New tool finds vacant Pierce County apartments for people experiencing homelessness

Shkelqim Kelmendi believes that no apartment should sit vacant when there are people living without a home.

As the executive director of nonprofit Housing Connector, Kelmendi brings together property owners and case managers for people experiencing homelessness to identify where those units are and how they can be used to combat the region’s homelessness crisis.

For the past two years, Housing Connector has operated in King County, creating homes for nearly 2,000 people.

Now, Housing Connector is taking its strategy to Pierce County, the nonprofit announced Wednesday. The expansion was made possible with $378,000 in funding from Pierce County and $130,000 from the Tacoma Housing Authority.

“The addition of Housing Connector provides an important resource for our residents,” said Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier in Wednesday’s announcement. “As we work to bring regional solutions to more attainable housing, I’m pleased to welcome another key partner to our community.”

Housing Connector uses a search tool maintained by Zillow to create a database of available units, connecting property owners with potential tenants. The owners of the properties agree to waive or reduce their screening criteria, such as credit scores or eviction records of the applicants, opening up units that previously were out of reach for individuals experiencing or on the brink of homelessness.

Kelmendi said landlords don’t lose anything by participating in the program.

“It’s actually the complete opposite… They’re gaining from this,” he told The News Tribune on Thursday. “We are providing them a solution that addresses the four main concerns of every property: We are advertising their units and sending them free referrals; we are guaranteeing that rent is paid; we’re ensuring that their property is not damaged and they’re left holding the liability; and we’re making sure that they have a healthy community that’s thriving by providing one year of support for every resident that goes in.”

Kelmendi said Housing Connector has generated $13 million for property owners from the number of people it’s moved in.

“We wanted to streamline how individuals in the community access a home,” Kelmendi said of the program. “Right now it’s a really scattered process where there’s literally hundreds of nonprofits working hard to address this problem, but it’s fragmented and frankly at times inefficient, and so what Housing Connector does is we’ve created a single source where all case managers in the community can go and find units with these reduced screening criteria and directly get their clients approved. It’s kind of a win-win situation where both properties and these case managers that we’re working with get something out of it.”

Audrey Riddle is the impact program ambassador for Goodman Real Estate, which has around 5,000 units across Pierce County. Goodman Real Estate participated with Housing Connector with eight of its King County units since January.

Riddle told The News Tribune that the experience has been a good one.

“I think it’s a great program that addresses a need, and I think alleviates concerns that housing providers have,” Riddle said.

As an example, Riddle said, there was someone who lost their job and was unable to make rent, and Housing Connector was able to provide needed assistance.

“I think we have everything to gain,” Riddle said. “I think that households with barriers should also have the opportunity to apply for housing in the area that they would like to live. And I think that that’s the hope that we have specifically for folks in Pierce County — if they want to stay in Pierce County to have opportunities to stay in a great area.”

As of July, Housing Connector had an inventory of 800 participating properties. About 40 of them are in Pierce County, but that’s expected to grow as the program picks up speed. The apartment vacancy rate in Pierce County is 3.5 percent, according to a Washington State Apartment Market Report for Spring 2021.

The creation of new affordable housing in Pierce County is a necessity, Kelmendi said, but in the meantime, Housing Connector tries to help here and now.

“We need more units in the region, and while folks are working on that and actively pursuing that, this is a solution that can help folks get housed today,” he said.

This story was originally published on The News Tribune.