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With assist from Zillow, this nonprofit desires to alter the sport for high-risk renters

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Shkëlqim Kelmendi, executive director at Housing Connector. (Housing Connector Photo)

It’s no secret that there’s a housing crisis in the Seattle area. Bidding wars abound. Rents are up nearly 30% over last year. And only New York and Los Angeles have higher rates of homelessness.

Seattle nonprofit Housing Connector is trying to level the playing field for the region’s most vulnerable renters — even in the face of escalating housing shortages and soaring costs of living. 

“There’s no denying that we have a shortage of housing,” said Shkëlqim Kelmendi, executive director at Housing Connector. “At its core, this is an issue of supply and demand. But even with that shortage, there are opportunities.” 

Kelmendi said existing inventory is one of those opportunities. Housing Connector acts as a matchmaker of sorts, connecting landlords looking to fill vacant units and would-be renters who might not have perfect rental records due to eviction, low credit scores, or other factors that can contribute to homelessness. 

But unlike most matchmakers, this arrangement doesn’t end after introductions are made. Housing Connector acts as an insurer for the next two years, backing those renters that might be seen as too high-risk otherwise.

“We can’t control the circumstances that lead us into homelessness,” said Kelmendi, who first observed how the housing market is stacked against vulnerable people as a child, when he immigrated from Kosovo to the U.S. as a refugee. “For folks to be defined by that one metric, whether it’s credit score or eviction, it’s incredibly demoralizing.” 

Housing Connector focuses on addressing four main business concerns for landlords and property managers: Keeping units full, ensuring reliable rent payments, mitigating the risk of property damage, and maintaining healthy and safe communities.

As part of its program, Housing Connector guarantees rent payment and promises $5,000 in damage insurance. The organization also works with community partners to provide conflict mitigation, behavioral support, and other social services for renters. The ultimate goal is to keep renters housed long-term.

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Housing Connector has an ally in one Seattle-based tech powerhouse. The organization partnered with real estate giant Zillow to build and maintain the Zillow Affordable Housing Search Tool project. 

“Social issues like homelessness are nuanced, and require subject matter experts like our colleagues at Housing Connector,” wrote Zillow engineer Steven Kwan after the tool launched. “They had the expertise to do the work that we as a tech company can’t. This included building relationships and working with public offices, community partners, and property managers. We simply couldn’t replicate their experience.”

Zillow’s affordable housing search tool.

It’s one of many ways tech companies are stepping up to help alleviate the local housing crisis. Among many other efforts, a group of Seattle-area companies and philanthropies — including Microsoft, Amazon, Starbucks, and the Gates Foundation — recently announced they’ll put more than $10 million toward decreasing homelessness in Seattle.

But even with friends in high places, Housing Connector faced hurdles starting up — mainly COVID-19. The organization launched just as the pandemic was starting, and renters and landlords alike faced the monumental hurdles of lost wages and payments.

“We had two choices,” said Kelmendi. “It was either pivot and adapt, or die.”

“This is the break they didn’t think they were going to get.”

The organization made the call to double down on services like mediation and social assistance, and property managers responded enthusiastically. Housing Connector saw a sharp spike of interest from property partners during the early days of the pandemic.

Since that time, Housing Connector has helped house more than 2,600 people, many in the Seattle area. The organization recently expanded into Pierce County as well as Denver — and Kelmendi said that’s still just the beginning of an ambitious plan to make housing more accessible all over the county. 

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“From the start, we designed this product to be scaled,” he said. “Our goal and vision is that we’ll be in every major U.S. city in the next five to seven years.”

At the two-year mark, 70% of the people the organization has helped house are still living in those homes. Kelmendi said that metric is important, because finding someone housing is one thing. But keeping them housed takes a different set of solutions.

What do renters have to say? Kelmendi said the thing he hears about most often is complete surprise.

“This is the break they didn’t think they were going to get,” he said.

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