As a development economist in Washington, D.C., Clara Else dedicated her career to studying the causes of poverty in third-world countries and finding ways to alleviate the situation.
When she retired and moved to Guerneville with her husband and son in 2007, she continued to combat poverty, volunteering at winter shelters and later joining the board of the now-defunct Sonoma County Task Force for the Homeless. The group aimed at ending homelessness in the county.
In 2015, Else and her husband learned of another way to help Sonoma County’s displaced population. They offered to rent two three-bedroom units blocks away from downtown Guerneville to homeless people through Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa, the county’s largest service provider.
“If you walk around and talk to (homeless) people, you realize the issue is so bad. You realize it’s a horribly painful way to live… You do it because you know there’s people that are just really suffering,” Else said about renting to the homeless.
Catholic Charities is searching for landlords like Else, who are willing to rent to homeless individuals.
It launched a new landlord incentive program to encourage more property owners to rent to Santa Rosa’s homeless, a group that has long struggled competing for housing in Sonoma County’s tight and costly rental market, said Jennielynn Holmes, the nonprofit’s senior director of shelter and housing. The problem only has worsened since last year’s wildfires, which destroyed more than 3,000 homes in Santa Rosa alone.
“We knew after the fires we were dealing with a whole new housing market,” Holmes said.
In addition to the housing shortage, low income, bad credit and an inability to pay a security deposit also can impede a homeless person’s ability to secure housing, Holmes said.
The new program aims at alleviating some of those problems, helping tenants cover their security deposits and a portion of their rent, as well as send case managers to their homes free of cost to address ongoing mental or physical health problems.
The Santa Rosa City Council set aside $534,000 of the city’s budget in June to fund the landlord incentive program for a year.
In exchange for renting to homeless people, landlords will be offered incentives such as signing bonuses ranging from $500 to $1,000 and access to a pool of money if their property is damaged or destroyed by the tenant.
“We knew we needed to see things from the landlord perspective,” Holmes said. “We asked, ‘What are things we can put in place to make it easier for them to work with our population?’’
Catholic Charities last week began recruiting landlords to participate in the program. The nonprofit used some of the city’s funding to hire five real-estate experts to recruit and inform landlords about the program, as well as deal with any maintenance issues that arise.
The landlords will enter into a lease agreement with both the tenant and Catholic Charities, which will pay the property owner the rent directly and conducts monthly inspections of the home.
Only those who are homeless in Santa Rosa are eligible to participate since the city is funding the program, though Catholic Charities will seek landlords from throughout Sonoma County, Holmes said.
A Sonoma County homeless survey published in July found 1,563 unhoused people lived in Santa Rosa’s city limits, about 52 percent of the entire homeless population in the county.