Dec 17, 2021

Property Owners and Managers Participating in the Zero Balance Project

Family Housing Fund partnered with HousingLink, CliftonLarsonAllen, and five local jurisdictions (Hennepin, Dakota, and Ramsey Counties and the Cities of Saint Paul and Minneapolis) to administer federal emergency rent assistance dollars through the Zero Balance Project this year. In this program, landlords initiate the application process on behalf of their tenants in order to streamline the process and relieve some of the burden from renters in crisis.

We recently talked with three landlords who have applied for rent assistance through the program. While they each have different stories, they all expressed gratitude to be able to help their renters stabilize their finances.

One owner says that he has recommended the Zero Balance Project to “dozens upon dozens” of other people. When the pandemic first hit Minnesota, he offered all of his tenants free release from their leases so that they could move if they thought they could no longer afford to pay rent. Since then, a couple households out of his 32-unit portfolio have fallen behind on rent. The owner eliminated late fees and worked with a renter to apply for rent assistance through a different program in 2020. “I ended up doing most of the work of that application,” he says. “It was much easier for me to do it because I already had the information.”

When another tenant fell behind on rent this year, he turned to the Zero Balance Project to utilize its landlord-based application. During the application and approval process, he used his retirement savings to pay the mortgage. “This makes me whole,” he says about the Zero Balance payment. “It made it so that my tenant didn’t lose her home. If you have people who are good tenants, you want to keep them.”

“It’s tough enough to run a business; you put your personal investment, time, everything else into it,” he says. Yet he feels rewarded by it, especially when tenants walk into homes after he has worked on renovations. “They’re wowed that they get to live here. As a housing provider, I make a difference in people’s lives. I can see it.”

Passionate about ending homelessness, another property owner leases to individuals who were formerly homeless or facing homelessness, and helps connect them to employment and other opportunities. Throughout the pandemic, tenants of his two single-family rentals have lost work and struggled to find new jobs, missing rent or making only partial rent payments for months. The owner fell behind on bills and made personal sacrifices to stay afloat but says, “the last the thing I want to do is kick them out. I’m not a stranger to these people – I’m connected to them. I want the best for them.” 

When one tenant told him about the Zero Balance Project, they worked together to complete an application. “The landlord helpline made a huge difference,” he says. Through the helpline, he learned that he could apply for assistance for the renters of his second property at the same time. 

Help from the Zero Balance Project allowed him to pay his property taxes, late fees on utilities, and his plumber. “This buys me time to catch up so that I’m not financially ruined,” he says, as well as time for his tenants to find stability.

“I want them to stay in these homes. This is where they want to be. They love those houses, and they love the community. I want to do that, but I can’t do it for free.” 

Another owner-applicant in the Zero Balance Project is the founder of a growing development company dedicated to serving BIPOC communities and turning overlooked buildings into community assets. His company purchased a 25-unit building in 2020 with plans to renovate it without displacing the tenants or affecting its affordability (most of the tenants earn between 30-50% of the area median income). “The tenants want to be here, and I’m personally invested in making sure that they’re able to be successful in our spaces,” he says.

Several tenants have been unable to pay rent since his company purchased the building, making it difficult to continue operating and maintaining it. Realizing that many of his tenants do not have access to the internet or to a device to apply for rent assistance online, the owner initiated an application to the Zero Balance Project. “I personally door-knocked to help tenants get through the Zero Balance Project,” he says. Now, their application is in review, and he says he appreciates the transparency and responsiveness of the program.

Since taking over the building, several repair needs have come up – “one thing after the next” – including a broken furnace, a broken elevator, a leaking roof, and pest control issues. As he makes repairs and improvements throughout the building, the owner says he is building trust, a neighborly culture, and a strong community with his tenants. But without rent payments, it’s difficult to continue; he can’t afford to hire a plumber to address a recent sewage backup, so he is teaching himself to take care of it instead.

“Zero Balance will help us close the gap, help us catch up,” he says, so that he can continue operating the building and move forward with rehab plans, which include creating a community room with computers and printers. His company is also planning to build 36 new units neighboring the building, which will support the economic viability of their work and provide more homes for the community. He is beginning to reach out to tenants for feedback on the rehab and development plans. With more plans and aspirations to create jobs, expand access to education, and offer health and wellness resources for his tenants, he says, “We can create an ecosystem for upward mobility.”

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