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Cities have a new target for ending homelessness: Landlords

Rental vouchers are only helpful if landlords are willing to take them. All too often, they’re not. But what if the government made it less risky?

Families wait years to get on the government’s waiting list for a rental voucher, sometimes while living in a homeless shelter. When they finally get that housing aid, they often struggle to find landlords willing to rent to them.

Most landlords screen out people who have a criminal background, poor credit or a history of evictions, making it difficult for voucher holders to find somewhere to live, even when they can afford rent. In fact, it’s common for people to lose their vouchers — which have expiration dates — after months of unsuccessful searching for a home.

To ease landlords’ worries and house more of the homeless, a growing number of cities are offering to reimburse landlords for certain losses — unpaid back rent or repairs for tenant-caused damages — that result from accepting applicants who have rental vouchers.

“Many, many communities are doing this, and it’s out of necessity,” says Elisha Harig-Blaine, who works on affordable housing issues at the National League of Cities. “They simply can’t get people placed into housing with these subsidies.”

This month, Boston and the District of Columbia announced their own “housing guarantee” or “risk mitigation” programs.

In Boston, the city will reimburse landlords for up to $10,000 in unpaid back rent or property damages that go beyond normal wear and tear. In D.C., a nonprofit is raising $500,000 in private funds to cover up to $5,000 in landlord costs per tenant. In both places, program staff will be available to address landlord complaints and provide case management for the tenants.

The question is, will that be enough to convince landlords to accept tenants who pay with rental vouchers?

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