One promising approach to addressing homelessness in Maine, advocates say, is “rapid rehousing,” which uses several strategies, including housing navigators and financial incentives to landlords, to get people into apartments quickly.
As part of our occasional series exploring solutions to homelessness, Maine Public’s Robbie Feinberg spoke with Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter CEO Katie Spencer-White about how her team has managed to get about 30 households into new housing since last March using the approach.
White said it can be nearly impossible for a resident of Waterville to find an apartment on their own.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Spencer-White: Today post-pandemic, our vacancy rate here locally in Waterville, where we operate, we’ve gone from probably 5% or 6%, pre-pandemic, which is a healthy vacancy rate, to sub-5%. We’re probably in the region of 2%, at this point. Which means we need to actively engage with landlords. They need to want to partner with us in order for us to find the units. We’re not going to just find them by going onto Craigslist, or seeing what listing has come out on a Facebook page, right? We really have to partner intensively with landlords and make sure that the new tenants that we’re offering to them make good business sense.
Feinberg: What tools do you have, what can you say to a landlord or what can you offer to a landlord to say, ‘Hey, rent to this person’?
We can make it make good business sense, right? So all of our tenants are going to — each of those units is going to require a Maine State Housing inspection to make sure the unit is in good condition. Sometimes that takes a little while, up to three weeks. So we find a unit, we don’t want the landlord to go without receiving any kind of payment for that unit. Oftentimes, they need that revenue coming in for themselves, because they’re running businesses. So we can put some money down to hold that unit. We can also help with minor repairs. So if it’s just a matter of a little bit of remediation, we need to put in a handrail or something like that to get it passed inspection, we can also support those efforts. So that landlords aren’t having to pay out of pocket to rent to somebody who’s going to have to go through a MaineHousing inspection, for example.
But there’s also the concerns around the relationship. And I think that’s probably one of the biggest fears, and the most important work that we do, is helping navigate that landlord-tenant relationship. We’re in it for the long haul. We might be funded to work with a tenant for six months. But if two years into that tenancy, the landlord calls up and says, ‘Hey, you know, there’s a little bit of miscommunication going on, I’m not able to talk to the tenant, I don’t know what’s going on, but I don’t want to have to evict them,’ they can call us and we can step in and see if we can smooth out that relationship, find out what’s going wrong and help get it on an even keel again.
Are there examples you can think of, of how that that has worked? Where you all have been able to step in? And maybe that has kept someone housed?
I mean, we have tons of examples. Something as basic as, I remember one household was a mom, and she had two teenage sons. And the two teenage sons were going out and playing basketball late at night. And that was causing a nuisance, right? But once we were able to step in and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to need to correct this particular behavior, put some boundaries around it — it’s totally fine to play basketball, we want kids outside being healthy, but it needs to be within these parameters.’ The mom didn’t realize that it was causing an issue, once we got it figured out.
And that tenancy was moving towards an eviction, right, because it was just becoming an ongoing issue. But once we were able to communicate it and say, ‘Let’s put some boundaries on that, keep it healthy for everybody,’ it smooths everything over. And that relationship that was almost fundamentally broken, was rehabilitated, and that tenant is still housed, in an apartment, and within a community that they really like.
So when you think about what you would want to do moving forward, how much of that involves expanding a program like this, versus other solutions?
If I was queen for a day, and could direct the Legislature to fund anything, it would be to fund vouchers. We know that affordability and lack of income is really the the key barrier to a lot of folks staying in housing. Seventy percent of evictions are for nonpayment of rent. And if we can fix that program, we’ve solved that problem. We’ve solved 70% of the issues.
But I don’t think we’re going to fund vouchers universally. Certainly not the state level, not the federal level, not yet. So that being said, this is the world that we live in. We need to have these kinds of programs, so that when people find themselves in a crisis because somebody’s moved out of the household, they’ve lost income because of an illness, because they’re going on to a fixed income, we need to have programs in place that can meet them where they are and quickly get them where they need to be which is in permanent, affordable housing.