Working with Landlords


The objective of this module is to provide practical suggestions to Housing First program providers about how to build effective, lasting relationships with landlords in their community.

After reading this module you will have gained knowledge about:

  • Critical tasks in planning for, recruiting, and maintaining relationships with landlords
  • Common challenges and experience-based strategies for addressing them in a proactive manner

The information in this module was drawn directly from The Landlord Engagement Toolkit: A Guide to Working with Landlords in Housing First Programs.[1] The toolkit was produced by the Homelessness Partnering Strategy, a program of Employment and Social Development Canada. The content of the toolkit was based on existing literature; consultations with service providers, program managers, landlords, and participants; and site visits to five Housing First programs located across Canada.

Key Messages

To be effective in working with landlords, a Housing First program should follow these key steps:

  • Assess the local context
  • Coordinate with others
  • Secure all necessary financial pieces
  • Establish written policies and procedures
  • Dedicate staff to landlord engagement
  • Develop a marketing strategy and promotional materials
  • Screen for good tenant-landlord fit
  • Respond to issues over the course of a tenancy
  • Provide recognition and appreciation
  • Conduct evaluation

Challenges that Housing First programs commonly encounter when working with landlords and experience-based strategies to address them:

  • Challenge: Finding landlords who are willing to rent to program participants.
    Strategy: Identify a range of access points.
  • Challenge: Unpaid rent
    Strategy: Work closely with income assistance, conduct proactive check-ins to confirm payment, maintain a “flex fund” for emergency rent payments.
  • Challenge: Communication breakdowns.
    Strategy: Maintain a single point of contact for landlords, ensure housing and clinical teams communicate frequently.
  • Challenge: Evictions and re-housing.
    Strategy: Avoid formal eviction processes, act quickly, re-house the tenant, clean the unit.
  • Challenge: Guest management issues.
    Strategy: Address loneliness, isolation and boredom, take steps to enhance security.
  • Challenge: Problem landlords.
    Strategy: Screen landlords, work with the City’s property standards and by-law departments, provide education.
What are the key steps to engaging landlords in a Housing First program?

1. Assess the local context

Begin by gathering information about the local context in which the program will be operating. Consider the unique local assets and opportunities that may benefit the program and reflect on the challenges and barriers that may need to be overcome.

Gather information to understand the following important factors:

  • The local housing market, including the availability of affordable housing, the vacancy rate, and the degree of rental market regulation
  • The local legislation regarding landlord-participant issues
  • The neighbourhoods that are affordable, close to services and amenities, and close to public transportation
  • The characteristics of the local homeless population, including the proportion identifying as First Nations, Inuit or Métis

Identify strengths, challenges and opportunities by asking landlords in the community to participate in a survey. Gathering more information about what local landlords need and want will help to develop a targeted landlord engagement strategy.

Case Example

The City of St. John’s in St. John’s, NL successfully conducted a survey of local landlords.[2] There were 300 respondents to the survey. The survey was brief and anonymous and was delivered online using SurveyMonkey. The survey was available through the City of St. John’s webpage and social media accounts. The survey was promoted through a public service announcement, a targeted email campaign, and through a series of promotional videos. A $500 gift card to a home improvement store was used as an incentive.

The survey included questions like:

  • What kind of rental properties do you have?
  • Are there any particular types of individuals that you are less likely to rent to? Why?
  • What are the most common issues you have experienced? (e.g. nonpayment of rent, issues related to participant behavior, damage, difficulty receiving payment from government agencies)

2. Coordinate with others

Meet with as many local agencies as possible to tell them about the Housing First program and to discuss potential opportunities to work together.

Consider reaching out proactively to develop strong working relationships with:

  • Community legal clinics: Receive education about landlord participant issues and the Residential Tenancies Act. Receive representation at the Landlord and Tenant Board.
  • Social enterprises and local companies: Identify providers for relevant services such as pest removal, cleaning, moving, and repair work.
  • Utilities companies: Address issues with arrears. Arrange for participants to get on a 12-month equal payment plan that can be paid directly from income assistance benefits.
  • Income assistance: Facilitate direct payment of rent to landlords. Arrange for benefit claims to be fast tracked where possible. Address any barriers to assistance that members of First Nations communities may face if they have recently relocated off reserve.
  • Municipal housing inspectors: Receive training on property standards laws and how to conduct a property inspection and review damage estimates.
  • Probation programs: Access a pool of individuals participating in a Community Service Order Program to help with tasks such as cleaning, moving, or junk removal.

