Prospects to secure stable housing improve when housing debt is addressed

Published: March 15, 2018

Legal assistance project to lift more families past a problem that frequently blocks their path out of homelessness.

Matoso 20100806 7055A lingering debt owed to a former landlord blotted Myrah’s rental history like a stubborn stain she couldn’t get out. It also undermined her every effort to move her family out of homelessness and into a rental home.

“I don’t know of any private landlords in King County who will accept people with housing debt on their records,” said Jana Prothman Lissiak, director of Rapid Re-Housing for Catholic Community Services of King County. “Maybe we find a one-off every six or eight months. But it’s exceedingly rare.”

All was not lost for Myrah, however. As an enrollee in Rapid Re-Housing, she was able to obtain the assistance she needed to navigate through the technical legal language that accompanies housing debt. With the help of her Catholic Community Services case manager and a lawyer, she negotiated down what she owed and obtained the requisite “satisfaction of judgment,” a legal document declaring her debt settled.

As a result, Myrah was able to secure a lease for a two-bedroom apartment, where she and her two daughters live today.

Families experiencing homelessness can lose out on rental housing in the private market when their credit report shows outstanding debt to a previous landlord, such as unpaid rent or property damages. In some cases, such as Myrah’s, families simply need assistance in settling what they owe so they can move forward and rent a home. Sometimes, though, families are dogged by housing debt they actually do not owe. Yet it still shows up on their credit report, acting as a barrier to securing a lease.

Building Changes is supporting a two-year project in King County to give families the legal assistance they need to attend to their housing debt. Whether the debt on their report is fact or fiction, the fact is there are steps we can take to ensure it doesn’t become a barrier to families becoming stably housed.

In King County, where the vacancy rate hovers around 4 percent, prospective tenants compete for rentals and landlords are picky. Those with spotless records rise to the top, and those with housing debt get passed over.

Rapid Re-Housing, a primary solution for helping families experiencing homelessness find a permanent home, relies on the availability of private-market rental housing in order to succeed. Rapid Re-Housing providers in King County report that housing debt is one of the most challenging barriers their clients face as they search for a rental home, said Danielle Winslow, assistant director of All Home, which oversees King County’s homeless response system.

The Building Changes grant will extend the services of Legal Action Center (LAC), a Catholic Community Services program, to all Rapid Re-Housing providers in King County. Until now, LAC has been providing assistance only to Rapid Re-Housing clients of Catholic Community Services, like Myrah.

Under the grant, LAC will provide direct legal assistance to families when appropriate, such as going to court to obtain a “satisfaction of judgment.” But LAC staff also will train Rapid Re-Housing case managers so they can address their clients’ housing debt without a lawyer’s help.

Case managers typically are not experts in the confounding sphere of housing debt. In some instances, Winslow said, providers are using Rapid Re-Housing funds to pay off debts that appear on families’ records not realizing they no longer are legally enforceable—for example, a debt may have exceeded its statute of limitations.

“Our goal is to make sure case managers, who can feel pretty powerless in this type of situation, know their power,” Winslow said. “Through this project, we’re creating a more informed system around housing debt.”

* The name of the Catholic Community Services client was changed to Myrah in order to protect her privacy.

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