendation from a caseworker.
"I think it’s very important," he said, "because if you have a difficult, let’s say a veteran or anyone in the system, and you sit down with their caseworker and you have a family meeting, so to speak, then everyone can talk about the issues and what the problem is and come up with a plan."
Walker makes a point of getting to know the case-worker before accepting any tenants.
Motes said the help she got from a case-worker at Interfaith Community Services in Escondido was what helped her keep going when nothing seemed to be working out, even with a housing voucher.
"It’s so sad," she said. "You don’t understand how depressing it is to know that you are given this help and this chance but you don’t have any apartments anywhere that are willing to help you. It does make you feel like you’re failing as a parent and it’s very depressing. But I was lucky to get here, I’m extremely happy to be here."
The city of San Diego has earmarked $6.6 million over three years to encourage landlords to accept housing subsidies from those who are homeless.
The goal is to find 3,000 permanent homes for homeless families. Marshall, of the Housing Commission, said since last July, just 263 landlords have signed up.