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

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

Faith and Family Homelessness Landlord Engagement Landlords

 My Inspiring Friends: a Message from Mark Putnam

By Lisa Gustaveson

What difference can one person make?

Just ask the homeless child who calls the back seat of a car home. While Mom is frantically trying to find a shelter that has space for them, the nervous kindergartener knows she has a new backpack thanks to the Project Cool school supply drive. Your donation makes a big difference to her.

Or, when you roll down the window of your car and hand the homeless vet a few bucks to get something to eat? When you meet their eyes and smile, you might be giving them the strength they need to get through another day on the street.

As the Director of the Committee to End Homelessness in King County, Mark Putnam is responsible for the development and implementation of the community’s Strategic Plan. It’s a very difficult job, filled with meetings, policy research and negotiation.

I am honored to call Mark a friend, and even prouder to witness the value he places on relationships and simple acts of kindness. You see, it’s not easy (some would say impossible) to measure the impact of a kind gesture. That doesn’t stop Mark from acknowledging the importance of those gestures amongst official policy and strategies.

Read his heartfelt post below, and reflect on how your simple acts of kindness and generosity make a big difference to local efforts to end homelessness.

By Mark Putnam, Director of the Committee to End Homelessness in King County

It takes all of us — and our friends, and our friends’ friends — to help the 10,000 or more people experiencing homelessness each day in King County.

This past week a few of my friends, and their friends, blew me away with their compassion and activism.

Helping people manage the heat. Last night, I got a call from an old high school friend. He’s currently living in his car, homeless as a result of health issues and significant health costs. He’s working full-time, but not able to rent in King County. He’s concerned about people living outside not having a place to dispose of garbage or human waste – and worried that they do not have enough water to survive the heat of summer. He’s been bringing gallon jugs of water to people living in tents by the stadiums in Sodo, doing what he can, even as he struggles to get by himself.

Community pillarGetting landlords involved. Another old friend, Rebekah, has launched a program at her company, Zillow, to connect vulnerable renters with housing. The Community Pillar program works with landlords who are open to modifying their screening criteria to help people with potential rental barriers. These landlords will get a Community Pillar badge on their Zillow profile, and renters will be able to find them in the Zillow directory to view active rental listings.

Helping people who are living in their vehicles. A group of friends – Sinan, Graham, Rex, and Bill – and their vast networks of friends – rallied around a group of people living in their RVs in North Seattle. Rex from Homeless in Seattle organized a garbage cleanup. Subsequently, the RVs got notice from police that they needed to move their RVs or be impounded. These guys held informal meetings of RV residents, neighbors, Seattle Police, and local business owners to discuss and problem solve. Their grass-roots leadership has led to finding stable places for a few RV residents, but others still need places to go. Please do what you can to help.

To each of you – I feel honored to be your friend, and thank you for all you did this week, and will do next week, no doubt, to support our neighbors in need. We all have resources we can share – jugs of water, a website to recruit landlords, parking spots for people living in vehicles – but the most important thing we can share is our hearts.

Committee to End Homelessness Faith and Family Homelessness
One Home Campaign King County

One Home Landlord Engagement Campaign in the News!

If you haven’t yet heard about the One Home Campaign, check out this great article in the Seattle Times! We’re thrilled to work with exceptional partners like the Committee to End Homelessness and the Landlord Liaison Project on this exciting new initiative, which is aimed at developing new partnerships between nonprofits and landlords to expand housing options for formerly homeless individuals and families.

Join us! Landlords click here to be part of the One Home Landlord Engagement Campaign

If you are a landlord or know a landlord in your faith community, please visit onehomekc.org to learn more about the initiative. One Home is on the lookout for landlords to partner with!

The article below, which appeared in the Times on Saturday, discusses how the One Home campaign is building on the model and successes of the Landlord Liaison Project (LLP), a program that supports landlords willing to rent to tenants with high barriers.


Program shields landlords willing to rent to the homeless

The new One Home campaign promotes a longstanding project that offers extra incentives and financial security for King County landlords who agree to rent to the homeless or formerly homeless.

One Home Campaign: Program shields landlords willing to rent to the homeless

Luatonya Girtman with her children James Harrell III, 5, and Mydia Girtman, 14. They’re in their new apartment in Kent after Landlord Liaison Project. (Photo Credit: Greg Gilbert, The Seattle Times)

By Alexa Vaughn, Seattle Times staff reporter

Two evictions and horrible credit — that’s not what most landlords want to see on their tenants’ records.

Luatonya Girtman, 34, says that’s why she and her two children spent much of the last year bouncing in and out of homelessness, even when she had hustled together enough money from temporary and part-time jobs to put her family in a new home.

“I’d never even had a criminal record, but I felt like I did when I started looking for housing again,” said Girtman, 34.

According to King County’s Committee to End Homelessness, there are at least 1,000 homeless people in the county who have the resources to pay for housing, but because of their credit or criminal histories can’t find landlords to rent to them.

A King County-based program called the Landlord Liaison Project (LLP) — funded by cities, King County and local philanthropies — has helped many of them, including Girtman. Last month, she was finally able to move her family into an apartment in Kent when LLP persuaded her landlord to take a chance on her.

“When these guys helped me, I just felt like angels had come — I get teary-eyed even talking about it,” Girtman said.

Continue reading on The Seattle Times’ website →

Action Committee to End Homelessness Faith and Family Homelessness Landlord Liaison Media Alert