A collaboration between Family Promise and an association that represents small landlords puts tenants and landlords on the same team.
This article is the first in a two-part series about a unique partnership that strives to overcome affordable housing barriers in Philadelphia.
One of the many fallouts of COVID in the U.S. has been its impact on housing. A dearth of affordable housing that predates COVID has been exacerbated by the pandemic, and although eviction moratoria have enabled families financially impacted by COVID to stay in their homes, it remains to be seen what happens once those bans are lifted.
According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, instances of homelessness rose more than two percent last year, but, as many in the housing sector will attest, HUD’s numbers don’t tell the whole story. Families who are doubled up with friends or relatives, for instance, or living in motels aren’t included in HUD’s data. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that 14 percent of American renters are currently behind on housing payments, and some suspect this period of suspended evictions is merely the calm before the storm, anticipating a wave of eviction filings once bans are lifted. For low-income families and others who experienced employment and financial loss during the pandemic, the real estate market has become yet another obstacle in their quest for stability.
But tenants aren’t the only ones impacted by this situation, and housing alone is not the solution to family homelessness. Family Promise is proactively addressing the relationship between tenants and landlords to level the playing field while preventing families from experiencing the trauma of homelessness due to COVID or any other reason.
Teaming up with the National Association of Realtors in 2018, Family Promise developed a program called Keys to Good Tenancy. The curriculum teaches families the ins and outs of rental life, including how to understand a lease, tenant rights, communicating effectively with landlords, and even instruction on minor household maintenance and repairs. Last year, Family Promise launched a new program that builds upon the concept of homelessness prevention and successful tenancy: A Future Begins at Home helps families achieve stability and promotes collaboration with landlords to foster awareness and understanding of poverty and homelessness, facilitate communication, and increase housing opportunities. To date, close to 30,000 individuals have been spared the trauma of homelessness through Family Promise’s prevention work.
The Family Promise Affiliate in Philadelphia, known locally as Philadelphia Interfaith Hospitality Network (it will officially become Family Promise of Philadelphia in September), is one of 35 Affiliates awarded grants to strengthen homelessness prevention services through A Future Begins at Home. As part of this effort, the Affiliate has partnered with Hapco Philadelphia, the Homeowners Association of Philadelphia, the city’s largest association of residential investment and rental property owners and managers, estimated to represent approximately 25,000 rental units throughout the city. The agreement calls for participating landlords to refer tenants struggling with rent to Family Promise rather than file for eviction. In return, Family Promise commits to working with families for at least a year, providing rental assistance and extensive case management to help them stabilize their finances and empower them to independence.
Anita Lyndaker-Studer, the Family Promise Affiliate’s northeastern coordinator, describes landlord-tenant relationships as a two-way street and the partnership as a win-win.
“The concept resonated with Hapco and with us because for housing to work, tenants and landlords both have to succeed,” she explains. “Landlords need to be paid, and tenants need safe housing. On that, we all agree.”
Bob Byrne, the Affiliate’s director of operations, says the Hapco Philadelphia partnership dovetails with Family Promise’s holistic approach to addressing family homelessness.
“We pride ourselves on comprehensive service,” he says, referring to Family Promise’s philosophy that only by addressing the root causes of poverty and homelessness can one obtain lasting independence. “But one piece we were missing, although it was close to our mission, was finding affordable housing. Families had a hard time finding a landlord who would take a chance on them, or there was limited housing stock. It always felt like a challenge.”
Family Promise Executive Director Rachel Falkove references a pre-pandemic Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia study that showed the city only had about 30 affordable homes for every 100 qualifying households that needed them. And as eviction bans are set to expire across the country, rent prices are already soaring. RENTCafé, a national online rental property listing service, reports a two percent increase in average rent in Philadelphia and notes that the impact of COVID on rent may not yet be fully realized. Landlords are likely trying to compensate for the losses they suffered over the past year, as well as take advantage of a hot real estate market, just another obstacle for families struggling with housing.
