We’ve received variations of this question from a number of people in our latest website survey, and it makes a lot of sense. Given Canada’s lack of affordable housing, people are looking for more ways to creatively work with property owners to help others find and keep stable housing.

Waitlists for subsidized housing continue to rise, with most people waiting an average of four years for an apartment in Ontario. The private rental market provides more immediate opportunities, but is pricier and very competitive in urban areas. It seems that owners want more and more information upon application, with some companies even asking for social insurance numbers. Such processes can be incredibly difficult for people experiencing homelessness and living in poverty, who have what the authors of one 2010 report on rapid re-housing strategies call “low renter capital:”

In addition to financial barriers to housing, homeless persons also face other barriers, to varying degrees, including eviction histories, poor credit or no credit, criminal records, limited rental histories, poor landlord references, and various forms of discrimination based on race, family composition, housing status, and income source.

Private landlords frequently make requests for “young professionals” (translation: employer references and no children), minimum incomes (despite the fact that lower incomes don’t always result in rent defaults), and credit checks are often considered standard. Drug and alcohol use is seen negatively, even though most people who use are able to maintain their housing. Homelessness itself also carries stigma. One study conducted in Guelph, Ontario found that apartments were 4.5 times less likely to be reported as available when a caller identified that she was staying in a shelter.

All of this said, some landlords develop these policies due to bad experiences with tenants, or fear of having bad experiences. Forming good relationships with landlords and providing services to help maintain those relationships is crucial for many people seeking housing. Because no two landlords are exactly the same, there’s no single strategy that is concretely “the best,” but many that can be used successfully in combination.

Approach landlords already known to you/your agency

There are many private landlords and property management companies that are interested in “giving back.” As I wrote in a previous post, there are many reasons why some people want to rent to people experiencing homelessness. When looking for rental units, first approach private landlords and public housing organizations that have been known to enter social partnerships in the past.

Address landlord concerns

As real and pressing as the housing affordability issue is, we must also understand not just the costs that landlords need to cover, but also how to meet their needs in terms of what they want to see in tenants. In their report, Macy-Hurley, Hooper and Mann wrote that the “three most common concerns and perceived risks of landlords in leasing to homeless persons are non-payment of rent, property damage, and the burden of having to deal with potential ‘problems’ caused by the incoming tenants.”

Successful engagement strategies will speak to these concerns directly by informing landlords of the services that will help mitigate these real or perceived risks: tenant education and screening, evictions planning and prevention (rent supplements, rent deposits, master leasing), case management with housing workers, etc. Providing these services effectively is key to maintaining good relationships and keeping housing stock available for those in need.

Hollyburn building in Toronto
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Form organizational partnerships

Partnerships have consistently been found to be integral to any successful housing effort. As the authors of Holding On: Supporting Successful Tenancies for the Hard to House wrote, organizations found that partnerships give:

…the ability to offer a broader range of services than any one organization possibly could, the ability to focus on specific services knowing other agencies were handling other service aspects, and most importantly, the ability to weave a better support network for clients.

These partnerships are generally between housing providers and landlords, social service agencies, government initiatives, and other non-profit organizations. Some are small-scale, while others are very comprehensive.

The partnership between Covenant House Toronto/Vancouver and Hollyburn Properties is a great example of what a strong, very involved partnership can look like when addressing youth homelessness. The relationship began when one of the owners wanted to get more involved in addressing homelessness, and grew into something much more innovative. Here’s how it works:

Hollyburn solicits interest from Building Managers and considers the most accessible locations to determine the best fit and see where they might be able to house a youth. A bachelor or small one-bedroom unit is made available through a head lease with Covenant House. Youth pay a reduced rental amount, about $300-$375 to Hollyburn, who subsidizes the remainder of the market rent. Cable and internet are provided free of charge, and the youth is responsible to pay for Hydro and home insurance. Covenant House provides a tax-receipt to Hollyburn for the full market rent for the year as well as a tax receipt for all suite furnishings.

Youth also get ongoing case management and support from Covenant House workers, which is key in helping them maintain housing and get support when experiencing financial or other challenges. The partnership works because Hollyburn gets to be active in helping youth become independently housed, while receiving tax receipts for subsidizing and furnishing the units.

Be mindful of the landlord experience

Most landlords who participate in these kinds of partnerships report having positive experiences. In a 2015 study, 23 landlords who had rented to people through Housing First programs were interviewed. As a group, all remained committed to continuing to rent to people through such programs due to both financial (guaranteed rent from the non-profit organizations) and pro-social benefits.

There were some negative behaviours cited by participants, like smoking indoors, disruptive visitors, and illegal or other nuisance behaviours (drug dealing, police presence, etc.); but also positive and neutral qualities, with most landlords saying the majority of Housing First tenants were just like any other. Even so, some of the landlords held some stigmatized views – expecting faster responses from organizations and the ability to evict tenants more quickly, or more harshly judging tenants from the program. The researchers concluded that it is important to set expectations clearly, provide promised services, and evaluate tenants to maintain good relationships with landlords.

There's currently some good discussion happening on landlord engagement over on our Community Workspace - sign up (it's fast and free) and let us know what has worked for you.

Additional resources

Bridging the gap: Regina landlords and renters on social assistance (video)

Crisis: Private Renting Toolkit

The landlord perspective: Teya Greenberg

Why would a landlord rent to someone experiencing homelessness?

Landlords like that: on renting to clients through At Home/Chez Soi (video)

This post is part of our Friday "Ask the Hub" blog series. Have a homeless-related question you want answered? E-mail us at thehub@edu.yorku.ca and we will provide a research-based answer.

Photo: Hollyburn Properties building in Toronto