It’s no secret that we have an affordable housing crisis here in Washington state, and in Seattle/King County in particular. Rents are increasingly beyond what is considered affordable for the average worker, and the combination of high demand and low supply makes for a competitive market that further disadvantages low-income and so-called “high-barrier” renters – those with bad credit, an eviction on their record, or a lack of rental history, for example.

As we struggle to build enough affordable and subsidized housing to keep up with demand, finding and recruiting landlords willing to rent to these residents is more important than ever. Remember the One Home Campaign? If every landlord considered modifying their screening criteria in order to rent to just one low-income individual or family with rental barriers, we’d be that much closer to making homelessness rare, brief and a one-time occurence for thousands of individuals and families in our county. That’s the goal One Home and our partners at the Landlord Liaison Project are working toward every day.

In this same spirit, Zillow, the Seattle-based real estate and rental marketplace giant, has recently joined local anti-homelessness efforts through the launch of its Community Pillars program. Read on to learn how Rebekah Bastian and her colleagues at Zillow are working with the community in taking important, innovative steps to help everyone “find their way home.”

What can you do? Consider hosting a landlord coffee for your faith community using our Outreach Tool Kit →

*Skip to the end of the piece for other action steps.


Creating Social Change in the Private Sector: Helping Everyone Find Their Way Home

Rebekah BastianBy Rebekah Bastian, VP of product teams at Zillow

I’ve been working at Zillow for almost 10 years, helping to grow it from an incognito startup to the #1 large company to work for in Washington. During that time I have taken on different challenges and roles, and watched our consumer reach and brand recognition grow exponentially. I have also become increasingly aware of how lucky I am to have a great career, stable housing, and a supportive community – and how so many people that I see around our downtown office or in my neighborhood haven’t been so lucky.

There were more than half a million people experiencing homelessness in the U.S. last year, and almost one-third of rental households living below the Federal Poverty Level according to Zillow internal data. I believe that by leveraging the amazing brand and reach that Zillow has built up in the housing space, along with an extremely caring and socially conscious employee base, we can help ensure that our tagline of “Find your way home” applies to everyone.

While we don’t yet have a formal community-giving department, we do have a grass roots charity committee that I serve on, and we have many employees who rally others to support their causes — from organizing a charity poker tournament to sponsoring a Make-a-Wish fantasy. When I decided that homelessness was a cause I wanted to help get Zillow behind, inspired by conversations with my good friend Mark Putnam who runs the Committee to End Homelessness in King County, I found a lot of support from Zillow. We hosted a kick-off event for a local program called One Home, I published a story on the Zillow for Pros blog about a local landlord who is helping with this cause, and had many great discussions with co-workers about other ways to help in this area.

National Rental Vacancy Rate (Zillow, March 2015)

The U.S. rental vacancy rate is the lowest it has been since the end of 1993 and is on the decline. This makes for an increasingly competitive rental market, especially in King County, where the vacancy rate was at a near 20-year low of 3.2% (well below the national average) as of March according to the Seattle Times.

But I felt like we could take this even further: We’ve built an amazing real estate and rental marketplace; why not use it to help connect people experiencing rental barriers with landlords and property managers who are willing to work with them? There are many individuals who have the means to pay for rent, often through housing vouchers or other subsidies, but are unable to secure housing in an increasingly competitive rental market with vacancy rates at an all-time low. They need a way to find landlords and property managers who might be willing to rent to them despite their rental barriers. And there wasn’t a national solution to help make those connections.

I took advantage of our Zillow Hack Week — a week we set aside twice a year to give our product teams a chance to work on anything they want, from internal tools to make their jobs easier to cool new features they’ve envisioned — to form a team that could build out a product solution to this problem. And I am so excited that we just launched it, only a month after starting work on it.

Zillow Community Pillar

Landlords receive “Community Pillar” badges when they agree to modify their screening criteria. This allows renters seeking housing to connect with landlords willing to look beyond their “barriers.”

The program is called Community Pillars, and this first launch of it is pretty simple. Landlords and property managers can create or modify their profiles on Zillow to say that they are a Community Pillar, which means they are open to modifying their standard tenant screening process in order to help applicants with potential rental barriers — such as low incomes, spotty credit scores, unemployment or lack of housing references —find a place to call home. They will get a Community Pillar badge on their Zillow profile, and then renters will be able to search the Zillow Directory for Community Pillars, view their active listings and contact them.

The goal of this initial launch is to get landlords and property managers enrolled in the program to build up the supply side of the solution. We have formed many great partnerships with non-profits like Community Solutions and government organizations like the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, who will help us spread awareness of the program. From there, I have big visions for making the renter experience more robust, and hopefully building up the program to be the portal for connecting low-income and homeless applicants with landlords and property managers who will rent to them.

Homelessness and rental affordability are huge, complex problems to solve, and I am well aware that making a dent in this area won’t be easy. But at the same time, I really believe that Zillow is well positioned in this space, and that we have a shot at helping make these connections. It won’t be a home run, but with the support of a lot of amazing internal Zillow teams as well as government and non-profit partnerships, I’m encouraged to keep swinging at it.


WHAT YOU CAN DO:

  1. Host a Coffee Hour to inform and recruit landlords in your faith community using our Outreach Toolkit. Visit our page and contact us for planning – we have plenty of resources and ideas to share!
  2. Read and listen to stories about landlords’ positive experiences with renting to individuals with rental barriers and share them with landlords in your network: see Rebekah Bastian’s recent post for the Zillow for Pros blog, and success stories like Raj and Alena’s, recorded as part of the StoryCorps “Finding Our Way” Project.
  3. Landlords, become a “Community Pillar,” join the One Home Campaign and connect with the Landlord Liaison Project to learn about the many benefits and support they have to offer.

Rebekah Bastian is vice president of product teams at Zillow. As one of Zillow’s first employees, she has spearheaded many key areas of the product. Outside of Zillow, she is the mother of two boys and an aerial acrobat. Follow her at @rebekah_bastian

*Featured image: Photo credit: Dan Lamont