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PHAs Encourage Landlord Participation With Incentives

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Winter 2019   


PHAs Encourage Landlord Participation With Incentives


      • With benefits to landlords such as a 24-hour customer service hotline, vacancy and damage loss protection, and security deposit assistance, the Landlord Partnership Program in Marin County, California, has increased the lease-up rate for voucher holders.
      • Landlords are satisfied with the Cambridge Housing Authority’s service and its vacancy and damage payment incentives, which can help encourage landlords to rent to voucher recipients in high-opportunity areas.

For individuals and families participating in the Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program, the ability to secure housing that meets their needs depends on the willingness of landlords in the private market to accept vouchers. Landlords may be hesitant to lease to voucher recipients because of the program’s administrative burdens or misperceptions about tenants with vouchers. As a result, voucher holders may have fewer available housing options and be more concentrated in disadvantaged neighborhoods.1 To expand affordable housing options for voucher recipients, many public housing agencies (PHAs) are using incentives, streamlined administrative processes, and customer service support to encourage landlords to participate in the HCV program.2 With its Landlord Partnership Program, the Marin Housing Authority in California has been working to expand housing options for HCV tenants by providing landlords with security deposits, damage loss mitigation, vacancy loss protection, and a 24-hour customer service hotline, among other services. Through landlord education and vacancy and damage incentives, the Cambridge Housing Authority strives to mitigate uncertainty in leasing to voucher holders in a high opportunity area. These initiatives demonstrate that with financial safeguards and PHA support, landlords are amenable to leasing to voucher holders.

Partnering With Landlords in Marin County

The low rental vacancy rate in Marin County, California, coupled with the high-cost market, makes finding housing difficult for families.3 As of September 2018, the monthly median rent for a one-bedroom unit in Marin County was $2,940, considerably higher than the statewide median rent of $2,016.4 D’Jon Scott-Miller, HCV program manager at Marin Housing Authority (MHA), explains that housing in Marin is so expensive that many families “are working poor and cannot afford to live in the area where they work.”5 More than 2,000 families and individuals in Marin County’s competitive housing market used vouchers to rent units in 2015, but hundreds more had difficulty finding landlords who would accept their vouchers. Of the 192 vouchers issued from January to September 2016, only about 30 percent were used.6 To address these challenges, MHA convened a landlord advisory committee to brainstorm solutions and identify incentives to make the HCV program more appealing. With input from the committee, a working group composed of county and MHA officials and local landlords developed the Landlord Partnership Program (LPP).7 The program aims to expand rental housing options for low-income families and individuals in Marin County by providing incentives to landlords for participating in the HCV program and streamlining the administrative process.8 On July 26, 2016, the Marin County Board of Supervisors approved and funded the LPP with a contract to MHA.9 The program began as a two-year pilot from August 2016 through June 2018, and in August 2018, the board voted to renew the program for two more years.10 Before instituting the program, the board also unanimously passed a fair housing ordinance, effective December 2016, that prohibits landlords in unincorporated areas of Marin from advertising their preference for prospective tenants’ source of income (SOI).11

Encouraging Landlords

The working group identified three major barriers for landlords and tenants: security deposits, burdens during tenant vacancy, and the perception that voucher holders will damage units.12 To reduce these barriers, LPP offers security deposits, damage protection, and vacancy loss coverage as well as a customer service hotline and workshops. In the first 2 years of the program, MHA offered families up to $2,500 for security deposits. The renewed contract for the program allows MHA to cover security deposits up to the payment standard based on the number of bedrooms; security deposits must be returned to MHA when tenants move out if there are no damages. The program offers vacancy loss coverage up to the payment standard for the corresponding bedroom size to landlords who commit to rent to another voucher holder. Scott-Miller notes that these vacancy payments help ensure that landlords do not lose money while waiting for a new tenant.13 Landlords can also receive up to $3,000 per family for loss mitigation if a unit is damaged beyond normal wear and tear. The owner has 21 days to submit a claim to MHA with photos and estimates of the damage.14

