Willie Ware considers it unavoidable: Someone he rents to is going to break a window, stain a carpet or poke a hole in a wall, then leave without paying for it.

That doesn't stop him from serving even the hardest cases, though. In more than two decades as a Bakersfield landlord, he figures he has housed thousands of people who previously were living on the street, including individuals suffering from behavioral or substance abuse problems.

Why do it? Goodwill toward humanity plays a part, to be sure. But he said money talks, too, and Kern County makes it financially feasible and operationally convenient to rent to people who were previously homeless.

"With homeless, the county kind of has my back," said Ware, founder of Distinctive Properties, now his son's business, which has 310 residential units, most of them in Bakersfield. "I kind of take it as being risk-free."

The program he's referring to offers housing vouchers for people deemed the most vulnerable, those considered at the greatest risk of harm if left on the streets. The program is intended to make up the gap after participants pay 30 percent of their income toward rent. In some cases, the vouchers cover 100 percent of a person's housing costs.

People involved say the program succeeds not just because of the federally funded vouchers. They also point to an insurance-type program that pays for damages inflicted on apartments, as well as a collaborative, multi-agency effort that pairs tenants with counselors and other specialists.

Fast growth

The voucher program has grown quickly in recent years, largely because Kern has been able to attract federal money to subsidize rents. The number of vouchers issued by the county has nearly doubled since 2014.

Equally important is persuading landlords to dedicate residential units for use by people with nowhere else to go. In that sense, the private sector is proving particularly helpful.

Calling for help

At a landlord summit hosted last month by the Income Property Association of Kern, a call was put out for the roughly 350 landlords in attendance to pledge additional voucher-dedicated residential units for people who are now homeless.

The goal was lofty: 50 new units by the end of the meeting. IPAK members stepped up with 47. Additional units have been offered since.

Swept up in the emotion of the moment, IPAK board member David Watson, a housing specialist at Apodaca Property Management, agreed put up a couple of units. But he insists the decision made financial sense.

"Ultimately, we are business people," he said. "We're going to have to make it work … financially."

The voucher program is one of several distinct programs the county operates as a way of housing people who are homeless, including a rapid-response system and one for military veterans.

Besides covering a portion of tenants' rent, the vouchers insure landlords' property-based damages up to $750. That cap is set to rise to $2,500 starting Jan. 1.

Collaborative effort

The county's Housing Authority works with a handful of agencies that not only screen potential tenants and maintain a list of those in the most dire need, but also work to make sure formerly homeless individuals get the services they need to stay off the streets.

That can mean calling in therapists and mental health counselors. But it can also mean something as simple as giving people the assistance they need to sign up for electric and gas service, or showing up to advise tenants on proper rental etiquette, like keeping noise down.

"It's like a three-fold relationship, right? It's us, the tenant and the landlord," said Diane Contreras, director of operations at Flood Bakersfield Ministries, one of the nonprofit agencies that works with the county Housing Authority to ensure the voucher program's success. She said 98 percent of program participants manage to stay in housing for the long term.

Greg Terzakis, senior vice president of the 8,000-member California Apartment Association, said Kern's collaborative approach distinguishes its voucher program from those of other counties that receive less outside assistance.

"I think Kern County is very forward-looking as far as getting all of the stakeholders at the table at the same time," said Terzakis, who spoke at the IPAK summit.

Landlord Tim Lee, who rents out dozens of units in Kern, pledged to make one unit available during the recent IPAK summit, and has since offered up another two.

He said participating in the voucher program does involves risk despite the county's financial assurances. For example, other tenants might be scared off by a new tenant unfamiliar with the norms of living in an apartment.

Regardless, he sees it as the right thing to do.

"What we've found is, it's a great help to these individuals," he said. "And they're pretty good tenants as a rule."

John Cox can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter: @TheThirdGraf.

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