Friday, December 20, 2013

Connecticut group trains renters and landlords to ‘bridge the divide’

Helping residents of its diverse community achieve homeownership is a core mission of Neighborhood Housing Services of New Britain (CT). In fact, the organization – which celebrated its 35th anniversary this year – was chosen to participate in NeighborWorks America’s pilot program when it first started training housing counselors in 1982.

But homeownership isn’t feasible or the desired option for some people, and as Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies reported this month, there is a growing shortage of affordable rental units. According to the report, the share of renters paying more than a third of their incomes for housing, traditionally considered the minimum threshold of affordability, rose to 50 percent in 2010. Much of the increase was among renters facing severe burdens (paying more than half of their incomes for housing) – a group now representing nearly 27 percent of tenants. 

That reality can be seen in central Connecticut as well. The area, which has a large population of Hispanic and Polish immigrants (giving the neighborhood around the organization’s office the nickname, “Little Poland”), has lost a lot of manufacturing operations over the years and now relies on service businesses for its livelihood. Unemployment is nearly 12 percent.  

The mission of Neighborhood Housing Services of New Britain is to help fill the gap in the supply of affordable housing – in part, through developing rental units, of which it now manages 25. The goal, says Executive Director Maureen Voghel, is to add 10 plus units annually for the next three years, along with two to four single-family homes. 

However, renting poses unique challenges – for both tenants and landlords. And while counseling is offered by many organizations for new homeowners, such training rarely is provided to people on both sides of the renting “equation.” NHS of New Britain is taking the lead by offering preparation classes for both existing and prospective renters and landlords.

“Sometimes, renters become landlords themselves,” observes Evelyn Branch, supervisor of Homeownership and Foreclosure programs for NHS. “It can make sense, once they are ready to purchase, to buy a multi-family unit – like a duplex – and rent out the extra space for some income. But becoming a landlord isn’t easy.”

Participants in the NHS-NB training class for landlords
hear from a police officer.
In the last year, the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority began requiring landlords to receive education on their responsibilities, and with the closest alternative site a less-frequent program in Hartford, the NHS class attracts a regular attendance of about a dozen for each monthly, three-hour session.

The “Landlord 101” workshop, says Branch, covers everything from making the decision to purchase a rental unit and become a landlord, to how to screen tenants, maintain the property, manage their finances and – if necessary – evict residents in accordance with the appropriate protocols. Recently, the curriculum was supplemented to include the importance of green maintenance practices to keep costs low for everyone.

In October, NHS began offering a similar class, but for tenants. In the tenant class, participants discuss how to effectively communicate concerns to their landlords, ways they can bring down energy costs and their rights during eviction. In the future, NHS hopes to forge a partnership with other community-based organizations to provide legal services through pro bono attorneys to both tenants and landlords.

“It’s a two-way street,” explains Branch. “Both have rights, and both have responsibilities. But no one prepares them for that. Our goal is to help them build a good, professional relationship, based on open communication. ”

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