As part of its outreach effort, MHA trains landlords in landlord/tenant issues and housing quality standards (HQS) inspections.15 MHA has also partnered with Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California to conduct future training sessions and share information about LPP. MHA’s quarterly newsletters also provide useful tips and information on maintaining rental properties.16 Landlords can call a dedicated 24-hour answering service or email inquiries to an address exclusive to owners.17 An online portal also provides information on inspections and housing assistance payments.18 The landlord advisory committee continues to inform MHA of the types of training sessions, outreach, and program improvements that are most useful for landlords.19

Photo of two dozen people seated at round tables in front of a large screen showing a presentation.

A critical component of the Landlord Partnership Program is outreach to landlords to ensure that they have the resources necessary to maintain their properties and forge positive relationships with tenants. Marin Housing Authority

MHA also offers landlords loans of up to $35,000 to rehabilitate units.20 Landlords do not have to repay the loan unless they sell their property or decide to rent to tenants without vouchers.21 Landlords with properties in unincorporated areas of the county are eligible for waivers or reductions of building permit fees if at least half of the units meet affordability standards. The fee waivers or reductions are prorated based on the percentage of affordable units in the property.22

Realizing Positive Outcomes

LPP has exceeded its goals in several areas. The Board of Supervisors determined that tenants’ ability to use their vouchers increased by 22 percent from June 2015 to June 2018.23 Since the program launched, a total of 103 landlords have participated, and 123 additional families have been housed under the program.24 Before LPP launched, the percentage of voucher holders who successfully found appropriate housing was 30 percent.25 The success rate grew to 59.52 percent in October 2018, and more families are able to use their vouchers within the county, according to Scott-Miller.26 From July 2016 through June 2018, 1,193 families and individuals received vouchers, and 707 of them used their vouchers to secure housing. Of the successful voucher holders, about 53 percent leased units within 30 days.27 As of June 2018, the landlord liaison answering service responded to 100 percent of the calls in person, 7 days a week. All calls were answered by a receptionist trained to respond to frequently asked questions; more detailed inquiries were redirected to three other staff members.28 MHA largely credits the LPP, along with tenant education and housing search assistance, for the rise in the lease-up rate.29

The three services that have increased utilization rates the most are security deposit assistance, vacancy loss coverage, and damage loss mitigation. Vacancy loss coverage and security deposit assistance are the most widely used services; in LPP’s first year, the program used nearly all the money allocated for these services. In 2017, MHA asked the Board of Supervisors to reallocate the funds reserved for voluntary rent guidelines to increase security deposit assistance from $125,000 to $180,000, vacancy loss coverage from $30,000 to $85,000, and damage mitigation from $64,000 to $89,000.30 The board approved the reallocation, and as of June 2018, MHA’s expenditures on security deposits exceeded 100 percent of the allocation, whereas damage mitigation and vacancy loss payments expended 58 percent and 72 percent, respectively, of the funds allotted. LPP’s successes have garnered national attention; in 2018, MHA received three HUD awards: Landlord Outreach and Customer Service, Housing Choice Voucher Program of the Year, and Housing Choice Voucher High Performer.31

Although LPP has faced few challenges, Scott-Miller notes that, because the program depends on county funding, ongoing uncertainty persists about how long the program can be sustained.32 Scott-Miller explains that rent increases, already a challenge for the HCV program, have led to a funding shortfall, leaving MHA unable to issue new vouchers.33 From 2016 to 2018, the fair market rent (FMR) for a one-bedroom unit in the San Francisco, California area rose from $1,814 to $2,499.34 The 2018 FMRs reflect the local rental market and make “MHA participants much more competitive with renters on the open market,” according to Scott-Miller.35

MHA continues to work to mitigate landlords’ perceived stigma toward voucher holders and dispel the perception that voucher tenants will damage units. To this end, landlord outreach, information dissemination, and loss mitigation have been useful tools.36

Photo of a three-story apartment building with second- and third-floor balconies.
Cambridge Housing Authority’s incentives to landlords, such as vacancy and damage payments, help increase housing options for voucher families who might otherwise have to return their unused vouchers.

