Alaska News

Anchorage 'landlord liaison' pitches program to encourage housing for the homeless

Andy Mergens isn't a salesman but he's spent the past few weeks calling Anchorage landlords and property managers to make a pitch.

He first identifies himself as the city's new "landlord liaison." Then the pitch: Private landlords should relax screening criteria and consider renting to tenants who may have multiple evictions, bad credit, criminal records or spotty job histories as well as mental health or substance abuse problems.

In return, the landlord will have access to a 24-hour help hotline. Case managers and agencies can help if problems arise, like late rent payments. If there's damage, the landlord can be reimbursed.

Modeled after a successful approach in Seattle's King County, Washington, Anchorage's Landlord Liaison Program is being launched by the administration of Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, United Way and other social services agencies. The program, which is also being replicated in other U.S. cities, fits into a broader Anchorage effort to move people out of tent camps and emergency shelters and into subsidized apartments with access to a net of services.

Last week, Mergens sat in a City Hall conference room with a cellphone pressed to his ear and his computer and a notebook planner in front of him.

"We want to potentially offer you some help in exchange with helping us out for getting some of the homeless folks and low-income folks placed in the right housing," Mergens was saying to a landlord on the other line.

A $50,000 city grant to United Way is paying for Mergens' position as a contractor, part of a broader pool of money approved by the Anchorage Assembly earlier this year. United Way has worked in recent years to erase the number of homeless families in Anchorage. The landlord liaison project will first target homeless adults, with the hope of expanding to families later, Mergens said.

Mergens is a retired Army colonel. He's burly, with short-cropped hair and glasses. He's from Minnesota. As the U.S. Army was pulling troops out of Iraq in the late 2000s, Mergens oversaw the transfer of property back to the Iraqi government.

He was working at the Bethel airport as a station manager when Greg Numann, another retired Army colonel who is working on the broader city initiative, contacted him. Mergens thought it sounded like an interesting idea.

"The idea is to basically provide a backstop to the landlord that says, 'OK, I'm willing to take on this more high-risk person,' in the event things go south," Mergens said.

Since a comprehensive homeless survey in January, the city's homeless coordinator, Nancy Burke, has overseen the creation of a roster of about 240 people identified as Anchorage's most vulnerable homeless. Every Tuesday, Burke and other officials and social service agencies meet to discuss the list, what individuals need and what types of government assistance they can receive. Veterans, for example, qualify for a special type of federal subsidy through the Veterans Administration.  

As dozens of federal low-income housing subsidies come available this month, the list is guiding decisions about where people should be housed.

Private apartments will be part of the equation. But the market is tight. Landlords can get good rates without taking a chance on tenants with histories of evictions or job loss.  

Anchorage District Court Judge Stephanie Rhoades, who runs the Anchorage mental health court and also handles eviction cases, said the city's approach may help increase the likelihood of a landlord being willing to rent to a riskier tenant.

She emphasized that tenants should not be allowed to violate their obligations. But until now, landlords have had little recourse except the criminal justice system, she said.

Rhoades also noted that people who qualify for federal housing vouchers — which the city is hoping to harness for some of the more vulnerable homeless — aren't just poor.

"It's usually people who are poor and have a whole bunch of other things going on in their life that have in some way placed them in the circumstances of poverty," Rhoades said.

As part of his pitch, Mergens has been telling landlords that the tenant will not only have a rent check in hand — with some percentage of the rent guaranteed by the government each month — but will also be coached on ways to be a good tenant. 

That includes building up a sense of ownership over the space, and refusal skills like turning away friends or significant others who turn up and cause problems, Mergens said. Mergens said the person's "care team" will maintain contact for a year or two, depending on what the individual needs.

Avoiding eviction is a key goal. Evictions can have devastating long-term consequences, such as jeopardizing the person's ability to qualify for federal subsidies. If an arrangement doesn't work out, Mergens said, the program will try to guide landlords to a mutual agreement with the tenant to end the lease, instead of court action.

As the program takes shape, Mergens is finding himself doing more researching than convincing. Anchorage has no landlords association. Mergens has been using a combination of Craigslist and the phone book to find landlords who would be willing to participate in the program.  

"We had to start from scratch," Mergens said, scrolling through the spreadsheet on his computer. "This is the scratch."

The slate wasn't entirely blank — for years, social service agencies have built up small databases of landlords who are willing to rent to their clients, and they have hired staff members to take charge of networking and following up on the arrangements.  

One of those agencies, Catholic Social Services, connected Mergens with Victor Mota, who owns a property management company. Mota immigrated to Anchorage from the Dominican Republic. He has spent years working with Catholic Social Services and renting his properties to refugees and people with histories of homelessness.  

Last week, Mergens sat at a table with Mota and his son, Victor Mota Jr., and his 10-year-old granddaughter, describing the landlord liaison program.

"The idea is to give you an outlet. All I've got to do is make one phone call," Mergens was saying.

The Motas, clearly interested, asked a few questions. Victor Mota Sr. wondered how the city would be able to pay for the security deposit, which isn't covered by the government.

The Motas told Mergens that the company had just finished renovating a pair of fourplexes in Mountain View. They plan to offer those units to the city for the landlord liaison program.  

Mota Jr., who is his father's business partner, said in a later phone interview that he was optimistic, with some reservations.

"My concern is that they're going to be able to have enough help for the things they're going to need to make it work," Mota Jr. said.

There are obvious limits to what Mergens is proposing. For one thing, it's voluntary for both the landlord and the tenant. The city doesn't have a way to force a person who is homeless to accept housing.

It's also unclear whether Anchorage has enough case managers to sustain the operation.

Mergens acknowledged that he doesn't have the answers yet.

"We're building this plane as we fly it," he said.

At least in dozens of calls to landlords, Mergens said, he's encountered plenty of hesitation. But almost no one has turned him down.

Landlords or property managers who are interested in learning more about the city's Landlord Liaison Program can contact Mergens at mergensa@muni.org.

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