The Philadelphia Inquire
In the current market, where rental supply is low and demand is high, property owners can be picky when choosing tenants.
Angelo Goodwin shook hands with a tenant who had just moved into a Northeast Philadelphia apartment he owns and shut the door behind him. That’s when he heard shouting.
His tenant, a veteran who had been living in his car and just started a job driving school buses, was celebrating: “Thank you, God! Thank you! Finally, another chance!”
“It was just a moment of clarity,” Goodwin said. “It’s an amazing feeling.”
About two dozen of Goodwin’s roughly 60 tenants across the city are households that were homeless or have a member who was formerly incarcerated, he estimated. The veteran moved into his home within days of Goodwin receiving a call from someone at the Veterans Multi-Service Center, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit.
JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
The city of Philadelphia and housing organizations struggle to get rental property owners to house the many Philadelphians who are in need, including people who are homeless, have low incomes, or have eviction or criminal records. Perceptions about the character of people in these situations or a couple of bad experiences with tenants or housing programs can make landlords avoid renting to entire populations.
In the current market, in which rental supply is low and demand is high, property owners can be picky when choosing tenants. Landlords who took a financial hit during the pandemic have become less willing to take risks and deal with red tape. Philadelphia’s tenant protections that restrict how landlords screen tenants can do only so much when dozens of people apply for one rental.
Goodwin has baked partnerships with housing nonprofits into his business model, and he’s looking for more opportunities to work with housing organizations and fellow investors. Shortly before the pandemic, he left his job as an account manager at Comcast’s corporate office to build his business, create generational wealth, and make his mother proud, he said.
Finding housing is particularly challenging for certain populations
Landlords “are a necessary component to getting people off of the streets and lessening the trauma of homelessness,” said Ryan McGoldrick, director of supportive services for veteran families at the Veterans Multi-Service Center.
One of the biggest barriers the nonprofit faces, she said, is landlords’ perception that people who are homeless are “an unsafe population to bring into my house.”
People who are homeless, including veterans, may struggle with their mental health or have lost a job, had a serious health emergency, or fled domestic violence.
There’s a shortage of housing that people can afford and of landlords “who can look past maybe some issues to look at the person in need of housing and safety,” she said.
“It’s a hard sell to a lot of landlords who are maybe not willing or able to take what they perceive as a risk,” McGoldrick said.
Housing helps people keep their jobs, stay out of jail, and be healthy and safe. “Housing first” assistance models prioritize housing people quickly and then addressing their health or employment. But those policies require willing landlords.
‘I was feeling unfulfilled’
Goodwin, owner of several limited liability companies that operate rentals, can see Comcast’s skyscraper from outside a triplex he is renovating in West Philadelphia. A married father of three, he said he had a great position at the company, but “there was always something tugging at me like this wasn’t it. I was feeling unfulfilled.”
He had always wanted to start his own business, so he got into real estate on the side while still at Comcast, following in the footsteps of his mother, who had a couple of rental properties when he was a child. Although she didn’t live to see Goodwin’s business take off, “she constantly hammered away in my head that real estate was a way to build wealth, generational wealth,” he said.
His rentals range from one single-family home to a nine-unit apartment building. His scale allows him more flexibility with tenants. “If I had one or two units,” he said, “it would be impossible for me to make this business make sense.”
A handful of people rent units from Goodwin and then operate those units as short-term rentals for a profit. Others live in either market-rate or subsidized units. Although not all renters work out, Goodwin said, some of his best tenants are those he took a chance on. He said he wants to pay forward the help he’s received.
“I look at it like, how can I make a change?” Goodwin said. “I’m going to provide housing for people who need it.”
One tenant is a formerly incarcerated woman whose child was taken away.
“Now that she is working and has housing, she was able to get her son back,” Goodwin said. “That right there, is there anything more powerful than that?”
He was able to house a couple of veterans the same day the Veterans Multi-Service Center called, McGoldrick said.
“Mr. Goodwin is putting people first by providing permanent housing with the understanding that people often just need a hand up to achieve their goals,” she said.
Working with landlords to house more people
Organizations in the city that aim to partner with rental property owners pay clients’ rent for a period of time, help them get on their feet, and act as liaisons between tenants and landlords. The Veterans Multi-Service Center has a pool of about 40 landlords in the tri-state area who regularly house clients.
Syreeta Vereen, assistant director of client services at Action Wellness, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that helps people living with chronic diseases, said landlords sometimes call to offer rentals. About 20 consistently work with the organization.
“It’s difficult, but we still have landlords like Angelo who have been committed to just helping our clients,” she said. “We’re definitely grateful for those landlords.”
Action Wellness’ clients include people dealing with mental illness and substance abuse, people on probation, and people who have aged out of foster care.
“Over the years, we’ve been trying to find landlords that are more understanding of social issues,” Vereen said.
The Philadelphia Housing Authority offers cash signing bonuses, a faster approval process, and money to help fix damaged rentals to entice property owners to rent to people with federal housing vouchers, which pay a percentage of rent. The Office of Homeless Services’ Landlord Engagement Program offers such incentives as money for rental repairs or missing rent if a tenant leaves early to property owners who house people.
“The fact that they’ve done this is a very big step in admitting that landlords take risks all the time in taking our clients,” said Rachel Falkove, executive director of the homelessness prevention and services nonprofit Family Promise of Philadelphia. “And they need to be acknowledged for that. Many of them really want to help people. And they want their properties occupied.”
Rental property owners say both funding and tenant education need to be part of housing organizations’ plans to partner with them.
Challenges that keep rental property owners away
About 15 years ago, a city organization asked Arlene Caney, a rental property owner, to help a client. The organization paid the woman’s rent for a year, and she was a good tenant, Caney said. Then, she got laid off from her job and stopped paying rent. When she left the apartment, she owed several months of back rent, and two pet cats Caney didn’t know about had spread fleas to other apartments in Caney’s building.
The experience soured her to these types of programs. “I never did it again,” said Caney, who has 17 rentals.
During the pandemic, many organizations reached out to Hapco Philadelphia, the city’s largest association of rental property owners, looking for homes for clients, said Greg Wertman, Hapco’s president. “Because they found, just like everybody else, that the supply of affordable housing was diminishing, and they were having a difficult time finding housing,” he said.
Now that property owners have their pick of rental applicants, “they’re in a position where they don’t have to take a chance,” Wertman said. “At this point, they’re taking the best applicant.”
For people coming out of incarceration or who have limited income or bad credit, finding a rental “wasn’t easy before and now it just makes it harder,” he said.
Wertman is partnering with Falkove at Family Promise and representatives from other homeless services organizations as part of a coalition working to brainstorm ways to house more people.
“We have to somehow figure out a way where there’s less cost to taking risks on people who really need help,” Falkove said.
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org. You can read the full article here.