An Open Letter to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts: Boston’s Insurance Against Homelessness
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By Douglas Quattrochi, Executive Director, MassLandlords, Inc.
New city program has inherent conflict of interest.
The City of Boston is currently preparing to launch a pilot of an innovative program to substantially eliminate homelessness. This is a watershed moment for Massachusetts, and deserves both recognition and caution.
The program seeks to emulate the success of the Seattle Landlord Liaison Project. In this public-private partnership, certain homeless individuals and families are financially guaranteed as tenants by the local government. Private landlords receive this financial guarantee in exchange for looking beyond rental application problems like past eviction history, bad credit, and minor criminal records.
The program hinges on eliminating the perception of risk. The financial guarantee must be large enough that a landlord will believe they can afford to risk what their moral compass would have them do.
Seattle has administered financial guarantees of up to $10,000 to house 5,000 households (7,000 people total) over the last seven years. Few guarantees are ever paid out. My estimate is that Massachusetts might save $35 million, 15% of our annual EA spend, if we adopted Seattle’s program to our market and met with their level of success.
Seattle's success depends in no small part on their commitment to staff a dedicated landlord advisor. This person is an expert in both mediation and the landlord perspective. They are not an advocate for the homeless. Although they can and do alert case managers to a tenant's need for supportive services, the advisor's primary role is to help landlords and thereby protect the state's interest in the guarantee. Think “legal aid for landlords.” Being a landlord doesn’t take a degree, it just takes a down payment. Sometimes and in some situations, we desperately need help.
The City of Boston has decided at this initial stage, due to budget constraints, to staff their landlord advisor with the same team that advocate for the homeless. This is an inherent conflict of interest. An employee whose performance evaluation depends on how many evictions they avoid, and how many tenants they place into apartments, can hardly be relied upon to help landlords make the tough calls for those tenancies that don’t work out. Boston’s staff may – out of the misguided goodness of their hearts -- try too hard to preserve hopeless tenancies. Boston would then experience a much higher loss rate in unpaid rent and property damage, far more costly than Seattle’s implementation, while souring the landlord community to the concept.
We are guardedly optimistic that the City of Boston's new Office of Housing Stability, which has staff that genuinely want to help both landlords and tenants, can do its job well enough. They will have to differentiate themselves, in landlords' eyes, from the multitude of tenant-facing social service agencies and nonprofits already operating in the Commonwealth. They will have to navigate the inherent conflict of interest in giving concrete advice to both landlords and their tenants. If they succeed, then the entire Commonwealth can copy their success. But if they fail, then we will already know the reason why. It will not stop us from continuing the work toward the full Seattle implementation of Insurance Against Homelessness. Too many lives depend on it.
Read more at masslandlords.net/policy/homelessness.