Staff members at Hawaii’s homeless shelters have a seemingly impossible mission: finding affordable housing for homeless people in Honolulu’s hot rental market.
The shortage of housing isn’t their only hurdle. The stigma of being homeless or receiving rental assistance vouchers make some landlords hesitant even to accept applications.
So why do some property managers and landlords call the Institute for Human Services, which runs the state’s largest homeless shelter, to offer up their affordably priced units even before advertising them to the general public?
“I’ve told landlords directly that you can rent to anybody, but I don’t think they come with all these other services or support services that we are offering,” said Minda Golez, housing and employment director for IHS.
When Golez started working at IHS 11 years ago, the organization offered a shelter. But it didn’t have a network of landlords willing to rent to the homeless.
Today, Golez maintains a list of more than 200 property owners that IHS housing specialists have successfully worked with in the past. From 20 to 30 of the landlords on this list regularly communicate with IHS staff about available units.
Besides offering rent money with grants from programs like Housing First and Rapid Re-Housing, housing specialists at IHS act as liaisons between tenants and landlords, mitigating issues that might arise.
Transitioning to a rental apartment can be rocky for many, especially those who have grown accustomed to life on the streets after years of being homeless. Shelter staff members offer classes on cleanliness and budgeting, and regularly call or meet with their clients once they are settled in their new homes.
Golez calls these features her “sales hook,” services landlords wouldn’t get if they offered units to the average renters searching Craigslist.
Housing specialists at shelters scour websites like Craigslist or Zillow for units because public housing is in short supply.
The Hawaii Public Housing Authority, the state agency that operates public housing, manages 6,196 units statewide. About 45 become available each month, and are first offered to about 40,000 individuals on the agency’s waiting list, according to HPHA Executive Director Hakim Ouansafi.
Private landlords are reluctant to accept applicants with Section 8 vouchers, a federal rental assistance program that offers rent money but doesn’t offer case workers to manage tenant-landlord relations.
That support makes a big difference, says Ian Bigelow, the vice president of property management for Locations.
He still rents about 50 of the more than 3,500 units he manages to people on Section 8. When asked about his experience with tenants on Section 8, Bigelow recalls horror stories about tenants abandoning units or leaving them in a mess.
Another 50 are rented to people who find the units through nonprofits like IHS.
“They purposely go out of their way to work with landlords,” Bigelow said.
In an effort to foster relationships between landlords and nonprofits aiding the homeless, some state contracts for housing programs require organizations to pay landlords for any damages to their units, and require case managers to track their clients.
Maude Cumming of the Maui nonprofit Family Life Center said keeping landlords happy has proven fruitful. If landlords are satisfied with a tenant who comes to their property by way of the nonprofit, the landlord might offer other available units or tell other property managers of the success story.
“Ultimately it doesn’t matter what the contract requires, because we’re trying to maintain a relationship with the landlord,” Cumming said.
Staff at the Maui nonprofit have convinced landlords to reconfigure their units — adding a kitchenette or transforming a garage into a unit. They’ve even dissuaded landlords from selling their property, convincing them instead to rent to their clients.
To ensure rent is paid on time, Family Life collects rent from the people they’ve placed in housing and gives it to the landlord.
Case managers offer an alternative to calling the police or jumping to eviction notices, said Myoung Oh, the director of government relations for the Hawaii Association of Realtors.
“That doesn’t help the landlord, that doesn’t help the renter,” Oh said.
After three years living in her car and homeless shelters with her boyfriend and their baby daughter, Jessamyn Cash-Alimoot found adjusting to a three-bedroom house in Kunia Village was difficult.
The rooms in her house seemed foreign to Cash-Alimoot, 19, who was used to turning her head to see her daughter in the backseat of their car. On her first three days in the house, she mostly kept to her bedroom with her daughter while her boyfriend was at work.
Despite the initial discomfort, Cash-Alimoot said she’s grateful for her new home. But the transition from homeless to housed doesn’t always go so well.
“The longer a person is homeless, the longer it takes for them to adjust back into a housing situation,” said Cumming.
Cumming said her staff found two men that they had placed in housing “back at the dumpster” where they once lived.
Mental illness or substance abuse issues can exacerbate the transition.
Almost 25 percent of the state’s 7,220 homeless people accounted for in the 2017 point-in-time count reported having a serious mental illness. About 20 percent reported having a substance abuse problem.
Hoarding is one of the biggest issues landlords come across when offering a unit to someone who has experienced homelessness, said Christina Castro, a broker at Inga’s Realty. She recalled a tenant who stacked old furniture outside his house.
“When you don’t have anything, those things are valuable to you,” said Jeannie Rapoza, who works at Inga’s Realty.
Bigalow, of Locations, remembers a Section 8 tenant who collected so much stuff on the balcony of his 8th-floor Waikiki apartment that something fell off and hit a pedestrian on the sidewalk below.
In a previous interview with Civil Beat, Bill Hanrahan of Safe Haven, a homeless shelter for people with mental illness, noted that Honolulu’s ever-expanding sit-lie ban ordinances have made it more difficult for caseworkers at the shelter to socialize residents and teach them about cleanliness.
““If you’re always moving,” he said, “you‘re not taking care of your space.”
Some shelters offer classes on cleanliness — how to avoid bedbugs and cockroaches — and budgeting, so the rent gets paid on time.
While issues arise, Rapoza and Castro of Inga’s Realty said most of the formerly homeless people they’ve offered units to have been successful tenants. As residents of Waianae, they think their community benefits from finding housing for the homeless.
“We live out here too,” Rapoza said. “It’s our community anyway, and we want to take care of them.”
Scott Morishige, the state’s homeless coordinator, said Hawaii needs a “one-stop for housing resources,” so housing specialists can find landlords willing to take their clients and landlords can find housing specialists with people to house.
Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s administration is looking into creating a single program to connect landlords to programs that offer housing vouchers, according to Marc Alexander, executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Housing. The city is also overseeing a federal housing voucher program for veterans.
Creating a centralized list, however, is a struggle, said Myoung of the Hawaii Association of Realtors.
Shelters are in competition with each other for grants. Some shelters risk getting money taken from them if they don’t house a certain amount of people, so they don’t want available units to go to a competitor.
“There’s a finite number of housing options on Oahu,” said Tehani Diaz, director of community services for the Honolulu Community Action Program. “The way the system is set up, if we were all sharing information and landlords’ information, it may make it more challenging for us to house our clients.”
This year, the state introduced a new system of paying homeless shelters that have contracts with its Department of Human Services. Rather than simply receiving money from the state, the amount of money a shelter gets depends on its ability to meet certain goals.
Coordination rather than competition may make it easier for landlords to find people in need of a unit.
“If they all find a way to unite and come together and find some standardized procedures I think that would benefit everyone,” Bigelow said.