Since starting her job as a Housing First team leader at the Kalihi-Palama Health Center in September, Jennifer Tehotu has spent numerous hours combing Craigslist for places that might be a good fit for tenants.
It’s a tough job: Despite a voucher that covers the full cost of rent and numerous supportive services to help her clients, about half of the landlords that she calls each day refuse to accept rental subsidies.
It’s frustrating, but perhaps not surprising. Tehotu’s program, Housing First, serves some of society’s most vulnerable people — the chronically homeless, many of whom have substance abuse or mental health problems.
The Housing First model emphasizes providing permanent housing to homeless people before addressing other problems. In Hawaii, which had the second-highest rate of homelessness in the nation last year, the program is one of several tactics political leaders are using to try to decrease homelessness in the face of rising home prices and pressure from the tourism industry.
Tehotu’s program offers 24-hour support services to landlords as well as money to cover property damage. But for many property managers, that’s not enough. They make it clear in their advertisements or through their real estate agents that they aren’t interested in accepting tenants who rely on rental subsidies.
Tehotu thinks that’s unfair. She recently had a client who was hoping to live in a complex located in the Aiea-Pearl City area because the property would have accommodated his physical disability, but the landlord refused to consider accepting a rental subsidy. Her client still lives on the streets.
“These people are being discriminated against and not given a chance,” she said. “In reality, we do have good people and everyone deserves a home.”
Landlords’ refusal to take housing vouchers is nothing new for participants of the federal Section 8 program. Advertisements on Honolulu’s Craigslist page include dozens of posts warning “No Section 8,” a clear rejection of the federal subsidy program that helps low-income families.
The Section 8 program provides a subsidy worth 70 percent of the fair market rent, and the tenant is expected to pay the rest. Tehotu said many landlords tell her they won’t take Housing First vouchers because they have had bad experiences with Section 8 tenants who don’t pay their rent or damage the property.
Hakim Ouansafi, head of the Hawaii Public Housing Authority, said that unlike Housing First, the Section 8 program doesn’t come with support services or a fund to pay for property damage. But HPHA does screen voucher recipients to ensure that they have a valid source of income and don’t have criminal records.
Because the agency doesn’t actively match tenants with landlords, Ouansafi doesn’t know to what extent the vouchers may discourage property owners from renting. But he said the stigma of Section 8 is a long-term problem and believes it’s one reason why it takes voucher recipients an average of four months to find homes.
The problem is becoming familiar to Adrian Contreras, program coordinator for the Pathways Project, a Housing First pilot project by Catholic Charities and Helping Hands Hawaii. Although he is glad his program has housed four people since he came on board in August, he said landlords’ unwillingness to accept housing vouchers is one of the top challenges that he faces.
“When you have a bunch of people all needing to get housed, it can get frustrating when you feel you’re not getting support, and days turn into weeks,” Contreras said.
Jerry Jones, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said it’s common for landlords nationwide to be reluctant to rent to people with housing subsidies.
He suggested partnering with nonprofit organizations to build relationships with property managers or even paying rents that are higher than the market rate. After all, he said, landlords “aren’t in business to get to heaven.”
“It’s absolutely essential that government makes sure the programs work for the folks we’re trying to serve and people who have experienced homelessness are the ones most in need of this housing,” Jones said. “It’s a matter of looking into why (landlords) are resisting and addressing those barriers.”
To some housing advocates, incentives aren’t enough. Shanna Smith, president of the National Fair Housing Alliance, believes part of the solution is to have a local or state ordinance that prohibits discrimination based on source of income.
Hawaii lawmakers considered a similar bill as recently as last year, but nothing came of it. Representatives from the Hawaii Association of Realtors and the National Association of Residential Property Managers argued that the process of receiving payment through the Section 8 program is time-consuming and the law would be unfair to property managers.
Smith said that landlords could still reject people on the basis of poor credit or bad references, but denying vouchers outright is wrong. She said Honolulu should look to the eight states and numerous municipalities that have already passed such legislation.
“The City Council has to have the desire to address the housing needs,” Smith said, noting that the city and state have a legal obligation to encourage fair housing. “Who wants to be homeless during the holidays?”
Some housing advocates are doubtful that a mandate would work. Kauai County’s Section 8 program manager Sandy Kaauwai said that whether or not landlords accept Section 8 vouchers depends largely on the housing market, and questions whether an anti-discrimination law would be effective.
“What we don’t want to do is scare away any more possible landlords,” she said. “We want to keep them happy. I think if we try to force them to do something, it may backfire.”
Mollie Lowery, executive director of the nonprofit Housing Works in Los Angeles, is also skeptical of an anti-discrimination law, at least when it comes to Housing First programs. For her, the key is having good relationships with landlords.
“If you’ve already got a reputation among landlords that it’s bad news to take these kinds of people, then it’s hard to break that down because landlords talk to each other,” she said. “So you’ve got to somehow build a reputation to make it a benefit to take this subsidy.”
Lowery has been working in L.A. for 30 years and has built such a strong reputation that property owners sometimes call her when they have vacancies. But since the housing market has picked up again, the wait list for her program has grown. In Honolulu, she imagines, it would be tough to start a similar program from scratch.
“I don’t know how you’d start it in the housing climate we’ve got now, particularly in Honolulu where the rents are high and there’s huge demand for rental units,” she said. “I don’t have magic for that.”