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Some landlords are hesitant to rent to asylum seekers. One program is trying to change that

The view of a residential street through the window of a first floor apartment.
Ari Snider
Maine Public
The view from Claudine's apartment in Portland. Claudine asked that she not be photographed for this story, a common request among people whose asylum cases are ongoing.

Sitting at her kitchen table recently, Claudine, an asylum seeker from Rwanda, described what she likes about her new home, a modest one-bedroom apartment close to downtown Portland.

"First of all," Claudine said in French. "My apartment is very pretty."

We’re only using her first name, to protect her identity while her asylum case is still open.

When she arrived in Maine early this year, the city of Portland placed Claudine in overflow housing in a motel. After living there for seven months, Claudine was finally able to move into her own apartment through a program called Project HOME, which has secured long-term housing for a couple hundred asylum seekers.

"A lot of it is just the demystifying, 'What does it mean to rent to someone who has a subsidy?'" said Victoria Morales, executive director of the Quality Housing Coalition, which runs Project HOME.

Part of its approach, she said, is to help landlords navigate rental guidelines through municipal general assistance programs. It also promises to cover up to $2,000 in case of damages or a broken lease, and pairs each tenant with a housing mentor for one year, who acts as a liaison with the landlord.

"Upfront investment in the landlord-tenant relationship really sets the stage for a good tenancy and one that is likely to be successful," Morales said.

And it's opened the door for landlords like Sarah Harrington , who showed me around her property in Portland’s Back Cove neighborhood this fall.

"We have a philosophy that we kind of share all the toys. So there are toys everywhere as a result, there's a little basketball hoop, there's a little slide, there's a kitchen," Harrington said as we walked across the lawn.

Harrington and her husband live with their young daughter in one of three units, and rent out the other two. When several hundred asylum seekers arrived in Portland a few years ago, Harrington said she and her husband considered renting to one of the families – but had concerns about not being able to do a credit check or see proof of income, as the families hadn’t yet secured work permits.

"We just weren't in a place financially where we could take that risk," Harrington said.

But Harrington said she eventually reached out to Project HOME, was quickly sold on the idea, and decided to rent the first-floor unit to a family from Angola.

She said the $2,000 backstop in case of a broken lease helped assuage some of her financial concerns, as did knowing that her tenants have support from a housing mentor, who, for example, helped sort out some early confusion around separating trash, compost, and recycling.

"So there's space to just communicate about things like that, that otherwise could build resentment or just not go communicated," she said.

Harrington is one of the smaller-scale landlords involved in Project HOME. On the other end of the spectrum are property management companies like Port Property, which rents to about 80 families.

And chief operating officer Jen Munroe said some of those tenants have stayed beyond the one-year support period and are no longer paired with a housing mentor.

"They graduate the program, they’re on their own, and they’ve proven that the system works," Munroe said.

Munroe said after seeing the program in action, she decided to join the board of its parent organization, the Quality Housing Coalition.

And, she said that Port Property will often waive application fees and sometimes even security deposit requirements for Project HOME tenants.

"We lower the barriers because the program is there and because the assurances are there that somebody is going to be there to assist tenants if there are troubles," Munroe explained.

But the housing mentors are also there to make sure the landlords make good on their promises.

Claudine, the Project HOME tenant from Rwanda, said when she moved into her apartment, she found some of the lamps didn’t work and the refrigerator was in need of repair.

She said she turned to her housing mentors, through the local nonprofit Hope Acts, which partners with Project HOME, to help communicate these issues to the landlord, who made the necessary repairs.

Otherwise, Claudine said she likes her apartment, and is especially happy to have a kitchen again, so she can invite her friends over and share Rwandan food with them.

"We eat together," she said. "It's really good."