Even with rental occupancy rates in the county hovering around 95 percent, landlords tell Lancaster Housing Opportunity Partnership Executive Director Ray D'Agostino they want more effective ways to connect with prospective renters.
In its new rental housing search engine, LHOP thinks it has exactly that.
The program, accessible via the “Housing Search” button on LHOP's home page, was created by SocialServe.com. The North Carolina-based nonprofit had its beginnings in a social worker's frustration with the process of helping his clients find housing. He developed a real-time rental database and then, finding demand for the service, started replicating it around the country, developing sites such as PaHousingSearch.com.
LHOP's version of the program is free to both renters and landlords, offering searches customizable by dozens of variables and side-by-side comparison. Searchers don't have to register, and a call center offers weekday support in English and Spanish for the online program.
On the landlord side, the program requires periodic confirmation via phone or email that listings are current. It can generate instant listings for use on other online classifieds, and the call center offers landlords market-rent comparisons.
“This is so much better than Craigslist,” says Nathan Roth, LHOP's housing resource center director.
The initial goal is for the program's utility to attract and be useful to many landlords and renters. The underlying goal, however, is why about 30 social workers showed up for one of several training sessions offered last week: They want to help the homeless and others who are at a disadvantage in the housing market find places to live.
The program won't just make it easier for those people to find suitable housing; there's also a section accessible only to registered social workers, where landlords can list rentals they want to reserve for that population.
“We've been looking forward to this,” says Roger Steffy, vice president for programs at Tabor Community Services.
The search engine is just one part of a larger effort spearheaded by the Lancaster County Coalition to End Homelessness, a network of local government, health and human service providers, business leaders and private-sector individuals committed to service coordination, advocacy, public education and community organizing.
Tabor launched the Community Homeless Assessment and Referral Team last year on behalf of LCCEH, and LHOP's new search engine is the result of a subcontract with CHART.
According to a 2013 Lancaster County Housing Market Analysis and Needs Study, 47.8 percent of the renter households in the county pay more than 30 percent of their income for rent, and nearly 72 percent of all Lancaster County households have a combined housing and transportation cost burden of 45 percent of income or higher. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, housing expenditures that exceed 30 percent of household income have historically been viewed as an indicator of a housing affordability problem.
“Renter demand by income ranges and rental supply by affordability ranges are not well-matched,” the study says. “In particular, households with incomes at or below 30 percent of the HUD Area Median Family Income are either under-housed or cost-burdened.”
Another new effort of note is the West Strawberry Street Neighborhood Revitalization Program, in which LHOP is partnering with Lancaster County Community Foundation, Impact! Missions, and the Building Industry Association of Lancaster County to purchase blighted properties, rehabilitate them and then sell them to qualified low- to moderate-income homebuyers.
Sarah Billings, a housing resource specialist at LHOP, says a program in development dubbed the Landlord Risk Reduction Fund is slated to roll out this fall to a pilot run of 10 households. It will offer landlords who agree not to charge a security deposit a guarantee to cover damages or arrears of up to two-and-a-half months of rent.
Roth says that, when questioned at a recent forum, about 85 percent of landlords in attendance said they would be interested in exploring such a program.
Lancaster Housing Opportunity Partnership’s new search engine offers the ability to search rental listings on the following criteria and more.
• Number of bedrooms and bathrooms
• Proximity to public transportation or a certain location
• Whether the landlord requires credit and criminal background checks
• What language the landlord speaks
• Available or waiting list
• Pet- or smoker-friendly
• Age restrictions
• Accepts rent subsidy or has income-based rates
• Appliances and utilities included