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Why homeless organizations in Oregon are becoming landlords


Many cities are seeing a dramatic increase in homelessness. To answer the crisis, advocates in Portland, Ore., are turning to a strategy used in commercial real estate. Tiffany Camhi from Oregon Public Broadcasting explains.

TIFFANY CAMHI, BYLINE: Even though he gets a steady Social Security check and works part-time selling newspapers, Marlon Crump still can't afford the average Portland rent. That's in part why he was homeless for the better part of a decade. So when he found an apartment for $475 a month, it was a game changer.

MARLON CRUMP: I saw the nice room, and I was like, wow, very nice. Yeah, I think I could live here.

CAMHI: Crump pays about a thousand dollars less than the market average for this place. He's lived here for the past two years. It's part of a program run by a local nonprofit. His home is one of 11 in this apartment building. Common areas are shared - kitchen, living room. The laundry is right next to his bedroom.

CRUMP: We have two showers, and we have two bathroom facilities right here. This is my room right here, personally.

CAMHI: No. 5?

CRUMP: Yes, No. 5. This is me.

LIZ WEBER: Every neighborhood in Portland is unaffordable for most communities of color.

CAMHI: Liz Weber is with the nonprofit that runs this program, called JOIN. She says the rental market in Portland is too competitive for people trying to get out of homelessness, which disproportionately impacts people of color.

WEBER: And so master leasing was absolutely a response to increasing rents.

CAMHI: Master leasing - it's similar to using a property management company by adding another party into a landlord-tenant relationship. In this case, the nonprofit vets tenants, collects deposits, does property maintenance and it subsidizes some rent with money from philanthropic fundraising.

STEVE BERG: It's very helpful for somebody who's been on the street.

CAMHI: Steve Berg is with the National Alliance to End Homelessness. He says people looking for housing don't have to worry as much about things like a bad credit score. Nonprofits are just more understanding than a typical landlord.

BERG: Trying to engage in a transactional relationship with a landlord is just asking a little much.

CAMHI: Master leasing has been around for decades. Cities across the U.S. adopted these programs amid the pandemic and rising homelessness. The Department of Housing and Urban Development released best practices guidance on it last year.

But some programs in other parts of the country have become notorious for their unlivable conditions. Lauren Hall leads a housing nonprofit in San Francisco.

LAUREN HALL: I think what we saw in the early days of master leasing here were sort of agreements that didn't really anticipate the true cost of operating the housing.

CAMHI: Hall says not all nonprofits are ready to be good landlords. Some organizations don't have the staff to do things like fix appliances or patch walls. They're already busy supporting people transitioning from homelessness.

Back in Portland, Marlon Crump says he doesn't plan on leaving his living situation any time soon.

CRUMP: How easy is it for anybody to get affordable housing these days when things are always rising up? So unless I come into some kind of mysterious inheritance, I'm going to be here for a while.

CAMHI: And that's OK. People could stay here forever. For this program, the next challenge is finding the money to scale it up and make more places where people want to live.

For NPR News, I'm Tiffany Camhi in Portland.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tiffany Camhi