Field Notes: Housing Locators and Supply and Demand

written by naehblog
January 16, 2013

Today's guest blog post was contributed by David Levine, Deputy Director at Good Shepherd Housing and Family Services, Inc. For more information on how to locate housing by developing and maintaining landlord relationships, see our Rapid Re-Housing Training Modules.

In March 2008 Fairfax County, VA, approved their Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness and soon afterwards, the County's Office to Prevent and End Homelessness (OPEH) partnered with Good Shepherd Housing and Family Services to implement a County-wide housing location services network. The impact of housing locators hired at various shelters and transitional housing programs was immediate and substantial.

Within homeless services, housing locators are basically real estate agents for individuals and families who are experiencing homelessness. Like real estate agents, they locate suitable and affordable housing for their clients, negotiate a good price, and facilitate the placement of their clients into housing. They reach out to private landlords, large housing complexes, real estate agents, and public housing agencies to create housing options that work for their clients.

In 2011, working with homeless families residing in shelters in Fairfax County, our agency's housing locators helped cut the families' average shelter stay by more than 50 days, a decline of more than 30 percent over the previous year. In all, housing locators created more capacity and efficiencies within the existing homeless services programs and served as a critical bridge to housing.

In a time of scarce housing resources, the impact of housing locators on the fundamentals of the affordable housing market should not be underestimated.  Drawing on subject matter found in a first-year college economics class, housing locators work at the intersection between the supply and demand curves for affordable rental housing.

On the supply side, housing locators create affordable rental housing for low income or homeless individuals and families by convincing landlords to re-purpose existing housing units into affordable housing stock. That’s a vital service, because the odds are already stacked against low-income renters. When it comes to providing enough affordable housing for households at or below 50 percent of the median household income, Virginia ranks 41, according to a recent Half in Ten report.

Housing locators convince skeptical landlords that homeless individuals or families can succeed as a long-term renters. And there is plenty of new data on rapid re-housing  that housing locators can use to support their argument. The Alliance recently reported on a number of successful re-housing programs, including the Hamilton County, OH program where less than 8 percent of the 219 families housed by the program returned to homelessness within two years of their exit.

Other re-housing programs have shown successful exit rates – that is, the rate of clients exiting homelessness to permanent housing – of 95 percent.  By pointing to such successes, housing locators convince landlords to rent to their clients and, as a result, generate even more affordable housing units for people experiencing homelessness.

On the demand side, housing locators create successful, long-term renters for landlords. Housing locators do this by providing homeless individuals and families with renter education, realistic housing search plans, and assisting them in negotiations with landlords.

That’s another valuable service, because, for low-income or homeless renters, the private rental market can be unforgiving, presenting serious financial hurdles – application fees, security deposits and, often with credit-poor clients, the first, second, or third month’s rent.

That is where the housing locators succeed: housing locators can make homeless individuals or families, whom landlords might otherwise avoid working with because of bad credit, criminal records, spotty work histories or prior rental history issues, appealing, while at the same time familiarizing the renters with the process of navigating the system of private landlords.

Although they are relatively recent positions, the housing locators in Fairfax County have achieved much already on behalf of people experiencing homelessness.  And, they have changed the approach and dynamics of the affordable rental housing market—and all for the better. Their impact can be felt throughout homeless services.