On the road out of homelessness, one of the biggest challenges is often the home itself.
Even with enough money to pay for rent and surrounded by supportive services, people who have been homeless often struggle to find a landlord willing to take a chance on them.
In Charlotte, where rents continue to rise and landlords can be selective, people can struggle to overcome episodes that caused or contributed to their homelessness, including evictions, criminal records or mental health needs.
Charlotte nonprofit Lotus Campaign aims to bridge the gap between private landlords and people who need housing through a business-driven approach. It’s been so successful locally, the program is expanding to one Florida city with hopes of similar outcomes.
Executive director Beth Silverman said the goal is to make it easier for landlords to say yes to applicants who they might previously have rejected.
“Homelessness and housing affordability really are barometers of social justice in our communities,” she said. “Unfortunately, they are issues people don’t want to engage with and don’t want to look directly in the face.”
Since launching in 2018, Lotus Campaign connects landlords and nonprofits that work with people experiencing homelessness. Lotus offers financial guarantees to the landlord, including sign-on payments in lieu of a security deposit and covering potential damages.
It also comes with the assurance that prospective tenants will have supportive services through the nonprofit, which will check in to ensure the tenant is doing well.
Silverman said the numbers speak for themselves. More than 350 individuals and families have moved into housing since 2018, properties that previously weren’t accessible to them. More than 70% have renewed their lease or successfully moved into other housing.
Seven landlords have signed on to the program and four local nonprofits are referring clients.
Roof Above, one of the four participating nonprofits, refers people from three of its programs to Lotus-connected apartments. The program has helped people who are older, chronically homeless, and those “stuck” in a shelter while on a waitlist for other help, said Katie Church, director of shared housing.
An applicant’s history, like evictions or credit issues, can make it difficult to find housing if a landlord requires a higher security deposit or additional rental insurance.
“It becomes cost prohibitive just meeting the bar that’s expected of you if you have some blemishes on your background,” Church said.
HOW DOES THIS HOUSING AID WORK?
Getting people into housing is not just the right thing to do, but also cost-effective, Silverman said, citing costs related to homelessness like frequent emergency room visits and hotel stays that exceed monthly rent. She calls it a way to “do good and do well” for all parties.
Silverman said Lotus Campaign spends less than $1,000 per year on average for landlord incentives and its other help to place and keep someone in an apartment, significantly less than if they remained homeless.
Amanda Campbell, chief financial officer for Charlotte-based real estate firm Red Hill Ventures, said the company was cautious at the beginning, and started small with two trial units. The company had worked with other housing programs in the past that hadn’t been quick to respond to tenants’ struggles and landlords concerns.
Campbell said the Lotus program has worked well, especially because of the guaranteed support from the nonprofit the tenant is linked to. Tenants who have been homeless for a long time might be hesitant to tell a landlord about a needed repair for fear of jeopardizing their housing, she said. The program can help catch issues early and address them.
“It’s a good environment for a landlord and a resident to flourish and make sure everything goes super smoothly,” she said. Red Hill Ventures now accepts Lotus-connected applicants in all five of its Charlotte apartment buildings.
Applicants find housing in just over a week on average, according to program data, significantly faster than a typical search for Charlotte families at that income level.
EXPANDING ACCESS TO FLORIDA
Landlord incentives are a tool used by several organizations to increase access to affordable housing for people experiencing homelessness or who have a voucher that helps cover their rent. Inlivian, Charlotte’s housing authority, enacted several financial incentives and other program changes in 2020 to boost landlord participation, though it remains difficult to use a voucher in Charlotte.
And the Charlotte City Council is expected to discuss a number of policies aimed at increasing voucher acceptance, including more funds for housing navigator services.
Lotus Campaign recently entered an agreement with the city of Pensacola, Florida, to pilot the program there.
“If we’re successful there, no one can tell me the model’s not replicable,” Silverman said.