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Introducing Way Finders’ newest education for the community: Housing Search Workshop

August 23, 2023

When Director of Homelessness Prevention Services Ruth Vasquez started at Way Finders in 2013, she answered a lot of phone calls. One still haunts her. 

“A girl received a notice to quit [a letter from a landlord asking a tenant to correct a lease violation or move out]. When she didn’t move out, the landlord locked her out,” said Vasquez. “She was afraid, so she took her things, turned in her keys. Then she was homeless, bouncing with nowhere to stay. She didn’t know that she wasn’t supposed to move out—that the only person who can evict you is a judge from housing court. Not a landlord. And if a landlord does lock you out, you call the police and file a temporary restraining order.”  

Way Finders’ new Housing Search Workshop, which launched in June 2023, is designed to educate people on how to make their rental housing search as successful as possible—with emphasis on rights and responsibilities of renters and landlords. And with recognition that looking for an apartment can be a time-consuming and overwhelming process, and that when people are feeling desperate or confused, they may make decisions in haste that can have lasting consequences. 

“It’s been going pretty well,” said Vasquez. “People are showing up, they’re listening, they’re asking questions. It’s not like when you have a class and people just sit. They’re kind of curious, they say, ‘I didn’t know that.’ Or they’ll ask, ‘Can a landlord do that? Can I do this?’ So I feel it’s effective. I’ve seen it be effective, in talking to people.”  

Vasquez and Homelessness Services Prevention Manager Judith Cardona tailored the content—essentially a Housing Search 101 for anyone looking to rent—to help stabilize individuals and families at risk of housing instability. The free series is open to all, including people who are currently unhoused and seeking an apartment or people who are currently housed and looking to move.  

“No matter where you’re at in your housing search journey, we’ll give you information you need to know,” said Cardona, kicking off a July 2023 workshop held at Way Finders’ Springfield Housing Center. “We’ll talk about fair housing laws and the different types of income-based housing. We’ll cover how to identify your preferences and determine your budget. Plus, information and resources on how to search and apply for housing, the process for moving in. And your responsibilities as a tenant.”  

“The lack of knowledge about the housing search process is one of the biggest hurdles we see, day in, day out,” said Vasquez. “We created this workshop to give that knowledge, to set people up for success.  

So letting people know, like, ‘What’s a lease, what does that mean?’ Some people don’t know, we see that every day. And sometimes they’re so desperate, they’ll sign anything. And when it comes time to pay, they’re like, ‘Oh, my God, I didn’t know I’m supposed to pay this!’” 

This—as in ‘first, last, and security,’ which some landlords may require. Or a stove and refrigerator, if not provided. Or costs beyond monthly rent, such as water and utilities—plus extra oil deliveries in winter. On top of all the other costs that can creep into a budget, from car and renter’s insurance to Uber rides and groceries. 

“And then it’s too late, and they find themselves in the same place they were a few months ago. That rollercoaster of, ‘I’m housed, I’m unhoused. Housed, unhoused,’” said Vasquez. “Before you sign anything, you must be clear on what you’re signing. Because it’s a binding contract between you and that owner. And you have to be honest with yourself about what you can really afford!” 

The importance of being honest popped up several times—not just with yourself, about your budget and needs, but also with prospective landlords (especially private landlords, who may have more leeway when screening a tenant than a property management company). Such as about how many people will be living in your household or about your housing past.  

“They are going to find out anyways when they do their homework, they’re going to check the courts, your credit, references,” said Vasquez. “It’s important to have that honest conversation. Sometimes it’s not easy, but definitely try. Sometimes they’ll be like, ‘You know what, I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt, things happen. I’ll work with you.’ But if you aren’t upfront and they find out about evictions for nonpayment of rent? They’re not going to proceed with you.”  

The dozen plus people in attendance at the July session listened with rapt attention—and burst out laughing—as Vasquez demonstrated how NOT to leave a voicemail for a prospective landlord. 

“You don’t want to say, ‘Hey, yeah, I’m calling ’cause I seen an apartment, um, and I wanna see it!’ It’s important to be conscientious of the message you’re leaving, this is the first impression you’re making with someone who might rent to you,” said Vasquez. “You want to present yourself well. Talk in a quiet area, with no loud music or kids yelling. You say, ‘Hi, my name is Ruth. I’m calling because I saw your ad for a three-bedroom apartment on the first floor of 1780 Main Street. I’m really interested in seeing it, please call me back at this number.’” 

The workshop—a rapid-fire sharing of information, definitions, resources, and handouts, punctuated by a steady stream of questions from attendees—ended with a multi-part quiz: “Who is responsible for this, you or the landlord?”  

Cardona and Vasquez were proud to note that the workshop is not just drawing members of the community. It is also attracting the attention of community-based organizations, who send staff in hopes of better serving and educating their own clients. 

“Word is spreading! We’re kind of resource sharing. Organizations are getting knowledge that they didn’t know. Because we work with this info every day, it’s like, ‘What do you mean you don’t know this?’ But they don’t,” said Vasquez. “Most of our clients, we’re assisting them with apartment searches or they’re facing eviction. Even if we didn’t have a workshop, this is what we do on the phone, or through emails or when people come and meet with us. It’s about, ‘Where can I apply? Who’s renting and where?’ So this education tool is crucial.” 

Vasquez just wishes she could add one more component to the workshop: “I just wish that it came with an apartment. That would make it like full circle, the full package.”