Working relationships can be formal or informal. Identify a contact person by name and arrange a direct line of communication. Check in regularly to discuss issues as they arise. Consider creating a written agreement together that outlines respective roles.

Landlords may find it confusing to work with multiple Housing First programs at the same time. Instead, consider coordinating with other local Housing First programs to maximize resources and eliminate redundancies through a streamlined, community-wide approach.

A coordinated approach among multiple Housing First providers may involve:

  • One or more shared Housing Coordinator staff positions
  • Standardized levels of service across multiple programs
  • Community-wide training and capacity- building events
  • Regular inter-agency meetings to discuss local issues and challenging cases
  • A shared damages/mitigation fund
  • A coordinated intake and assessment process

The municipal (or regional) government body is uniquely placed to play a supporting role in a coordinated approach to Housing First. They can help with landlord engagement by:

  • Offering incentives such as property tax breaks, lower processing fees, and fast tracking of proposals to landlords/property developers who rent units to Housing First programs.
  • Enforcing property standards, inspecting rooming houses, and actively targeting problem landlords.
  • Bringing key stakeholders to the table, such as the head of the local landlord association.
  • Publicly endorsing the Housing First program and adding the city logo to program materials.

3. Secure all necessary financial pieces

Provide a rent supplement that is large enough to rent good quality units in neighbourhoods across the community without requiring participants to dip into the basic needs portion of their income assistance.

Keep flexible money available at all times to cover miscellaneous expenses as they arise. Some of the costs that a Housing First program may need to cover (often on short notice) include:

  • Deposits (e.g., first and last months’ rent, damage deposit) which must be available to be submitted with a rent application
  • Emergency rent payments if a participant is hospitalized, jailed, in treatment or in crisis
  • Rent or utility payment arrears
  • Moving expenses
  • Basic necessities and furnishings
  • Bedbug or pest removal
  • Professional cleaning and/or junk removal
  • Replacing lost keys
  • Taking a landlord out for coffee or lunch
  • Small appreciation gifts for landlords
  • Catering costs for forums and other events with landlords

Landlords may be more willing to rent to program participants if they know that a mitigation fund is in place to offset some of the risks. A mitigation fund can play a critical role in upholding a program’s reputation and maintaining a landlord relationship over time.

A mitigation fund can be used to cover:

  • Damages to a unit caused by a program participant
  • Short-term vacancy reimbursement when a program participant breaks a lease
  • Unpaid rent
  • Legal fees or mediation costs
Case Example

The City of Kingston in Kingston, ON supports a mitigation fund for Housing First. The money is held by Home Base Housing, one of the local agencies delivering Housing First. With damage claims up to $500, the Housing Liaison Worker has the authority to settle directly with the landlord. With claims over $500, the Housing Liaison Worker will investigate and get a third party to corroborate the assessment, and then the amount of the claim to be paid out will be determined based on that assessment. The city audits the files to make sure everything looks reasonable. There are clear policies in place with the landlords, the City, and the Housing First agency. The policy states that there needs to be verification before any repairs are done, so it is important to tell landlords that they cannot go ahead and fix the damage themselves and then submit a claim after the fact. The fund is $30,000 per year that is available to be claimed, or $7,500 per quarter. It does not get used to its full extent. Where the damages are extensive and the cost is excessive, the damage mitigation fund is used to pay the landlord’s insurance deductible so they can put in an insurance claim.