Landlord Incentives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

The Cambridge Housing Authority (CHA) in Massachusetts offers long-term rental housing and rental assistance for more than 7,700 low-income families, seniors, and disabled individuals.37 As a Moving to Work (MTW) agency, CHA has the ability to develop and test strategies focused on self-sufficiency and expanded housing choice for low-income families and individuals.38 According to Hannah Lodi, director of leased housing at CHA, the MTW designation grants the agency the flexibility to “observe what is going on in our community and target policies and programs accordingly.”39 The end of rent control and an economic boom brought about a tight rental market in Cambridge that hindered low-income residents from successfully finding units.40 In 2016, the estimated rental vacancy rate in Cambridge was 3.5 percent.41 In August 2018, the monthly median rent for a one-bedroom apartment was $2,337 — about $1,000 higher than the national median.42 CHA has sought to overcome these difficult market conditions by finding ways to encourage landlords to accept vouchers.43 In its inaugural 2000 MTW Annual Plan, CHA authorized issuing vacancy and damage payments to landlords who agree to rent to HCV holders.44

Issuing Payments

A landlord can agree in writing to accept a reduced security deposit that does not exceed the tenant’s portion of the rent or $200, whichever is higher. If a unit is damaged beyond normal wear and tear, the landlord should provide CHA with a written statement indicating that the cost to repair the damage would exceed the value of the security deposit. Upon receiving the written notice, CHA will inspect the damage within five business days. The landlord must itemize each damaged item and the cost to repair it and notify the tenant of the charges within 30 days after moving out of the apartment. The tenant has 15 days to refute the charges in writing. If the tenant does not respond to the charges, CHA will pay the landlord for all damage incurred in excess of the security deposit. Any tenant rejections of the charges are referred to the director of leased housing for a final decision. Landlords can receive vacancy and damage payments only after a lease is issued to a new voucher holder.45 If the landlord waives the security deposit entirely and there are tenant damages, CHA will pay the landlord up to one month’s full contract rent as compensation.46 If a tenant vacates a unit without prior notice, landlords can receive up to 80 percent of one month’s contract rent if they waive the last month’s rent at lease-up. If a new tenant moves in during the middle of a month, the vacancy payment is prorated.47

Photo of a man-made canal flanked by high-rise buildings in urban Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The vacancy and damage payments through the Cambridge Housing Authority, along with guaranteed housing assistance payments, can make the Housing Choice Voucher program attractive to landlords in such a high-opportunity area.

Engaging Landlords

Lodi stresses that overcoming misperceptions about voucher holders through landlord education is critical. CHA educates landlords about the various incentives it offers. Tenants also receive information about the incentives to share with landlords who might be unsure about renting to HCV holders.48 On 38 occasions in 2016, CHA issued damage and vacancy payments totaling $40,401 to landlords.49 Mackenzie Gray, leasing officer II at CHA, notes that as a high-opportunity area, market rent in Cambridge far exceeds what landlords can get renting to voucher tenants, but the vacancy and damage payments combined with the security of knowing that housing assistance payments are guaranteed can make the HCV program appealing.50 CHA regularly conducts landlord surveys to determine areas for improvement and overall customer service satisfaction. As part of broader strategic planning in fall 2017, a CHA survey of several stakeholders, including landlords, determined that “a strong majority of landlords were happy with our level of service to them,” says Lodi.51

