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Does Tyrone Poole Have the Rental Housing Answer?

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There are always interesting ways to describe a dire situation, especially such a multi-faceted one as the nation’s affordable housing shortage. For example, in America today, more than 11 million households are giving more than half of their incomes for rent. It is an outrageous proportion, but they are among the lucky ones, to even have the opportunity of paying through the nose to keep their families sheltered.

The federal government can allocate funds and give vouchers to people experiencing homelessness, but it can’t make landlords accept those vouchers and rent them apartments. How could Washington alleviate that situation? Can the federal government educate and inspire landlords? This is an area where the “Act Locally” precept really matters.

People are out there trying to provide temporary shelter and permanent housing. A lot of the resistance manifests itself in zoning laws and other ordinances that are definitely a local concern. Activists need education and empowerment to challenge obstructive and regressive practices in their own cities.

February’s House the Homeless newsletter included an assessment of Ben Carson’s intentions as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and we send good wishes his way. Meanwhile, we look at what one individual has accomplished.

A housing hero

Due to a serious injury and devastating medical costs, young Tyrone Poole found himself homeless in Portland, Oregon. He faced a tight rental market, and every application he submitted required a fee of $30 or even $50. (In some places, crooked managers skim even more, or dishonest aggregators of classified ads sell lists of rentals that are weeks out of date.) The application fee is an ugly custom that should never have become established. People in search of housing are vulnerable, possibly new in town, and beset by many expenses. The cost of processing applications should be built into the landlord’s overall cost of doing business.

Poole saw the need for a service that would help people who don’t look like a very good bet as tenants. His goal was to connect them with property owners willing to rent to someone with an eviction history, or who carries the “felon” label, or to someone with nothing but a government rent voucher in their hand. An early attempt at collecting the necessary information and publishing it as a book did not work out because things changed too fast.

Poole started a different business, made it a success, sold it, and returned to the problem of matching needy people with available rental units and whatever assistance they might qualify for. By now, technology had advanced to where it was possible to create a website that could keep up with changes in real time.

A team of like-minded people joined Poole, who told reporter Andrew Scot Bolsinger:

They believe that I have actually created a market-driven solution to address the homeless problem nationwide. This is something that is funded by consumers and companies, that will never need government grants or donations or assistance in any way once launched.

The dream was for NoAppFee.com to became a “one-stop shopping website, where a single fee connects them to a range of landlords who will accept them.” Landlords paid a fee to list their properties, and the creators tried to amass additional funding through crowdsourcing, but that effort didn’t work. Determined to carry on, Poole told the reporter:

If this project is successful, I will be able to give this rental platform to every single nonprofit organization in America that provides housing assistance. Families will be able to get the keys to a new home as fast as the same day they walked into the shelter or housing program. The extent of their homelessness could be as short as a few hours when it used to be months.

Only last month Laura Bliss, a writer for CityLab.com, caught up with Poole’s project, whose ambitions have expanded to serving renters at every income level. Bliss writes:

A lender at a local bank introduced Poole to Portland’s economic development agency, which was launching a funding contest for civic-minded start-ups by entrepreneurs of color. Poole, who is black, entered in 2014 and won, gaining serious financial backing, free office space, and a host of tech-industry connections.

He signed up eight small management companies to beta-test the new version of NoAppFee.com, which keeps the promise implied by its name by refunding to prospective tenants their initial $35 fee (which pays for a credit and background check) once their first month’s rent has been paid. By the time the first month had passed, the site had 1,700 registered users but had run out of rental units and had to refund a lot of sign-up fees.

In Portland, 14,000 affordable housing units are overseen by the Portland Housing Bureau (PHB). The turnover rate is only about 25% per year, so in any given year there may be 3,500 openings. Yet somewhere around 80,000 local households qualify for these affordable housing slots.

PHB looked for a way to streamline its operations. Policy manager Matthew Tschabold told the reporter:

Someone seeking housing would regularly have to contact 10 to 20 organizations on a weekly basis to find out about vacancies. It was a big burden for people who are already low-income and struggling to live and work in our community.

The Housing Bureau won a cash grant that enabled it to hire Poole’s company, and they are working together to build a .gov website around NoAppFee’s software. Hopefully, it will launch within the year, and, at the same time, the general market version is being retooled. There is much more to know about this innovative program, which can be found on its Facebook page.

Reactions?

Source: “Once Homeless Entrepreneur Now Pairs High Risk Renters With Landlords,” YourBlackWorld.net, 04/10/14
Source: “A Portland Start-Up Is Smashing Barriers to Affordable Housing,” CityLab.com, 01/27/17
Image by Oregon Entrepreneurs Network