4. Establish written policies and procedures

Establishing clear, written policies and procedures can ensure that a Housing First program operates in a consistent, fair, transparent and efficient manner. This helps when marketing the program – when all aspects of the program are clearly defined, landlords know exactly what they are agreeing to.  Make sure that copies of policies and procedures are accessible to all applicable stakeholders, including participants, landlords, and housing and clinical team members.Establish written policies and procedures

Areas of program operations that warrant written policies and procedures include:

  • Evictions
  • Planned moves and re-housing
  • Damages
  • Inspections – including prior to move-in, and throughout tenancy
  • Complaints – including from both landlords and participants
  • Confidentiality, consent and release of information
  • Team roles and responsibilities – including frequency of home visits
  • Meeting schedules – internal and external
  • Graduation and discharge from the program

5. Dedicate staff to landlord engagement

In a Housing First program, the housing and clinical roles should be highly coordinated, but separate. This separation promotes trust with the landlord. When landlord engagement is the responsibility of clinical service providers, it can compromise the therapeutic alliance with program participants. It can also lead to a competitive environment where staff compete with one another to find landlords for the participants on their case load.

The Housing Coordinator role may include the following responsibilities:

  • Conduct outreach and marketing
  • Identify available units – maintain a database
  • Serve as primary point of contact for the landlord
  • Act as a go-between with the landlord, the clinical team, and the participant
  • Address issues related to maintenance, health and safety, housing quality concerns, rent payment
  • Inspect units
  • Assess damages and arrange for repairs

The Clinical Team role may include the following responsibilities related to housing:

  • Accompany the participant to view the unit
  • Help to match the participant to the right unit – ensure good fit
  • Explain the lease to participants
  • Ensure the apartment is furnished
  • Develop a monthly budget with the participant
  • Educate the participant on his or her rights and responsibilities as a tenant
  • Advocate for the participant as needed
  • Problem solve in situations where tenancy is threatened
  • Provide regular home visits

6. Develop a marketing strategy and promotional materials

An effective marketing strategy will address landlords’ needs and goals by emphasizing the following common selling points of renting to Housing First participants:

  • Guaranteed rent payments, in full and on time, made directly to the landlord
  • Limited turnover – Housing First is a long-term support service
  • Mitigation fund – covering damages, vacancy loss
  • Regular inspections of units by program staff
  • Clinical services – including regular home visits – are delivered by a skilled and responsive team
  • Designated point of contact to call if problems arise
  • Crisis management support available 24/7
  • Opportunity to give back to the community and help people in need

Develop a tailored strategy for each marketing to each type of landlord. Small landlords may be more risk averse and have lower tolerance for challenging behaviour, especially if they live in the building themselves. Large landlords have property management firms that may have strict screening policies and staff who have less autonomy to make exceptions on a case-by-case basis.

Highlight success stories. Provide the landlord with true (anonymous) stories of tenants who have experienced housing stability that has transformed their lives. Share the stories of landlords who were initially skeptical, but went on to have positive experiences renting to program participants.[3]

Provide landlords with all necessary information without compromising participant confidentiality and privacy. Speak in general terms, rather than discussing a specific participant. For example, “We typically serve people who have lived experience of mental illness.”

Develop professional, eye-catching promotional materials. These could include brochures, one-page information handouts or fact sheets, business cards, a website and social media accounts, or a letter of support prepared by program staff that can be attached to a rent application.

Promotional materials should address the following key questions:

  • What are the resources that the program has available to support landlords and tenants?
  • What type of case management support does the tenant receive? Who offers it, and how?
  • What does the program expect from landlords?
  • What promises/guarantees does the program make?
  • How does the program screen landlords and tenants?
  • How does the program educate participants on their rights and responsibilities as tenants?
  • What are the previous successes and accomplishments of the program?

7. Screen for good tenant-landlord fit

It is not an effective strategy to simply match the first available unit with the first program participant in need of housing. Instead, Housing First programs should carefully consider the fit between the tenant, the landlord, the unit, the building, and the neighbourhood. 

