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Housing Connector, a new tool, launches to tackle homelessness — then contends with a pandemic

Ted S. Warren
The Associated Press
A man sleeps on the sidewalk near the Union Gospel Mission in downtown Seattle on March 20, 2020.

When a new tool called Housing Connector launched in King County last year, caseworkers responding to homelessness said it was quietly revolutionary. They said it made it easier to work with landlords and move people from shelters and encampments into apartments. 

But the tool emerged just months before the coronavirus pandemic. And now the nascent program is filling a new role: as part of an improvised safety net helping people make it through economic upheaval without mountains of debt.

"I never expected, as no one else said, that a pandemic would be facing us in our first year of existence," said Shkëlqim Kelmendi, who created Housing Connector. "But I think this is an area where, for me, it's important for any organization to be able to pivot quickly."

KNKX spoke to caseworkers and landlords about Housing Connector and how the tool has adapted to a housing landscape scrambled by the pandemic. You can listen to that story above.

It's an excerpt from KNKX's podcast Transmission, chronicling the pandemic in the Pacific Northwest. The latest episode tells the stories of people brought to the brink of eviction by the pandemic, supported by moratoriums on evictions that could expire in the near future.

Kelmendi's idea for Housing Connector came from his own family's experiences as refugees from Kosovo who arrived in the United States in 1999. He said background checks made it difficult for the family to find housing.

"Like many immigrants and refugees, we didn't have access to a lot of funds," Kelmendi said. "We didn't have a credit score or credit history."

Kelmendi later worked for the Seattle Housing Authority and saw people running into the same barriers as they tried to escape homelessness. Factors like a criminal record, a past eviction or a certain income to rent ratio could cause someone to fail a background check, even if they made enough money to pay rent.

And so they'd stay homeless, and apartments would sit vacant.

Housing Connector provides assurances that allow landlords to accept tenants who might not otherwise pass a background check. The program offers to reimburse landlords up to $5,000 for damage to an apartment, covers up to three months' rent if a tenant isn't able to pay and ensures caseworkers check in on tenants regularly.

That's allowed landlords to rent to people who would have previously been deemed too risky, said Alison Dean, director of operations and strategy for HNN Communities, a company that is landlord to an estimated 50,000 or 60,000 people in King County.

"That's putting us in a position where we can adjust criteria and feel more comfortable as a landlord that if something happens, for whatever reason, they're going to step in and help make that situation whole for us," Dean said. "So that's huge."

Then the pandemic struck. Dean said many of HNN Communities' tenants are considered low income and lost jobs — and the company is losing $1.5 million a month because hundreds of tenants are unable to pay rent.

State and national eviction moratoriums instituted during the pandemic protect tenants from losing their homes due to nonpayment alone. But tenants who can't pay are still wracking up unpaid rent and could face eviction someday if they can't pay it back.

Kelmendi, the Housing Connector creator, said the program was designed to be a "rent provider of last resort," not to cover rent for so many people for months. But he and his staff have raised extra money in donations to expand their rental assistance program.

"If we are stuck in our ways, we are not going to be able to thrive and support the folks that we are here to help," he said.

Since Housing Connector launched, it has helped get more than 1,200 people into housing — and paid out more than $260,000 in rental assistance, Kelmendi said.

When he thinks about the future, he anticipates demand for Housing Connector only growing. Once eviction moratoriums expire, he said, people might find themselves with new evictions on their records, struggling to find homes.

But he worries whether local governments such as the City of Seattle and King County, which are main supporters of Housing Connector, will make it through the pandemic with enough money to keep funding it.

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.