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Housing choice voucher program participants often have a hard time finding housing that will accept their vouchers. Also known as Section 8, the program helps low-income families and individuals pay for housing in the private market, giving them more choice and opportunity in life.

We’ve already reported that a big part of the problem is that voucher values don’t keep up with rents, especially in neighborhoods with more job opportunities, better schools, and transportation. We’ve also reported that discrimination against Section 8 users doesn’t help matters.

But since landlords don't have to accept Section 8 tenants, their participation can be a challenge, as well.  

Philip Tegeler, president of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council, said “you really need to get out there and market the program and not just rely on landlords that you’re used to dealing with in the concentrated Section 8 neighborhoods. That’s the path of least resistance. That’s the easiest thing to do. It’s the wrong thing to do.”

To that end, housing authorities, non-profits, and advocacy groups have started various initiatives to increase the number of landlords who rent to tenants with Section 8 vouchers.

Smooth operations

When accepting a Section 8 tenant, a landlord has to deal with more bureaucracy on the front end than with other tenants. For one, the unit has to pass an inspection. And since rent is coming from two sources — the tenant, who generally pays 30 percent of his or her income, and the government, which covers the rest through the voucher — setting up payments and keeping track of them can involve more steps than a straight rental.

“The most important thing is to have a well-run housing authority,” Tegeler said, referring to what is most likely to convince landlords to work with the program. “Be responsive, do inspections quickly, pay rent on time, deal with paperwork.”

Kevin Quisenberry, a lawyer with the Community Justice Project, said sometimes the pre-move-in process takes so long “the tenant may have already moved in [somewhere else] or that unit may have disappeared and that opportunity is gone. And that happens…a lot.”

It may seem like a no-brainer to have an efficient process in place, but government programs aren’t exactly known for their brisk execution.

The Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh (HACP) has started a Preferred Owners Program. Qualifying landlords receive priority inspection scheduling, biennial inspections (rather than annual), up to two months of rent payments if a unit is empty between two Section 8 tenants, and top placement on HACP’s property listings page online.   

However, to qualify, landlords must already participate in the program, so that would not directly get any new property owners in the door.

David Weber, COO of Pittsburgh’s housing authority, said the agency is working to improve overall efficiency of the program, as well, but there are many federal rules and regulations they have to follow.

Rent and Security Deposit Confidence

For Section 8 tenants, security deposits and prepaid last-month’s rent as required by some landlords can be a barrier to securing an otherwise affordable unit. On the other hand, some landlords worry  advocates say unjustifiably  that Section 8 tenants are more likely to leave them with missed rent and unpaid damages.

To assuage landlords’ concerns groups like the Lancaster Housing Opportunity Partnership (LHOP) have started landlord risk reduction programs. LHOP’s pilot program, which started about a year ago, covers the upfront cost of property damages caused by a tenant, as well as any rent that was unpaid in the case of an eviction, up to 2.5 months. LHOP’s pilot program specifically targets landlords who might rent to a person who is homeless, but the idea is to expand the overall pool of landlords, and Nathan Roth, Housing Resource Center Director at LHOP, said it could work for landlords who serve other groups, like Section 8 tenants, as well.

That’s something Oregon Housing and Community Services has already done, through a similar, more large-scale program. Landlords throughout the state of Oregon can be reimbursed up to $5,000 for damages to a property by a Section 8 tenant. 

As LHOP makes clear, for housing authorities and advocates to successfully recruit landlords to work with populations that may have barriers to stable housing, it’s important to “sell to landlords based on their interests  not your interests.”

Marketing

Getting accurate information to landlords is as important as developing innovative programs. Stacy Pethia, Landlord Outreach Coordinator for HACP, said many landlords don’t realize that the majority of Section 8 participants are stable, long-term tenants. She meets regularly with real estate associations to promote the program.  

She said a lot of times her talking to a landlord can convince them to take on a tenant they were hesitant about. “We can explain the program, take away some of the misunderstanding about how the program works, give them tips on how to work through the process,” she said. “One thing they don’t understand is you don’t have to rent to Section 8 voucher holders if they don’t pass your screening test.”

Pethia also said there’s a lot of interest in working with veterans, and that helps bring landlords into the program and opens doors to other people using Section 8 vouchers.

The Community Development Network of Maryland has launched a campaign called Consider the Person. Consisting of videos that highlight the stories of typical Section 8 voucher holders, the campaign humanizes a term that’s become contentious.

In all, getting more landlords to accept Section 8 tenants will likely take work on all fronts. Roth said all landlords are on a spectrum, on the one end those who will never work with tenants who may have challenges, on the other hand those who always will, even if it’s at a loss to their business. He said, “the lion’s share, the vast majority of individuals as landlords are in the middle somewhere, they just need some assistance.”