But as Falkove says, tenants haven’t been the only ones in the housing picture impacted by the pandemic.
As experienced across the country, COVID aggravated an already tense housing situation in Philadelphia. Falkove notes that 10 to 20 percent of smaller landlords in the city, whose rental properties tend to be more affordable than larger apartment complexes, have closed business or sold off properties during the pandemic. In addition, she notes approximately a quarter of landlords for low- or moderate-income housing in Philadelphia have failed during this same period, many selling properties to investors who create more expensive units, driving up housing costs and gentrifying neighborhoods that become unaffordable for low-income tenants. These are alarming numbers in a city of 1.5 million where approximately half the residential properties are rentals.
“Many landlords were hit hard by the eviction moratoria,” she explains. “Of course, the ban was important for tenants, but landlords didn’t receive much support, and many really suffered.”
Greg Wertman, president of Hapco Philadelphia, whose membership consists of landlords for smaller properties (60 percent own buildings with 10 units or fewer) says, “Small landlords — mom and pop landlords — are like small businesses.”
He notes that more than half of Hapco Philadelphia’s membership is over age 61 and that for those investors, rental properties are often either the only source of income or a supplement to retirement income. Referring to the many who sold their properties during the pandemic, he adds “They couldn’t make it without assistance.”
Wertman predicts a maelstrom in the fall when eviction bans have expired and overdue tenants are turned out of their homes.
“We could see more evictions in October than we’ve ever seen before,” he says.
Falkove and her colleagues at Family Promise see homelessness prevention as the city’s only workable solution, at least for the short term.
“At an estimated cost of something like $375,000 to build one unit of affordable housing, there’s no way the city can build the stock it needs,” she says. “[Prevention] is what we can do now to take pressure off the system.”
Falkove expects the collaboration between Family Promise and Hapco Philadelphia will impact public perception of tenants, landlords, and social service agencies.
“I think this will lower the temperature a bit when it comes to conversations between landlords or property managers and agencies in terms of modeling how we can partner together. Landlords have really felt unheard since COVID, and it’s just as important to hear them as it is to hear tenants. [This program] makes landlords more relaxed about working with agencies like Family Promise,” she says.
In addition to identifying housing for families in need, another component of the partnership addresses what landlords regard as the “risk pool,” prospective tenants who have prior convictions or poor or no credit, which means they will always fail a credit check.
“How do you incentivize landlords to take these clients without risk to themselves?” asks Lyndaker-Studer, who says conversations with landlords helped shape the partnership with Hapco Philadelphia. “Landlords shouldn’t take all the risk. Family Promise will cover up to four months’ rent and eviction costs if the arrangement doesn’t work out. And on the tenant side, families pledge to work with us and complete the Keys to Good Tenancy training.”
A Future Begins at Home addresses the underlying causes of homelessness, which is also attractive to landlords, adds Byrne. He stresses the importance of relationships when it comes to affordable housing.
“When landlords work with us, they get paid. They get reliable tenants. And their tenants are connected to social workers, they learn budgeting, they regain stability and continue to be reliable tenants,” he says.
Wertman believes Family Promise has the right idea, saying, “Instead of throwing money at someone and sending them off on their own, they’re providing financial support and guidance. You need to have follow-up and support for both sides, tenants and landlords. No other program out there has that kind of follow-up.”
The Family Promise-Hapco Philadelphia partnership intends to remove the barriers to affordable housing that many tenants face. Falkove and her staff hope A Future Begins at Home will inspire other landlords and organizations to partner with Family Promise. Nationwide, Family Promise prevented or abbreviated episodes of homelessness for more than 28,000 individuals in 2020. The Philadelphia Affiliate alone helped close to 200 families avoid homelessness through its prevention work and looks forward to the enhanced services it will be able to offer through its partnership with Hapco Philadelphia.