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By Grace Lyden on Nov 19, 2014 at 11:25 p.m.
Forum Reporter

MOORHEAD - After more than a year of living in motels, Melissa Rood has a home again.

It took that long because every time Rood, 53, applied for an apartment, landlords rejected her based on bad credit and a poor reference. A previous property owner claimed she owed rent and other fees, which she plans to dispute in court.

For months, Rood stayed in a room with a broken toilet because the motel refused to move her.

But thanks to a new program that insures landlords who are willing to take a chance on tenants such as Rood, “I’m out of all that now,” she said.

“I have to pinch myself because it doesn’t even seem real,” she said from the couch of her duplex in Moorhead. She moved in a week ago Wednesday.

The landlord risk mitigation fund aims to help people like Rood, who are experiencing homelessness and can’t find their way out even after they’ve turned their lives around.

“I work with so many people that would love to have safety and housing but are unable to because of mistakes made in the past,” said Gina Kautz, homeless programs specialist with the Clay County Housing and Redevelopment Authority. She is on the fund’s five-member advisory board.

The fund, which has $30,000 committed to it, provides a form of insurance for landlords who agree to take tenants they wouldn’t normally accept.

These are people with no credit or bad credit, poor landlord references or criminal histories, said Laurie Baker, executive director of the FM Coalition for Homeless Persons, which created the fund.

Landlords who agree to participate can be reimbursed up to $3,000 for lost rent, property damage or insect infestation, she said.

Claims on the fund of a similar program in Seattle and King County are rare, Baker said, and she expects that will be the case here.

She’s confident, in part, because the program requires that a case manager check in with clients for their first two years in permanent housing. After two years, people are no longer covered by the fund.

“If you can get housing and you can keep it in good faith for a couple years, now you have something that another property manager can look at and say, ‘OK, I can take a chance on that,’ ” she said.

Gary Gonser, a real estate agent and representative of the faith community on the advisory board, agreed.

“That chance is what most of these people just don’t have,” he said.

Application process

Baker’s confidence in the risk mitigation fund also stems from its careful application process.

People do not apply directly to the fund, she said. They must already have a case manager who can recommend them and write a referral letter to the advisory board.

Case workers tend to know their clients’ backgrounds and the reasons they deserve another shot, Baker said.

“Most of the time … it’s not that they got behind on credit card bills,” Kautz said. “It’s often student loans, often medical bills that, for some reason or another, they got behind on … and they follow you forever.”

Baker acknowledged that the case worker requirement creates an additional hoop for some, but she said the fund has an obligation to landlords, too.

“If you don’t have somebody to vouch for you, we can’t take the risk either,” she said.

Gonser said the fund “looks for every reason to accept them,” but two applicants have been denied, one for a recent pattern of incarceration.

The fund’s greatest challenge has been that landlords remain reluctant.

Since starting in June, the board has approved 14 applicants – seven in Fargo and seven in Moorhead.

Of those, just four have found a landlord who agreed to participate. The others continue to search.

Housing-first model

Some of the applicants to the fund have jobs, but others are unable to work because of disabilities or homelessness.

“It’s kind of hard to get up and go to a job if you don’t have anywhere to shower and sleep comfortably,” said Melissa Hatle, a case manager in the PATH program at Lakeland Mental Health in Moorhead. She represented Rood in Rood’s application to the fund.

Having an address is important, Baker said, because “in our culture, we’re legitimated by having an address.”

Ordering a prescription requires an address, and job seekers are often turned down if their address is a homeless shelter, she said.

Shelters are not the answer for people experiencing long-term homelessness, Baker said.

“Emergency shelters are just Band-Aids to keep people from freezing to death,” she said.

Baker’s line of thinking fits into a larger approach called the housing-first model, which states that a long-term residence allows people to better address issues such as their health and employment.

“Once they have a place where they can breathe, then they can have the time and ability to work on the other things that might have contributed to their homeless history,” Kautz said.

Gonser takes a more romantic approach when he talks about the model.

“They’ve had maybe a rough past, but still, that doesn’t mean that we should not give them the opportunity that everyone else in this country has,” he said. “A home of their own, that’s their dream.”

After spending close to $20,000 on motels for a year of loud, sleepless nights, Rood would agree.

“This here guy (her landlord) gave me a chance, and I am so grateful to him,” she said, starting to cry. “So grateful to everyone who believed in me, and believed that I am worth it, that I’m not a lost cause.”