Housing first model good for landlords, essential for vulnerable people, homelessness conference hears

A national conference on homelessness in Canada will hear Thursday about a way to find housing for homeless people and provide a reliable source of income for private landlords.

National Conference on Ending Homelessness to hear about important role of private landlords

Housing first can benefit both vulnerable people and landlords, attendees will hear at the National Conference on Ending Homelessness will hear Thursday. (Michael Charles Cole/CBC)

A national conference on homelessness in Canada will hear Thursday about a way to find housing for homeless people and provide a reliable source of income for private landlords.

Housing first is a strategy that's slowly spreading across Canada. According to Tim Richter, president and CEO of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, it's in about 40 communities.

At the National Conference on Ending Homelessness in Winnipeg, attendees will hear about ways to convince landlords that taking part in housing first approaches is not as risky as it may seem.

Housing first is a philosophy that believes challenges like addiction and mental health problems are best addressed once a person has a home. It focuses on first providing stable housing for the homeless, followed by making individualized supports and services available.

The strategy can make a huge difference in the life of someone living on the streets but may also benefit hard-nosed, private landlords as well, advocates say.

Program has helped more than 300 hard-to-house people

"We can make the guarantee that their rent will be paid on time and in full," said Angela McNulty-Buell, one of Thursday's presenters. She handles outreach at Pacifica Housing. The Victoria-based program has helped more than 300 hard-to-house people live independently in the private-rental market. 

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After about 15 years operating housing first programs, Pacifica has a 100 per cent landlord retention rate, meaning landlords stay on with the program year after year, said McNulty-Buell.

About 83 per cent of their clients remain housed after a year as well.

Pacifica prides itself on being responsive, even on weekends, when landlords have complaints. The program has a landlord liason worker whose sole job is to reach out and provide "wrap-around" support to property managers, said McNulty-Buell. It also has a fund dedicated to fixing damage caused by tenants.

"The landlords have one person to contact. They have a direct line when there are concerns happening," McNulty-Buell said.

CBC reported on a housing first horror story in Ottawa this week. After a landlord signed up with a city program, his unit ended up completely trashed after seven months. Garbage and human feces littered the floor.

Situations like that are rare and can be prevented with frequent visits from caseworkers, said McNulty-Buell.

For clients cycling through a difficult time, Pacifica will make daily home visits to ensure clients don't lose their housing or damage it.

"It's in everyone's best interest to step up that intensive case management, be available and be present, when things start to go sideways."

It's that kind of assurance landlords like Avrom Charach said make all the difference for housing first. He was involved in an early housing first program in Winnipeg in 2009. His company ended up housing between five and 10 tenants that year.

Every tenant a risk: landlord

Even though housing first tenants may have serious issues to deal with (because of privacy concerns landlords are not told in advance what those are), sometimes they can be better tenants than the average renter in Winnipeg, he said.

"You're taking a chance with every single individual you bring into your apartment building," he said. "If the right supports are there, you're probably taking a smaller risk with a housing first person."

While that risk is lower because agencies like Pacifica make sure rent is paid, there are still risks associated with damage and noise-complaint issues, he said.

Landlords need to know they have someone to call who can help deal with clients if, say, on a Sunday they have a psychotic episode. That didn't exist in Winnipeg's program in 2009, said Charach.

"If [a] problem happened at 7 p.m. on a Friday night, you'd be waiting until Monday before there was any formal support available."

Overall, Charach said about half of the housing first tenants that year did work out. As a spokesperson for the Professional Property Managers Association, he still encourages other landlords in the city to explore the idea of housing vulnerable people — and not just because it can be a stable source of revenue.

"We should be part of the solution along with everyone else," he said.

Charach is optimistic talks underway between landlords, the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, the province, End Homelessness Winnipeg and others will see a new housing first program in the city sometime soon.

The National Conference on Ending Homelessness runs until Friday at the RBC Convention Centre.


Laura Glowacki is a reporter based in Ottawa. Previously, she worked as a reporter in Winnipeg and as an associate producer for CBC's Metro Morning in Toronto. Find her on Twitter @glowackiCBC and reach her by email at