With CARES Act funding, city housing agency launches drive to recruit landlords

The Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority is offering new incentives to landlords for participation in the federal housing choice voucher program.

By Eric Gorton, contributor

Landlords in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County have an opportunity to get some guaranteed on-time rent payments and a few other incentives while also lending a helping hand to some of the area’s most vulnerable residents.

With $98,000 from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES), the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority is offering $250 bonuses for new leases, or $400 for accessible one-bedroom units. A damages fund and an online portal where landlords can view tenants’ payment histories and list available units are among other incentives. HRHA is also offering online orientation for interested landlords to learn more about the program and to ask questions.

The agency’s goal is to house 100 families in 100 days during a campaign that began last Monday and will run until Sept. 30.

Finding landlords willing to participate in the housing choice voucher program, also known as Section 8, is “one of the biggest challenges we have,” said Michael Wong, executive director of HRHA. He’s optimistic the recruitment campaign made possible by the CARES Act funding will help.

“This is once in a lifetime,” he said of the funding boost. “I’ve been in housing about 29 years and this is the first time we’ve ever received funding to do something like this so we are very excited to be able to make a difference in the community.”

A lack of affordable housing in the area is not new, but the COVID-19 pandemic has driven up unemployment and increased the need, Wong said. In the past month, HRHA has issued housing vouchers to nearly 60 qualifying families and individuals, but they are having difficulty finding places to rent and many are spending time in homeless shelters and hotels. Wong said another 60 families/individuals are in the pipeline for vouchers, needing only to finish paperwork.

“We anticipate having about 120 families searching (for housing) very shortly,” Wong said. “We feel like we can give a financial incentive to landlords to participate in the program.”

In addition to increasing the need for affordable housing, the COVID-19 pandemic has created some uncertainty for landlords, Wong said, especially those who typically rent to area college students. While Bridgewater College, Eastern Mennonite University and James Madison University are planning to open their campuses as scheduled for the fall semester, there is still some question about how many students will return to the area. “This could be an opportunity for some landlords to be able to make sure they get their housing filled by working with us,” he said.

Families and individuals who qualify for the housing choice voucher program choose housing to rent on the open market and pay a portion of the rent. HRHA subsidizes the difference in direct monthly payments to the landlord. At the end of May, the agency was paying full rent for nearly 200 families whose income dropped to zero due to COVID-19, almost 25 percent of the 830 or so participants receiving assistance.

There are about 200 participating landlords, Wong said. Some have single units while others rent multiple units.

One of the greatest needs is shared-housing arrangements, Wong said. In such an arrangement, a landlord agrees to rent a property to unrelated tenants. Each tenant has their own contract with the landlord and the landlord receives a separate payment from HRHA for each tenant. “It could increase the number of units available for participants in need of a single bedroom,” Wong said. “That could really expand the availability of units in our community.”

Randy Collins, a landlord in the program for the past four and a half years, recommends the program even though he has had a difficult tenant or two. Even when tenants are delinquent paying rent, the portion coming from the housing authority is always on time.

Emily Blake, a landlord in the program for seven years, also recommends it. “I was surprised that as the landlord, there’s not much you have to do,” she said. “The renters are usually the point of contact, and the rent, lease, and everything else are the same whether our renters are in the housing choice voucher program or not… If you are already a landlord, there’s really no reason not to get involved.”

Another benefit, she said, is not having to try to find new renters when her units open up. “I receive calls on a regular basis inquiring about available apartments, so participating in the program does make it easier to find renters.”

Blake and Collins said they also like the feeling they get from helping people in need.

Wong said more than 4,000 people are on the waiting list for the housing choice voucher program, but people are added to the list based on a prioritization process. Points are awarded for being disabled, being a veteran, being homeless, being a victim of domestic violence, receiving services from other area nonprofit agencies and other considerations.

“We get some complaints from some who say they may never get housing,” Wong said. “But this is a very limited, finite resource and if you don’t prioritize it for the most vulnerable, then those individuals would never be served because they don’t have the options or resources.”

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