If you have been incarcerated since age 16, and you’re heading back into the community at age 23, your criminal record is a definite barrier to finding your own place to rent. But it’s far from the only one.
This is the situation facing Cocoa, a 23-year-old who is set to parole out of MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility in September.
“I don’t have any credit history, I haven’t had a job in a long time, and I’ve never rented, so that’s pretty tough,” he says.
“I don’t wanna live with someone else,” he adds. “I’m an adult now. It’ll be nice to have my own place.”
Cocoa is one of three youth at MacLaren currently enrolled in Rent Well, a tenant education program created by Transition Projects that is taught by certified instructors in Oregon and Washington. Kathleen Fullerton, who runs the Janus Youth Programs’ Hope Partnership at MacLaren, became a certified teacher so she could offer Rent Well to youth who are over 18 and within three months of release.
Oak Creek Youth Correctional Facility and the Young Women’s Transition Program will soon start teaching Rent Well courses to youth, and several of the Oregon Youth Authority’s community residential programs in Portland already offer it, including Youth Progress and all of Janus Youth’s re-entry programs.
Rent Well helps participants understand how landlord screenings work, identify their potential barriers in these screenings, and create an individual plan and portfolio that they can use to help them work with landlords to overcome those barriers.
The program also guides participants in how to be a good tenant so that they can build a positive rental history.
“Part of what Rent Well teaches youth is their rights and responsibilities as a tenant,” says Amy Peña, an OYA transition juvenile parole and probation officer (JPPO) who frequently connects youth on her caseload with community-based Rent Well courses in Multnomah and Clackamas counties.
In addition to the barriers of no credit or rental history, Peña says youth in the Portland area also struggle with the high demand and long waitlists for rentals in their price range.
“A lot of what I do is coaching them, taking them to apartments, teaching them how to talk to landlords,” she says. “I work side-by-side with them to fill out applications, ask the manager questions, do price comparisons, and help them figure out a budget and what might be affordable to them.”
Any older adult who has struggled with maintaining a budget can understand the challenges faced by a young person who’s never done it before.
“The biggest thing I tell the youth on my caseload is save, save, save,” says Sara Johnson, a transition JPPO who works with youth in Jackson, Josephine, and Klamath counties. “If they are in a facility, I tell them they have to save money for when they get out. Even in an independent living program, when you start a job, you don’t get paid right away, so how will you pay your rent in the interim?”
During a recent Rent Well class at MacLaren, Cocoa and two other youth learned about how to write a rental cover letter that they could present to landlords. The letter addresses their rental screening barriers and cites laws or asks for accommodations they are legally eligible for, whenever possible.
The letters will be part of an entire portfolio they create. Other items in the portfolio could include certificates or other evidence they have completed treatment related to their previous offenses, information about their past employment, and reference letters from people who could vouch for them as good tenants.
When students complete the program, they can earn a Rent Well certificate. In some counties, landlords can apply for funding that gives them insurance-like coverage if they rent to a Rent Well graduate with a current certificate.
The coverage reimburses the landlord if the graduate leaves their rental unit within the first year and owes unpaid rent, damages, or legal fees beyond what the security deposit covers.
“More and more landlords are learning about Rent Well,” Fullerton says. “Some of them are even putting it in their application that if you’re a Rent Well grad, you can be excused from some of the barriers in the screening.”
Peña says the program has been incredibly helpful to the youth on her caseload, and she hopes to see its use expand to even more OYA facilities and programs.
“Our population is very vulnerable,” she says, “and trying to give them life skills like this is critical.”