Low Housing Stock Leads to Full Shelters; Agencies Seek Available Properties

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Local agencies have the funding to house homeless and vulnerable individuals and families, but lack of housing stock has them calling on area landlords for help.

Catholic Charities Regional Agency’s Voice of Hope Shelter is at capacity with 40 families with children, and another seven families are on the waiting list. The shelter opened in January 2021 in response to the Rescue Mission shelter being at capacity, and it was quickly filled. While the shelters are a safe haven for the families, the goal is to find long-term housing. Leaders of the Catholic Charities Regional Agency, the Mahoning County Homeless Continuum of Care and the Mahoning County Mental Health and Recovery Board say they have the funding to assist families with rent, but there are few housing options available.

In hopes of finding landlords or property owners willing to rent to people receiving their services, the agencies are hosting an informational meeting at 5 p.m. May 11 at the Catholic Charities Regional Agency, located at 319 W. Rayen Ave. The meeting is purely informational, and attendees need not make a commitment.

Individuals applying for assistance are “hitting a roadblock because there’s no housing stock in Mahoning County or it can’t pass [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] inspections,” says Lee DeVita, program coordinator of the Mental Health and Recovery Board.

Lack of housing stock is not just an issue in Mahoning County but nationwide. The National Association of Realtors reports that the housing supply appears to be on the upswing nationwide after dipping to record breaking lows over the winter. NAR calculates purchasing a home is now 55% more expensive than a year ago, creating higher mortgage payments that translate into higher rent. DeVita said the amount of rent that can be subsidized is set by HUD, but the department hasn’t adjusted its fair market rate to match inflated costs. He said clients are often priced out because they can’t afford to cover the rest of the rent fee.

DeVita says the board and the other agencies hope to assure potential landlords in the ways they provide care for their clients. The board’s executive director, Duane Piccirilli, says the stigma around mental health can make people apprehensive about renting to those in the system.

“We know there’s a stigma around mental health, but the people that we’re working with are people that are engaged with treatment and agencies,” Piccirilli said. “There’s all kinds of support services and wraparound for landlords and there’s some incentives that might make it worthwhile.”

The incentives include the Emergency Housing Voucher Program through the Youngstown Metropolitan Housing Authority with assistance from the Homeless Continuum of Care. The authority was awarded 41 rental assistance vouchers for homeless individuals and families. Colleen Kosta, coordinator of Homeless Continuum of Care, says the vouchers don’t have an end date and guarantee rent for landlords as long as the individual is in the program. Landlords will also receive a one-time $750 payment for renting to an EHV individual or family.

Kosta says the permanent vouchers are for people that are homeless, domestic violence survivors, human/sex trafficking survivors and/or victims of stalking.

Kosta says the agencies are having trouble finding landlords to accept EHV recipients due to lack of housing and resistance from property owners that are apprehensive about renting to people that fall into the qualified categories. Kosta wants to assure landlords that individuals chosen for the voucher program are suitable tenants. “We’re hoping to have people that are already connected to services, that are already really in a good place. Maybe they need some financial assistance to help them bridge that gap,” he says. “We’ve worked with them on how to be good tenants how to maintain their property, making sure that they’re getting any other financial or any other systems that they need, making sure that their kids are in school.”

Nancy Voitus, executive director of Catholic Charities Regional Agency, said her agency offers a one-time payment that is equal to three times the asked rent for landlords willing to rent to her clients. She says they’re not asking landlords to rent to tenants they’re uncomfortable leasing to and tenants are accepted at the landlord’s discretion. The Fair Housing Act protects tenants from being discriminated against for things like race, sexuality, religion and disability, including mental illness, but applicants can be rejected for reasons like their credit history, past evictions and criminal convictions.

“The landlords have to vet the clients. We’re not recommending the client, and we’re not vouching for their behavior,” Voitus says. “We’re making a connection between the landlord and the tenant, but the landlord has to decide if they think they’re a good fit.”

The group is hoping to find larger homes or duplexes that can fit large families. Piccirilli says there are many families in shelters with three or four children, and they want to make sure there’s a home for them. “I truly think that families, children especially, should be in a house,” Piccirilli says.

The current waitlist has an average waiting period of two to three weeks, says Voitus. Most of the people waiting for room at the shelter are either living on the street, in cars or staying with family or friends. The average stay at the shelter is 45 to 50 days, but Voitus says they aim for 30. There is no maximum length, and individuals and families can stay as long as they’re actively working on a plan.

“We’ll work with you and our case manager on finding a place to live, and we’re not going to hit the buzzer at so many days because time’s up,” Voitus says. “As long as you’re working on a plan, you’re welcome to stay.”

DeVita says he hopes a solution is found soon to move families out of the shelters and into homes. “There are 40 families with kids that are in the shelter. That’s unacceptable. For 40 families to be staying at the local shelter that’s just hard to grasp.”

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.