Breaking Barriers

The 2018 FMR for a one-bedroom unit in the Boston-Cambridge-Quincy metropolitan area was $1,421, up from $1,372 in 2017.52 Although the basic range for payment standards is 90 to 110 percent of FMR, CHA currently sets its payment standards at above 120 percent of FMR.53 Gray notes that even with the higher payment standard, recipients still have difficulty using their vouchers because Cambridge is a high-cost market, and landlords may prefer to lease to a tenant who is able to pay the full market rent. An increased payment standard often results in fewer people served. According to Lodi, as FMRs increase, it is important that participants can still find units and that CHA can pay for them.54

Photo of a woman and young girl smiling in the courtyard of a residential building.
The Landlord Partnership Program has contributed to the increase in the number of voucher families who have successfully found housing in Marin County, California.

Lodi points out that PHAs must be attuned to the characteristics of their local markets when implementing similar initiatives. No “one size fits all approach” exists, and PHAs must step back from their preconceived notions about where tenants want to live, she says. Currently, more than half of CHA’s tenant-based voucher holders are using their vouchers outside of the city of Cambridge because they could not locate an affordable unit or a landlord willing to accept their voucher within the city. To address this issue, CHA has used its MTW authority to partner with nonprofit affordable housing owners to increase the number of project-based units in Cambridge. Although this strategy has preserved many units in Cambridge and allowed participants to remain in the city, CHA also acknowledges the value of preserving tenant-based vouchers to give participants more flexibility. Some voucher holders who needed to move out of Cambridge have indicated a desire to return, even if it means giving up the mobility of the tenant-based voucher to move into a project-based unit. Others have established a sense of community elsewhere and were not willing to uproot.55


The success of landlord incentives in Marin County and Cambridge demonstrates that through financial assistance, education, and streamlined administrative processes, the HCV program can be appealing to landlords. According to Scott-Miller, the cornerstone of Marin’s success is “partnership,” and the Landlord Partnership Program could not have accomplished positive outcomes without the full support of the county leadership and staff.56 By offering vacancy and damage payments to landlords, CHA is working to increase housing options in a high-cost market. Marin and Cambridge offer useful models for other PHAs looking to develop similar initiatives based on their local market conditions.

