October 3, 2017

From Homeless Shelter to Home: VHDA's Renter Ed Helps Pave the Way

After 35 years in the business of helping others, Deb Rapone will tell you she was skeptical that an online program could have any real value in helping people move out of a homeless shelter. But Rapone, who directs the SERVE Family Shelter in Northern Virginia, has become a fan of VHDA's online Renter Education program. The program features a nine-chapter eBook, "How to be a Successful Renter," and Rapone is using it to help shelter guests prepare for the eventual transition to renting a home and independent living.

Shelter guests face many challenges when looking for rentals, according to Rapone. The biggest challenge is actually locating affordable rooms, apartments or houses to rent. But shelter guests face other barriers as well, including limited income, previous evictions or judgments, debt, poor credit scores and in some cases, past convictions.

"Some have failed so many times relative to renting that they think they will never find a place and cannot succeed as a renter," Rapone said. But the VHDA program is bringing back hope.

"We use the program's Certificate of Completion as a tool with landlords, and it has helped us many times," said Rapone. "When we have a landlord who is on the fence with accepting a certain guest due to any of their past challenges, we use the certificate as a demonstration of the guest's commitment to bettering their situation and educating themselves about their responsibilities as a tenant."

According to LaDonna Cruse, VHDA's Housing Education Manager, the effort to improve shelter-to-rental conversions began in 2013, when eight statewide roundtable discussions were held to assess the needs of more than 700 industry professionals. The resulting Renter Education program covers renters' rights and responsibilities, common misunderstandings, challenges, barriers, landlord/tenant issues, and Fair Housing concerns. The eBook is sprinkled with tips, alerts, examples and resources, and focuses on three core principles: pay your rent on time, maintain the property, and adhere to all lease provisions. The eBook is available as a free download at vhda.com/RenterEd, and can be used by property managers, housing counselors, educators and others to enhance their own housing programs, as Rapone is doing at the shelter.

The SERVE Family Shelter is part of Northern Virginia Family Service (NVFS), which also receives housing counseling and homeless assistance grants from VHDA. With 92 beds, it's the area's largest family homeless shelter, and more than 40 percent of the residents are children. The shelter offers its guests a short-term place to stay, as they work toward independent living.

"Everything we do here for each guest who comes through our doors is intended to address and assist in resolving whatever is preventing them from getting into stable housing," said Rapone. "Not only has [VHDA's Renter Education program] become a very important educational tool for us, but it also helps keep the guests focused on why they are here: HOUSING!"

Since its publication in 2015, VHDA's free Renter Education eBook has been downloaded more than 2,600 times.

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