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Stable Homes, Without State Coercion

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Stable Homes, Without State Coercion

Offering support to troubled renters, a nonprofit combats housing instability without antagonizing property owners. October 26, 2022
Economy, finance, and budgets
Politics and law

America has a housing-instability problem. For people at the low end of the housing market, evictions can both result from poverty and guarantee poverty well into the future. A family with an eviction record risks repeated address changes that make it harder to maintain work for the parents or consistent education for the children. A stable home on a safe street is often a precursor to, not just a product of, financial success.

How should policymakers tackle instability? In his powerful 2016 book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, sociologist Matthew Desmond recommends a state-driven approach. The book details the destructive effects of housing instability in Milwaukee and offers an affecting glimpse into the lives of people who have been evicted. It also advances a policy agenda that, despite widespread acclaim, would facilitate stagnation. Desmond’s proposal for a universal housing-voucher program that would cap rent at 30 percent of a family’s income, for instance, would inflate rent prices and leave tenants no better off. His call for national restrictions on rents and on the returns that property owners can gain from their assets, meantime, would eliminate any incentive to build new places to live. It’s true that property owners have an incentive to use the political system to keep rents high instead of pushing to expand the housing stock through land-use liberalization. But Desmond’s counterproductive proposals would ultimately worsen the housing shortage.

Fortunately, alternative methods of combating housing instability exist. Consider Housing Connector, a new Seattle-based civil-society organization that facilitates rentals to families who, owing to past evictions, face difficulties convincing property managers of their trustworthiness. The skepticism is often justified: renting out homes is risky, and evaluating prospective tenants skeptically is necessary to protect assets. But by offering financial guarantees against mishaps and ensuring that residents get ongoing support from local community groups, Housing Connector makes it easier for property owners to rent homes to families with spotty records.

Its founder, Shkëlqim Kelmendi, knows how hard navigating the housing market can be for atypical potential renters. Having moved to America as refugees from Kosovo, Kelmendi’s family lacked an established credit history and struggled to find suitable housing in their new country. A similar family would be a prime candidate for Housing Connector, which works to facilitate mutually beneficial arrangements for renting families and property owners.

The result is a pragmatic model that respects the profit motive rather than trying to legislate it away. Desmond’s approach would pit property owners and renters against one another in an intractable standoff, capping returns on property owners’ assets through federal law. Housing Connector plays a mediating role that appeals to both parties in a rental transaction. As Kelmendi explains, the antagonistic framework has failed: “If you can solve this problem without landlords,” he asks, “why haven’t we done it?”

Since beginning in Seattle in 2019, Housing Connector has helped more than 3,300 renters find a place to live. About half are single adults; the rest are families with at least one child at home. Almost all entered the program from a position of housing instability, such as living in a temporary public shelter or with friends or extended family. In a remarkable testament to the effectiveness of its model, 74 percent of those renters have remained in their units for two years or more. The organization expanded its operations to Denver earlier this year and uses tech partners such as the real-estate firm Zillow to link community organizations, potential renters, and interested property managers.

Housing stability carries civic benefits. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed, someone with a home at stake will regard seemingly small public matters as relevant to his own private interests. Though Desmond cites Tocqueville, too, he offers a more contentious portrayal of the American housing landscape. That vision ignores the bottom-up organizing impulse—and its principles of accountability and reputational upkeep—that Housing Connector exemplifies.

Attaining housing stability will require liberalizing our local land-use policies to get more housing online. It will also mean tapping into America’s social capital.

Photo by Joel W. Rogers/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

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