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U.S. Vets promotes its ‘master lease’ idea

Dan Nakaso
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David Lopresto smiles in March 2017 as he checks out the apartment he moved into at Winston Hale in Chinatown after living on the streets for 5 years. Doreen Tavai-Bright of U.S. Vets., left, assisted Lopresto with checking into his unit.

U.S. Vets wants its fellow homeless organizations to take a bigger role in getting people off the street by taking financial responsibility for the people they’re trying to house.

“How are we expecting people (landlords and property managers) to trust in our own clients if we won’t?” said Darryl Vincent, chief operating officer for U.S. Vets.

Since 2006, U.S. Vets has been taking the legal and financial responsibility for the “master lease” on homes, condos and apartments across Oahu — and now Kauai and Hawaii island — and is working to convince more island homeless agencies to try the same approach.

In high-priced, tight housing markets such as Honolulu, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., U.S. Vets — a nationwide organization — has learned a basic lesson in housing economics:

“We can’t compete,” Vincent said.

Jason Espero, who runs Waikiki Health’s Next Step Shelter in Kakaako, previously told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that the housing market is so tight on Oahu that he has sometimes directed his staff to drive around Oahu looking for new rental signs to try to find housing for homeless clients.

But instead of trying to convince a Hawaii landlord or property manager to take a chance on renting to a homeless person when they have so many other applicants, U.S. Vets holds “the master lease” and is responsible for collecting rent, paying for damage, filling vacancies and dealing with any problem tenants.

“They get their rent whether it’s rented or not,” Vincent said.

In many cases, Vincent said, landlords and property managers don’t even know whether their units are vacant because U.S. Vets continues to pay the rent.

One of the 14 Hawaii organizations that U.S. Vets is working with at the Hawaii Community Foundation to house homeless families is taking its first attempt with a master lease on Hawaii island.

Brandee Menino, chief executive officer for Hope Services Hawaii Inc., said the organization’s board of directors is interested in its own master lease to help house homeless clients on Hawaii island.

The lease could be applied to a multiroom home, Menino said.

“There’s risk and there’s excitement,” she said. “But we’ve got to take chances.”

Oahu Realtor and property manager Claude Abou-Sayf has been renting 20 of the 100 units he manages in Waikiki, Makiki, Ewa Beach, Makaha and Mili­lani to U.S. Vets for five years.

At the end of a detailed conversation with the Star-Advertiser about the pros and cons of renting to homeless U.S. Vets clients, Abou-Sayf had a sudden insight.

“I’m going to lose all of my U.S. Vets clients (to competitors) because of this stupid conversation,” he said.

“The bad is that you’re dealing with people who generally have some sort of issue,” Abou-Sayf said. “Sometimes these people are straight from being homeless on the street, and they hoard and they’re dirty. Nobody cleans for them. Nobody does their laundry. That’s the bad. But even with a normal, good tenant, there’s no guarantee I’m getting paid. With U.S. Vets you don’t have to worry about that. That is unheard of in the rental world.”

Abou-Sayf said “it’s good for the heart” to house Oahu’s homeless, especially military veterans.

Then in the next breath he added, “But I’m old-school. Protecting my clients’ interests is the most important thing for me. If you’re a really good property manager, you’re stupid not to do this. This protects my client more than anything.”

Abou-Sayf had no intention of renting to a homeless person five years ago when he held an open house for a studio apartment in Waikiki that he listed for $1,000 or $1,200.

A couple was particularly interested, and then a woman from U.S. Vets came forward.

“We had dealt with Section 8 (low-income tenants) in the past but never really liked it because they’re not involved enough,” Abou-Sayf said. “But we decided to take a chance with U.S. Vets. The good part is U.S. Vets is very involved.”

Asked about specific problems with U.S. Vets clients, Abou-Sayf struggled to think of any examples.

“It’s very difficult for me to remember a specific incident because U.S. Vets holds the master lease,” he said. “I don’t have to do interviews or do background checks because that’s all left up to them. They pay the rent when there’s somebody there, and they pay the rent when there’s nobody there. I still get paid when the unit is empty.”

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