Q&A with Housing Connector executive director Shkëlqim Kelmendi

By: Maggie Wilson Posted: 05/20/2019

Learn about this new organization incubated by the Seattle Metro Chamber

Photo by Carlton Canary

We sat down with Shkëlqim Kelmendi, the executive director of Housing Connector – a new organization incubated by the Seattle Metro Chamber that connects private property owners with organizations that help people experiencing homelessness – to learn about Housing Connector and Shkëlqim’s personal connection with its work.

Responses have been condensed and lightly edited.

How would you describe Housing Connector, and what is special and new about the work it does?

We are a broker: we connect private units in the market to individuals experiencing homelessness. What sets our approach apart is that it taps an entirely new market of units that service providers and individuals experiencing homelessness cannot access right now.

This program acts as a bridge between the private community, the nonprofit community and the public sector. And that is really important in our city. There’s a lot of divisiveness here within Seattle and King County in how we should approach the housing and homelessness problem. Housing Connector is a way to bridge those divides.

The only reason this program was possible is because the Seattle Metro Chamber stepped in to incubate it. Business needs to be part of the solution – and this approach makes business sense. It takes a business focus while also utilizing technology to increase efficiency.

What does the program expect from the property owners and service providers it works with?

From the property owner perspective, the requirements are agreeing to lower or waive the screening criteria, in return for getting access to the risk mitigation and benefits.

For service providers, the expectation we have for them is that they provide one year of case management to their client. And in return, they have access to the homes we’re able to generate in the market. We know that it’s not enough just to get an individual into a unit. We want to make sure that households have the support to be successful in their new home and remain housed.

The household helped will have to be a household that was experiencing homelessness. And they have to have a rent subsidy attached, whether it’s through rapid rehousing or whether it’s through a Section 8 voucher with Seattle Housing Authority, King County Housing Authority, or Renton Housing Authority.

How can an individual household participate?

The individual household will go through the coordinated entry system that the county has in place and then be referred to a service provider. One of the easiest ways is to access this system is to call 211. At that point, those service providers would have access to the units for their clients.

Where does the risk mitigation funding come from? And what organizations support the program?

Housing Connector receives funding from the City of Seattle, King County, and United Way.

One of the great things that we’ve been able to do early on, within the first few months, is receive the support of the Rental Housing Association and the Washington Multi-Family Housing Association. Both associations are comprised of property owners and managers in our region. And they’ve come to the table and said, “Yes, we want to be a part of this solution.”

Why is Housing Connector important to you personally?

It’s two parts. The first is, my family and I, we moved to the United States as refugees from Kosovo when I was eight years old. We experienced the struggles of just trying to survive in this community and in this country. I know firsthand that the smallest setback can derail a family and cause them to lose everything. I was fortunate enough to have a number of individuals and organizations support us throughout our journey until we were able to be established.

I think it’s important to be able to give that back to others. And really understand that the individuals who are experiencing homelessness, they’re not that different from me or you or anyone else. In most situations, it’s an individual or family that’s had one setback, one medical bill. One job loss. And that sends them down the path of homelessness.

The second part of why Housing Connector is important to me personally is the approach. We look at the supply side and say, how do we work with the property owners who have the housing – to be able to open up these units?

 Where were you before Housing Connector?

Before this, I was at the Seattle Housing Authority. I was working in their policy and strategic initiatives teams looking at new, innovative ways to tackle affordable housing and the affordable housing shortage – as well as looking at different policies and programs from an evaluation lens. Especially a race and social justice lens to identify disparate impacts from various policies in our community. And prior to that I was in Dallas and worked at the Federal Reserve Bank.

How will you measure the program’s efficacy?

The key metric is around our penetration in the market. How many units are we able to access in the private market in Seattle and King County?

The second piece is, how many of the property partners do we retain after the initial lease? This is a critical point. If we can provide quality customer support to those property owners, my belief is that they will be willing to open up more doors and house more individuals.

And third, how many individuals and families are actually moving into these units? How quickly are they moving in? One of our goals is to reduce the amount of time it takes for rapid rehousing clients to be housed. Currently that number is 89 days on average. And that’s just too long.

What’s the greatest Housing Connector need – and how can people help?

If you are or you know a property owner, manager, or small landlord and would be interested in partnering with us, that would be the biggest support given where we currently are. You can reach out to us directly at info@housingconnector.com to learn more about how to begin the partnership process.