  1. Lance Freeman. 2011. "The Impact of Source of Income Laws on Voucher Utilization and Locational Outcomes," U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Policy Development and Research, vii.
  2. Quadel Consulting Corporation. 2001. "Utilization," in Housing Choice Voucher Program Guidebook.  Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 24-12–5.
  3. U.S. Census Bureau. "Selected Housing Characteristics: 2012–2016 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates" ( Accessed 13 November 2018.
  4. Zillow Home Values. 2018a. "Marin County Home Prices & Values" ( Accessed 4 December 2018; Zillow Home Values. 2018b. "California Home Prices & Values" ( Accessed 4 December 2018. 
  5. Email correspondence with D’Jon Scott-Miller, 18 October 2018.
  6. Damon Connolly. 2016. "Join Us on Oct. 5 as We Work to Preserve Affordable Housing in Marin," District 1 Newsletter, 4–5.
  7. Email correspondence with D’Jon Scott-Miller, 18 October 2018.
  8. Marin Housing Authority. "Landlord Partnership Program" ( Accessed 2 July 2018.
  9. County of Marin. 2017a. "Report on Work Plan Implementation Status," 2.
  10. Email correspondence with D’Jon Scott-Miller, 18 October 2018; County of Marin. 2018a. "Landlord Incentives Programs Renewed with County’s Local Partners," press release, 9 August.
  11. County of Marin. 2016a. "Supervisors Pass Fair Housing Ordinance," press release, 9 November.
  12. County of Marin. 2018b. "Marin County/Marin Housing Authority Landlord Partnership," 1.
  13. Email correspondence with D’Jon Scott-Miller, 18 October 2018 and 5 November 2018.
  14. Email correspondence with D’Jon Scott-Miller, 5 November 2018; Marin Housing Authority.
  15. County of Marin. 2017b. "Annual Report: Landlord Partnership Program, September 1, 2016 – June 30, 2017."
  16. Email correspondence with D’Jon Scott-Miller, 18 October 2018.
  17. County of Marin. 2016b. "New Program Rolls Out for Marin’s Landlords on October 5," press release, 29 September; Email correspondence with D’Jon Scott-Miller, 18 October 2018.
  18. County of Marin 2017b.
  19. Email correspondence with D’Jon Scott-Miller, 18 October 2018.
  20. Email correspondence with D’Jon Scott-Miller, 5 November 2018.
  21. Email correspondence with D’Jon Scott-Miller, 18 October 2018.
  22. Marin Housing Authority; County of Marin. 2016c. "Board of Supervisors Hearing: Landlord Incentives and Voluntary Rent Guidelines," 26 July, 6.
  23. County of Marin. 2018c. "Landlord Incentives Programs Renewed with County’s Local Partners," press release, 9 August.
  24. Email correspondence with D’Jon Scott-Miller, 18 October 2018.
  25. Quadel Consulting Corporation, 24-4; County of Marin 2018a, 2.
  26. Email correspondence with D’Jon Scott-Miller, 18 October 2018.
  27. Quadel Consulting Corporation, 24-4; County of Marin 2018a, 2.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Email correspondence with D’Jon Scott-Miller, 18 October 2018.
  30. County of Marin 2017a, 3.
  31. County of Marin 2018d, 2.
  32. Email correspondence with D’Jon Scott-Miller, 18 October 2018.
  33. Email correspondence with D’Jon Scott-Miller, 25 October 2018.
  34. HUD User. "FY 2018 Fair Market Rent Documentation System" ( Accessed 15 October 2018; HUD User. "Final FY 2016 Fair Market Rent Demonstration System" ( Accessed 6 November 2018.
  35. Email correspondence with D’Jon Scott-Miller, 25 October 2018.
  36. County of Marin 2018b, 1.
  37. Cambridge Housing Authority. "About" ( Accessed 24 October 2018; Email correspondence with Hannah Lodi, 5 November 2018.
  38. Cambridge Housing Authority. "Moving to Work" ( Accessed 24 October 2018.
  39. Interview with Hannah Lodi, 4 October 2018.
  40. Interview with Hannah Lodi; The Council of Large Public Housing Authorities. 2001. "Testimony of Michael Johnston, Director of Leasing and Occupancy for the Cambridge Housing Authority, Cambridge, Massachusetts," 1.
  41. U.S. Census Bureau.
  42. City of Cambridge. "Demographics and Statistics FAQ" ( Accessed 6 November 2018; Zillow Home Values. 2018c. "United States Home Prices & Values" ( Accessed 4 December 2018.
  43. Interview with Hannah Lodi.
  44. Cambridge Housing Authority. 2018. "Moving to Work Annual Plan 2018," B33–4; Cambridge Housing Authority. 2008. "Moving to Work Annual Report: Fiscal Year 2008," 5.
  45. Cambridge Housing Authority. 2017. "Administrative Plan for the Federal Housing Choice Voucher Program: Part 1 — Tenant and Project Based Vouchers," 11-3–4, 14-4–5.
  46. Email correspondence with Hannah Lodi, 15 October 2018.
  47. Cambridge Housing Authority 2017, 14-4.
  48. Interview with Hannah Lodi; Interview with Mackenzie Gray, 4 October 2018.
  49. Cambridge Housing Authority 2018, B34.
  50. Interview with Mackenzie Gray.
  51. Interview with Hannah Lodi.
  52. HUD User. "FY 2018 Fair Market Rent Documentation System."
  53. Interview with Hannah Lodi.
  54. Interview with Mackenzie Gray; Interview with Hannah Lodi.
  55. Interview with Hannah Lodi.
  56. Email correspondence with D’Jon Scott-Miller, 18 October 2018.


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The contents of this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Government.