Ryan Chiao, Photo Editor

In mid-July, local nonprofit United Way of Greater New Haven launched a program offering landlords an extra month of rent in exchange for signing a lease with one of 44 families in need. The rollout has been fraught with unexpected barriers, revealing tensions in New Haven’s current housing market.

All of the families included in the initiative are currently housed in local shelters. The families are supported by either federal or state funding in order to guarantee their financial ability to pay a year’s rent, according to United Way. However, finding specific living units for the families has proven a major challenge, due in part to hesitation among local landlords to rent to these prospective tenants despite the incentive offered. Leaders of the program had hoped for all 44 families to be housed by the end of August. But as of Sept. 9, only four families have successfully signed a lease for their new home.

“We’ve been very fortunate to receive more housing resources from the federal government because of COVID,” said Margaret LeFever, a United Way staff member and one of the leaders of the program. “But the rental market has been so difficult to navigate that we have a lot of people already matched and ready to be housed — like funding is not an issue — but we just can’t find units that landlords are accepting to move people into.”

LeFever acts as the senior manager of the Coordinated Access Network — a coalition of service providers working together to end homelessness in the city, for which United Way is the leading organization. The current housing initiative for the 44 families emerged through discussions within the CAN-wide Landlord Task Force.

In June 2021, according to LeFever, United Way received 33 Rental Assistance Program vouchers from the Connecticut Department of Housing intended to bring families out of shelters. RAP vouchers cover the rent for units that the recipients must locate themselves. United Way then added 11 other families to their original list, paid for by a combination of federal and CAN funds. Despite this financial backing, LeFever said that her team was struggling to secure units for the families.

It was because of this struggle to match families with suitable housing that United Way designed its plan to offer an additional month’s rent to landlords in exchange for signing a lease.

The initiative is a continuation of United Way’s greater efforts to improve the relationships with local tenants and landlords, according to Charmain Yun, landlord engagement specialist with United Way. Clients housed through CAN are provided with ongoing case management, while their landlords have access to up to $1,000 of mitigation funds in the case of damage to the property or unpaid rent. 

LeFever explained that these services are intended to “show that partnering with us mitigates risk more than housing someone not from CAN.” However, she noted that even with the rent incentive and these added security systems, many landlords still refuse to trust in these potential tenants enough to actually sign a lease.

“We’re still experiencing just a very hard time finding landlords that are willing to accept a new tenant at this point, especially anyone that has past evictions on their records,” LeFever said. “Especially families where they don’t have any income, or if they have any criminal history … [landlords] feel that it is better to keep a unit vacant than fill it with someone who potentially might be at risk of being evicted.”

The original plan, which LeFever retrospectively describes as “really ambitious,” was to have all families housed by the end of August — just over a month after the program launched on July 19. That soon proved impossible as the deadline came and went.

Alison Rivera, a New Haven landlord who has worked with Yun and United Way in the past, told the News that she had pursued contracts with a few of the families from the program, but that they had all fallen through “for reasons on the applicants’ sides.” 

Rivera also said that the COVID-19 pandemic has created a number of hardships for landlords, specifically as a result of nonpayment of rent. This has made her personally hesitant to sign new leases, due to worries about having to conduct evictions.

“As far as applicants, I don’t know, because again you have the good and the bad,” Rivera said. “Some of them are really trying to turn their lives around. … It’s just always, whether it’s in a program or not, a 50-50 chance.”

When asked what would need to change for United Way’s 44 families initiative to find success on the landlord end, Rivera suggested more accountability and repercussions for people who do not pay their rent. This, she said, might make people “think twice” before missing payments and encourage them to try harder to work with their landlords.

The initiative, Yun said, is a “good faith effort” to encourage improved relationships between landlords, tenants and nonprofits. However, she acknowledged that certain structural issues in New Haven’s economy would need to change in order for the program to truly be a success.

“It’s so systemic,” Yun said. “Making sure everyone makes a living wage … addressing poverty and inequality. … Hopefully that’s happening at the same time as these smaller efforts of building trust. Can people pay their rent, is the big question. Then, lack of affordable housing.”

Despite these roadblocks, United Way still is moving forward with the program in the hopes that more of the 44 families will find housing with time.

According to estimates by United Way of Greater New Haven, the average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment in New Haven is roughly $1,200.

Sylvan Lebrun is a Managing Editor of the Yale Daily News. She previously served as City Editor, and covered City Hall and nonprofits and social services in the New Haven area. She is a junior in Pauli Murray College majoring in Comparative Literature.