Updated October 24, 2023 at 11:22 AM ET

LOS ANGELES — Dan Valdez's mission can seem impossible. Every day, he's on the hunt for vacant units — lobbying landlords to take in some of the tens of thousands of unhoused people in one of the tightest and most expensive real estate markets in the U.S.

"There's cold-calling involved. There's knocking on doors. There's ... canvassing throughout L.A. County, which is a quite wide area," he says.

Valdez is with the nonprofit Brilliant Corners, which partners with L.A. County's Department of Health Services to act like a kind of real estate agency for the unhoused.

He heads a team of 12, and they also scout recent property transactions for potential vacant units. Their strategy is to have a stock of rent-ready apartments so that as soon as clients get their housing vouchers and documents in order, they can move right in.

It's a striking change from how tenants are usually matched with permanent housing. The job often falls to overburdened homelessness case managers with many other duties, and it can be a lengthy endeavor that requires intricate timing and luck. But L.A.'s model is spreading, in California and beyond, as more places desperately seek new ways to house a record number of people living on their streets.

How paying for an empty apartment pays off

On a recent midday, Valdez is checking out a new apartment in his portfolio, in a quiet area not far from downtown. He targets places in the sizes people need and the areas they want to live, close to transportation, shops and services. Clients can choose from up to three places, which helps get them housed more quickly.

This cozy apartment opens to a main room with a newly renovated kitchen, a small bedroom off one side and a bathroom on the other. "Very nice, remodeled unit as you can tell, and smells like new," he says.

Brilliant Corners actually negotiated to get the monthly rent down to $2,100 from $2,300. But here's something that really gives it an edge: The program can start paying rent right now — even if this place sits empty for up to two months.

"That, for a landlord, can be quite revolutionary," says Chris Contreras, the program's chief operating officer. "We're going to bring people to rent your unit [so] you don't have to market it. ... And we are stopping your vacancy loss almost immediately."

It was certainly a selling point for the landlord of this apartment.

Esther Kim owns three small buildings, and about half of her tenants use federal rental vouchers. But she says working with Valdez's team was so much easier because she didn't have to wait on all that red tape.

"The process takes forever," she says. "And then sometimes, if I have like a better tenant that's willing to come in right away, I'll be like, 'I'm sorry I'll just take that tenant.'"

California actually bans voucher discrimination, but it's hard to enforce and a major problem. In fact, many people lose their voucher because they can't find any landlord willing to take it, especially in this tight market. To try and speed up the process, L.A. Mayor Karen Bass won an agreement from federal officials this summer to relax rules around documentation, though they did not change the requirement for a property inspection.

Many Brilliant Corners clients have local vouchers that are more flexible. The program also tries to ease concerns landlords might have about tenants with poor credit or a criminal background. And it offers incentives, like two months rent for a security deposit in some cases.

"We've created repeat business relationships with landlords," Contreras says. "Whenever they have a vacancy, they're calling somebody at Brilliant Corners to ask if the unit is needed."

The program draws on state, local and federal funds, and its budget has grown to more than $200 million in recent years. On average, it places 192 people into permanent housing every month, and it's helped more than 12,000 people since it launched nearly a decade ago. A 2017 Rand study found that for every $1 invested in the program, the county saved $1.20 in healthcare and other social service costs for people experiencing homelessness.

But its job has gotten more challenging as affordable housing has become ever more scarce.

Despite massive spending on L.A. homelessness, there's still not nearly enough housing

Near Skid Row, up on the roof of the Los Angeles Community Action Network, homelessness advocate Pete White gestures to a skyline specked with new construction.

"There's some cranes over there, that's luxury housing," he says. "Over there, there's luxury housing."

Over the past decade, millions of low-cost rentals here and around the country have disappeared as rental costs spiked, according to a Harvard analysis. And the report finds the shift toward more expensive housing is especially dramatic in California. Experts say the growing shortage of affordable housing is a key driver of homelessness, which has steadily climbed to some 75,000 people across Los Angeles County.

"Housing for poor and working class people is still not the priority," White says. "And until that becomes the priority, we will continue to see informal settlements grow across the city."

Six years ago, L.A. voters did approve a $1.2 billion bond measure to build deeply subsidized permanent housing for the chronically homeless, and thousands of such units are finally starting to open. Mayor Bass also has pushed to speed up affordable housing development and make more city land available for it. But the need far outpaces such gains.

Even programs like Brilliant Corners can only help so much. Nationally, just a quarter of people who qualify for federal housing vouchers actually get them — often after a years long wait — and in L.A., the county estimates it's 1 in 10.

The growing homelessness numbers have put more focus on prevention. Los Angeles is even piloting a program that uses artificial intelligence to predict who's most at risk for losing housing and help before it happens.

This is why another key selling point for Brilliant Corners, for both funders and landlords, is its higher-than-average success rate at keeping tenants housed.

"It feels like a second family"

Tameka Swain has lived in a sunny apartment in Inglewood for three years, with a bedroom decorated in purple, her favorite color. Although after years of trauma, when she finally got her own place it felt too lonely and weird to sleep in it. "I used to sleep out in the living room all the time, on the couch," she says.

Swain lost housing after moving to L.A. with her teenage son. She found work at a nail salon, but it wasn't enough to cover rent. For a while they shuffled between living in a car and motels, and then Swain was convicted of theft.

"I panicked at the moment," she says. "Because I was like, I can't feed my son. I'm homeless. I don't know what's going to happen. I was scared."

After a two-year sentence and a short stay in a group home, she was connected to Brilliant Corners, which found this apartment.

The program can pay for move-in costs, including furniture if needed. There's also funding for unexpected needs, say if electricity rates go up or if a one-time expense makes it hard to pay rent one month — things that can snowball for someone on a tight budget.

Like all clients, Swain also gets lots of social support. That includes a case manager, mental health counseling for her depression and a housing coordinator whose job is to catch any problems that might put someone's lease at risk.

Lorena Magallanes says she shows up in person to see Swain and her other clients every few months. "Maybe they're off their meds," she says. "Maybe something, you know, is going on."

When Swain's stove went out recently, Magallanes helped her get a good replacement and says, "She was really excited about it because she likes to cook."

"It feels like a second family," Swain says, "somebody that I could call when I'm in need, to even talk or be around."

Even as homelessness numbers in Los Angeles keep rising, Swain is one success story. She's in her last year of film school, and has launched her own podcast called Cocktails and Stilettos.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

300x250 Ad

Support quality journalism, like the story above, with your gift right now.