Some factors to consider when screening:

  • If the first participant that a new landlord rents to is very challenging, the landlord may choose to discontinue the relationship with the program. For new landlords, try to place a program participant who has a low-to-medium acuity level into the unit.
  • To prevent burnout, make sure a single landlord is not renting to a number of high-risk tenants simultaneously or consecutively.
  • Be mindful of putting too many program participants in a single building, which can overwhelm the landlord and the community. Fewer than 20% of tenants in a multiple housing unit (such as an apartment block) should originate from a Housing First program.
  • Stagger intake into a building, rather than moving in multiple participants at a time.
  • Participants should have housing options available to them and should choose the unit that is the best fit for them, considering factors such as location (proximity to services, existing support networks), type of home, amenities (laundry, balcony), rules (smoking, pets), and accessibility.

Forced relationships are not fair or effective. Participants and landlords should meet, view the unit together, and make the final decision. Program providers can prepare a participant for a successful first meeting with a landlord by role-playing the conversation in advance and helping them to look their best by providing access to a shower and a clean change of clothes if needed.

8. Respond to issues over the course of a tenancy

Housing First programs should view the landlord as a business customer. The Housing Coordinator is a neutral intermediary that works for the best interest of both the landlord and the tenant.

Establish an early warning system with participants. Ask the participant how they can recognize signs that their mental health or well-being may be deteriorating. Come to an agreement of what they will do, or who they will call, if they identify these signs. Encourage the participant to talk to their landlord about these signs so that they know when to call the program directly if concerns arise.

The clinical team must visit the participant at home on a weekly basis, or more frequently when a participant has recently moved or is at risk of eviction. The clinical team should monitor the condition of the unit and intervene early if issues such as bedbugs, hoarding, damage or guest problems arise. It is a red flag if a program participant postpones, cancels or misses two consecutive appointments. The clinical team should provide active outreach to re-establish contact.

9. Provide recognition and appreciation

Let landlords know that the contributions they make to the program’s success are recognized and appreciated. Consider the following ways to demonstrate appreciation for landlords:

  • Small gifts such as cards and boxes of chocolate to celebrate holidays
  • A framed certificate of appreciation or a plaque
  • Thank you notes, signed by staff and program participants
  • A landlord “spotlight” in a community newsletter, email or annual report
  • A “landlord of the year” award, presented at the Housing First agency’s annual general meeting
  • Invitations to attend the agency’s annual holiday parties or fundraising events
  • An annual appreciation breakfast
  • Treating the landlord to coffee or lunch
  • Occasional favours such as paying for lawn to be cut or snow to be shoveled

10. Conduct evaluation

Evaluation activities show landlords that the Housing First program values their input and is committed to meeting their needs.

Consider the following ways to involve landlords in evaluating the program:

  • Collect feedback forms from landlords who attend program meetings or events
  • Send annual satisfaction surveys to landlords via email or mail
  • Conduct interviews, focus groups or questionnaires with landlords via phone or in person

Consider reviewing the following data on an annual basis:

  • Number of landlords renting to program participants and number of units per landlord
  • Number of unit showings attended by staff and participants
  • Average number of weekly contacts between staff and landlords
  • Number of after-hours calls received
  • Number of evictions, and reasons
  • Number of planned moves, and reasons
  • Number of times participants were rehoused
  • Number of damage claims submitted and the cost
  • Number of failed unit inspections, and reasons
  • Number of complaints received from tenants and landlords, and reasons

Share the results of the evaluation with landlords in a brief, plain language report that describes how the program will implement any recommended changes.

Common Challenges and Strategies to Address Them

Challenge: Finding landlords who are willing to rent to program participants.
Strategy: Some access points that Housing First programs have used to find landlords include:

  • Public registrar or land registry
  • Real estate agents
  • Real estate classified ads
  • Landlord/property management associations and industry groups – attend a meeting, make a presentation, set up an exhibition booth or stand, ask to slip a program brochure into their information package, place an advertisement in their newsletter
  • Trade shows and trade magazines
  • Media releases – write a letter to the editor of the local newspaper explaining the program
  • Radio interviews
  • Publicized launch events
  • Social media campaigns
  • Targeted mailouts
  • New buildings under construction – may be required to set aside a certain number of units as affordable housing

Challenge: Unpaid rent.
Strategy: Work closely with the local income assistance office to facilitate rent-direct payments. In situations where participants pay their rent themselves (e.g. through CPP or income from employment), request that participants to sign a cheque over to the program for management. Check in with the landlord by the 5th of every month to confirm that rent has been paid. Mediate landlord-tenant issues to prevent situations where a frustrated tenant withholds rent by cancelling a direct pay arrangement with income assistance. Maintain a “flex fund” to facilitate payment of rent in emergency situations.

