Tight real estate market challenges homeless service nonprofits; tech lends a handAaron Goldman (l), board chair of Open Doors and Marc Lefar, president and CEO of RentPath. Engineers at RentPath created a real estate search app with Open Doors that helps match homeless people to homes. Credit: Maggie Lee
By Maggie Lee
Aaron Goldman, like everybody else, sees fellow metro Atlantans camping under bridges, sleeping in cars, trying to raise families in extended stay hotels and other manifestations of homelessness. But he and a group of colleagues have something unusual: keys to a lot of apartment buildings across metro Atlanta.
He’s board chair of Open Doors, a nonprofit which has grown out of the of Atlanta Real Estate Collaborative.
The group is mostly folks in the private real estate business who “had an interest in coming together, to see if we could use our relationships, skills and housing background to help the homelessness cause,” said Goldman, who’s also president and co-owner of Perennial Properties, which counts buildings like the Telephone Factory Lofts in its portfolio.
Open Doors is lowering barriers to housing in a hot real estate market, and it’s getting a high-tech assist.
As a founding board member of AREC in 2012, what Goldman saw was homeless service nonprofits struggling to find landlords who would accept their clients.
As hard as it is to find an apartment you can afford in your kid’s school district, near your job, near transit, or whatever you need, it’s harder if you have poor credit, don’t have a squeaky-clean background check, have an eviction on your record or will be paying with some kind of rental assistance.
Back when AREC got started, it saw that nonprofits that help people out of homelessness were using the likes of Craigslist to try and find vacancies. Just like a lot of people were. But clients of homeless service nonprofits would often turn up to an advertised property just to be turned down by property managers.
So via Open Doors, these property owners worked on a way to formally lower some of the barriers to entry. It’s done via a formal memorandum of understanding: landlords who work with Open Doors agree to take tenants who have any or some or all of those dings on their records or who are paying with various kinds of assistance. In return, landlords get a stream of free referrals, usually in about one or two business days, from folks who have case management and rental subsidies behind them.
“We started by sending spreadsheets of available units to the nonprofits. It immediately made a difference with the speed at which veterans and other vulnerable populations who are experiencing homelessness got housed,” Goldman said, recalling the start of Open Doors.
But he also said it’s harder to house people than it was just a few years ago. That’s because vacancy rates are much lower than they were.
“We’re in an urgent race to the units,” Goldman said.
In an urgent race, that is, with other prospective tenants who have much better apartment search technology than lists or spreadsheets.
They probably use the likes of Rent.com or something. Click on a map, click on a menu, make your choices, get what you need quickly. Veteran, pet owner, budget-conscious, any number of options.
So wouldn’t it be nice if nonprofit caseworkers had a real estate search app? Might as well include data about what kind of rental assistance is accepted, too.
As it happens, RentPath, the parent company behind familiar names like Apartment Guide, Rent.com, Rentals.com and Lovely, has a big office by the Lenox MARTA station.
RentPath President and CEO Marc Lefar said that when he first met the folks at Open Doors, he was “blown away” by what they were managing to do, the number of people they were linking with homes.
(By the way, Open Doors is at more than 6,000 clients served.)
But Lefar saw the staff doing manually some of things his company does digitally. And Lefar got to wondering if RentPath’s technology could be used for Open Doors’ purposes.
“We’d already kicked off homelessness as our social responsibility theme and activity for the company,” Lefar said.
The company is already in the business of linking people with housing, and it already works with more than 30 homeless organizations in metro Atlanta in different ways — like helping folks practice and prepare for job interviews, or teaching veterans coding, or volunteering legal aid against eviction. But Lefar admitted this one is his pet project.
“Most software engineers don’t think that they can contribute unless you’re being asked to write a check,” Lefar said.
But a bunch of engineers raised their hands to work this project, Lefar said. And the company granted a perpetual license for RentPath’s technology.
The result is an app that metro Atlanta caseworkers can use to search vacancies in Open Door-friendly properties when they’re with their clients. Goldman, sitting in a RentPath conference room with Lefar, pulled up a copy of the app on his phone. It looks as convenient and user-friendly as any of the company’s commercial products.
“You can actually then complete the application process, and do a lot of the information-gathering, so that the landlord then has that information. The MOU is prewired. It explains what vouchers are acceptable and what’s not,” Lefar said.
The person who runs Open Doors from day to day is Executive Director Matt Hurd.
After working 15 years in the nonprofit world, Hurd said his perspective is that “oftentimes we kind of get the scraps of what’s left over … resources, dollars, technology solutions.”
But the RentPath collaboration, he said, has pushed them to the very top of the arena, with the best possible solution to helping find affordable housing for people. He called it a “surreal experience.”
RentPath’s folks are working on more features — like tracking how often the app is used, how often it successfully matches a client to an apartment, and more.
And Open Doors is as always looking to enlist more landlords, more nonprofits, and keep them all happy.
So the work continues.