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PATH of Santa Barbara Launches a ‘Zillow for Homeless People’

LeaseUp Website to Connect Landlords and Housing Caseworkers

Photo: Paul Wellman/file photo Chuck Flacks. (January 9, 2017)

With a rental housing vacancy rate of less than one-half percent, finding the ideal living situation in Santa Barbara is no small feat. But for a homeless person, finding any permanent housing at all can be impossible. People Assisting the Homeless (PATH) of Santa Barbara is launching a platform called LeaseUp that may be the missing piece to connect the county’s homeless population with the landlords willing to rent to them.

“Some homeless people feel like they aren’t worthy because of the stigma,” said Chuck Flacks, the director of programs at PATH of Santa Barbara. “They feel like a landlord wouldn’t take them because of their homeless status.” Flacks thinks the new website will help cut through the stigma, as the program offers landlords financial incentives and guarantees that LeaseUp tenants will always pay their rent on time.

LeaseUp is not a public, open-to-all rental website like Craigslist. Signups to use the site are available to caseworkers at area nonprofits that work to secure housing for homeless and low-income clients. When a landlord lists rentals on the site, caseworkers with a verified account go through a LeaseUp staff member to connect with the landlord and ultimately get their homeless client onto a lease. PATH of Los Angeles launched a version of LeaseUp in L.A. at the end of 2018 and has so far housed 365 homeless people through the site, according to PATH’s regional director Tessa Madden Storms.

“My wife and I have been renting properties for 30 years now, so we are not new to this,” said Larry Severance, a private landlord who attended the LeaseUp launch event at the Goleta Hilton Garden Inn on Thursday. “We have always had an interest in affordable housing. … The solution is usually to ‘build more housing.’ I’m really interested in this because it’s different. This makes property owners like my wife and I a part of the solution.”

LeaseUp offers information on apartment specifics much like the national real-estate website Zillow. Caseworkers can search the app in real time and filter the results through categories like subsidy type to find a match for their client. Landlords who accept Section 8 vouchers, for example, is one of the filters.

Although Section 8 housing is rare in Santa Barbara, LeaseUp program coordinator Lauren Hofmann said the website might lead to an increase. Many landlords don’t accept Section 8 vouchers, she said, because of either the stigma or complicated paperwork, but Lease Up promises to help landlords through the process of accepting payments through vouchers or other subsidies. PATH’s LeaseUp also guarantee landlords that its staff will act as a mediator if issues arise that break the rules of the lease. They want to avoid eviction, Hofmann said, and a landlord who complains to LeaseUp will receive a response within 24 hours.

“Once a couple of landlords report a good experience with this, the rest of them will realize that tenants receiving government assistance are actually less of a risk than tenants whose income comes from their jobs,” said Victor Virgen, a caseworker with New Beginnings Counseling Center. Virgen cited one of his recent clients as an example. The client became unemployed and then homeless after a car accident, and went on unemployment. The government-paid money was a more reliable source for a landlord than the job’s since an employee could be laid off at any time. But Virgen found that no landlord would house his client because of their homeless status.

“This platform gives landlords a reason to work with [homeless] programs … for more than philanthropic reasons,” Hofmann said. “This is just plain good for business.” She added that LeaseUp’s middleman role meant landlords got a single, reliable call about their rental rather than the average 50 calls per unit, which “turns them off.” It is on a first-come, first-served basis, so the caseworker who reaches LeaseUp staff first gets first priority.

Mayor Cathy Murillo, City Councilmember Jason Dominguez, and County Supervisor Gregg Hart gathered for the Thursday launch. Hart recalled a trip he took to Amsterdam where he immediately noticed the city had no homeless people on its streets. He said he was so taken aback that he asked a police officer what the city did to eliminate the issue. “The cop told me: ‘In our country, we take care of people,’” Hart said. “That really stuck with me.

“We all have to link arms together to solve the housing crisis. This platform can be the missing link.”

The fledgling website is up and awaiting unit listings. Caseworkers who want to register can do so at leaseuplosangeles.org. Hofmann said her team plans to canvass door-to-door, table at local farmers markets, hold events, and partner with local organizations to help spread the word about the website to landlords and get units listed on the site as soon as possible.

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