Challenge: Communication breakdowns.
Strategy: Establish a single, direct point of contact for the landlord. Guarantee a response to all landlord concerns within two business days.

Ensure regular communication and consistent messaging between clinical and housing teams. Outline a regular meeting schedule, information-sharing agreement and communication protocol. Document all communication and share meeting minutes with all parties.

Make sure participants are familiar with and known to more than one clinical team member, so that someone can step in if a case manager is away or unavailable.

Conduct proactive check-ins. If the landlord/property manager/ superintendent is on site, make a habit of knocking on their door after every home visit with a tenant. This opens up a line of communication while also reassuring the landlord that the tenant is receiving the support that was promised.

After-hours emergency call lines should be a direct point of contact that offer quick, solutions-focused assistance. Call lines that refer a caller to another agency, take a message or do not have the capacity to respond immediately are not helpful and can aggravate an already tense situation.

Create a monthly newsletter to share information and resources with all landlords at once and promote a sense of community.[4] The newsletter can be distributed via email or mail.

Challenge: Evictions and re-housing.
Strategy: Where possible, avoid a formal eviction process. It is usually best for all parties if the tenant can be rehoused without an eviction on their record, and the landlord can avoid the cost, time and energy of a formal eviction.

Begin by promptly setting up a face-to-face meeting with the housing coordinator, case manager, landlord and tenant to determine a mutually agreeable plan for the tenant to move out. Draft an agreement signed by the landlord and tenant.

Clean the unit, remove garbage and repair damages. Provide support to the tenant to move their belongings and put them in storage, find temporary accommodation and search for a new apartment.

Offer to move a new program participant into the unit to make sure rent payments continue. If the landlord accepts, carefully screen the new tenant. If the landlord declines, stay in touch and continue to communicate regularly, without asking for anything

Challenge: Guest management issues.
Strategy:  Develop a guest management policy with the tenant and help them set boundaries and manage personal space to prevent others from taking over their apartment. Understand that guests may be homeless or vulnerably housed themselves – connect them supports and services as needed.

Address issues of isolation, loneliness, and boredom. Provide support for participants around community integration and engagement in meaningful activities. Connect the tenant to peer support and natural social support networks. Identify housing arrangements that offer more communal settings. Provide dedicated common spaces for participants to hold social gatherings, such as a community meal.

Consider security issues. Sometimes guest management issues stem from an insecure, unlocked unit. Replace lost keys as needed. Screen tenants carefully and consider that some tenants with histories of guest management issues may do well in buildings with a secure entry system in the lobby, rather than a unit that can be directly accessed from outside.

Challenge: Encountering problem landlords who are non-responsive or unreachable, do not do necessary maintenance, illegally enter units, or constantly monitor tenants in an invasive way.
Strategy: Screen landlords before accepting them into the program. Consult with other community stakeholders and tenants themselves to learn about a landlord’s reputation prior to working with them.

Involve the city’s property standards or by-law department to enforce all applicable legislation. Consult a local legal clinic for guidance.

If landlords are not respecting boundaries, advocate for the tenant’s rights. Educate landlords about common myths and misperceptions about mental illness. Assure landlords that tenants are receiving regular home visits through the program.

[1] Rae, J. & Aubry, T. (2018). The Landlord Engagement Toolkit: A Guide to Working with Landlords in Housing First. Employment and Social Development Canada.

[2] Go to “Landlord Survey: What we Heard”, a report on the landlord survey conducted in St. John’s, NL.

[3] Go to “Landlord Perspective,” a testimonial video used by the City of St. John’s in St. John’s, NL.

[4] Go to “The Pacifica Connector”, a newsletter produced by Pacifica Housing in Victoria, BC.

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