With help from Zillow, this nonprofit wants to be a game changer for high-risk tenants

Shkëlqim Kelmendi, Executive Director at Housing Connector. (Photo of housing connector)

It’s no secret that there is a housing crisis in the Seattle area. Bidding wars abound. Rents have increased by almost 30% compared to last year. And only New York and Los Angeles have higher homelessness rates.

Seattle’s nonprofit Housing Connector is trying to level the playing field for the area’s most vulnerable tenants, even in the face of growing housing shortages and soaring costs of living.

“It is undeniable that we have a housing shortage,” said Shkëlqim Kelmendi, executive director of Housing Connector. “Basically, it’s a matter of supply and demand. But even with this scarcity, there are opportunities.

Kelmendi said existing inventory is one such opportunity. Housing Connector acts as a matchmaker of sorts, connecting landlords looking to fill vacant homes with potential tenants who may not have perfect rental records due to eviction, low credit scores or other factors that can contribute to homelessness.

But unlike most matchmakers, this arrangement doesn’t end after introductions. Housing Connector acts as an insurer for the next two years, supporting tenants who might otherwise be considered too risky.

“We can’t control the circumstances that lead us to homelessness,” said Kelmendi, who first observed how the housing market is stacked against the vulnerable as a child when he immigrated from Kosovo to the United States as a refugee.. “For people to be defined by this one metric, whether it’s credit score or eviction, it’s incredibly demoralizing.”

Housing Connector focuses on four primary business concerns for landlords and property managers: keeping homes full, ensuring reliable rent payments, mitigating the risk of property damage, and maintaining healthy and safe communities.

As part of its program, Housing Connector guarantees payment of rent and promises $5,000 in damage insurance. The organization also works with community partners to provide conflict mitigation, behavioral support, and other social services to tenants. The ultimate goal is to keep tenants housed for the long term.

Housing Connector has an ally in a Seattle-based tech powerhouse. The organization has partnered with real estate giant Zillow to build and maintain the Zillow affordable housing search tool project.

“Social issues like homelessness are nuanced and require subject matter experts like our colleagues at Housing Connector,” Zillow engineer Steven Kwan wrote after the tool’s launch. “They had the expertise to do the job that we as a tech company can’t. This included building relationships and collaborating with public offices, community partners and property managers. We simply couldn’t replicate their experience.

Zillow’s affordable housing finder.

It’s one of the many ways tech companies are stepping up to help ease the local housing crisis. Among many other efforts, a group of Seattle-area businesses and philanthropic organizations, including Microsoft, Amazon, Starbucks, and the Gates Foundation, recently announced they would commit more than $10 million to reducing the homelessness in Seattle.

But even with friends in high places, Housing Connector has encountered hurdles getting started – primarily COVID-19. The organization was launched just at the start of the pandemic, and tenants and landlords faced the monumental hurdles of lost wages and payments.

“We had two choices,” Kelmendi said. “It was either pivot and adapt or die.”

“This is the break they didn’t think they were getting.”

The organization has called for doubling its services like mediation and social assistance, and property managers have responded enthusiastically. Housing Connector saw strong interest from real estate partners during the early days of the pandemic.

Since then, Housing Connector has helped house over 2,600 people, many of them in the Seattle area. The organization recently expanded to Pierce County as well as Denver — and Kelmendi said it’s still just the beginning of an ambitious plan to make housing more accessible across the county.

“From the ground up, we designed this product to scale,” he said. “Our goal and vision is that we will be in every major US city within the next five to seven years.”

After two years, 70% of the people the organization has helped to house are still living in these houses. Kelmendi said the metric is important because finding someone a home is one thing. But keeping them housed requires a different set of solutions.

What are tenants saying? Kelmendi said the thing he hears most often is complete surprise.

“It’s the break they didn’t think they were getting,” he said.

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