Ten homeless Missoulians are holding what would seem to be golden tickets to a better life. The federal vouchers they’ve been awarded will pay for an apartment and provide support services to treat mental illness, disability or addictions that may have contributed to their homelessness.
But they’re still on the street, because in Missoula’s tight housing market, even a program that guarantees the rent, pays double deposits and covers property damage isn’t enough to move the city’s most vulnerable apartment seekers to the top of some landlords’ application heaps.
A spring campaign by the Missoula Housing Authority, which administers the Shelter Plus Care voucher program, and other partners fell far short of a goal to house 40 voucher recipients in 40 days, MHA recently announced. Only 12 were able to secure leases during the campaign period, contributing to a total of 29 households that secured leases during the year ending in April.
As a result, the Housing Authority was unable to spend about $22,000 of an $850,000 annual grant, with the remainder reverting to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, MHA admissions and occupancy manager Jim McGrath says.
Individuals and families approved for the program are among the most vulnerable of the hundreds of homeless people who reside in Missoula. A year ago, members of the coalition behind the city’s 10-year Plan to End Homelessness introduced a new referral system, called coordinated entry, that puts clients on one citywide list and prioritizes services by need. One homeless man who got a voucher through the new system died of hypothermia last winter before he could find an apartment, the Indy reported at the time.
Housing one chronically homeless person can save tens of thousands in public-private expenses, including healthcare costs, one recent study in Bozeman indicated. But the task is easier identified than accomplished. Private landlords in Montana are not required to accept housing vouchers, and those who do are free to rent to a more qualified applicant, or one who is simpler to process, instead.
“It’s easy in a market like this to take the easy solution and rent to the first person you get qualified,” McGrath says.
The program’s generous benefits are intended to offset the risks of renting to an otherwise poorly qualified applicant, though McGrath says that some of the perceived risks are actually misconceptions. MHA rarely has to tap its fund to cover damages to rentals, and the organization reports a 90 percent retention rate under its permanent supportive housing vouchers.
Still, the average time between receiving a voucher in Missoula and signing a lease is 62 days — more than two weeks longer than the delay for Section 8 recipients, McGrath says. The shortest wait was 17 days, and the longest have approached 200 days.
In more than a dozen states, and some cities, landlords are either required by law or incentivized to accept applicants with housing vouchers, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Poverty and Race Research Action Council. Absent such policies, landlords must be persuaded to participate, either by appeals to their conscience, their pocketbook or both.
“It’s doing well by doing good,” McGrath says. “I think that you have to maybe take the initial screening of your applicant process a little different. But by and large this is economically sound.”
Grizzly Property Management has found that the program’s “checks and balances” mitigate other risks, property manager Dan Williams says. The company has a longstanding relationship with MHA and currently rents to a handful of voucher recipients among its roughly 400 properties.
Some property managers don’t participate. Rent Smart, which markets itself as renting only to “the most qualified individuals,” does not accept vouchers, according to its website. Its current vacancies include a pair of one-bedroom apartments at $695 per month, plus a $100 move-in incentive. When the Indy asked to discuss the topic, a company representative replied, “Sorry, I don’t have time now,” and hung up.
Twenty-two new landlords have agreed to accept the vouchers in the past year, according to MHA, and McGrath doesn’t see a need to mandate that the rest do, too. The larger challenge, he says, is that voucher recipients are competing with so many other apartment seekers for too few units.
One Missoula property manager who agreed to speak with the Indy anonymously underscored the difficulty. While his company accepts vouchers, it won’t deviate from its policy of preferring the most qualified applicant for a given property.
“That’s what our owners want,” he says.
It’s usually not what the homeless need.