Local landlords joined the fight against homelessness this week by pledging to make an additional 47 Kern County rental housing units available to people deemed to be in dire need of somewhere to stay.

Nearly attaining a goal of 50 units announced at an industry meeting Tuesday in Bakersfield, the commitment expands participation in the county’s homeless voucher program, in which Kern’s housing authority subsidizes rents on a sliding scale. The county's contribution is capped at $715 per unit per month.

There are still hundreds of county residents on a list waiting to receive government assistance finding and renting a home. But people involved said the 47 units pledged at the California Landlord's Summit on Homelessness Tuesday in Bakersfield will make a big difference for people found to be in greatest need.

"Forty-seven is a huge number," said Jessica Janssen, homelessness projects manager for United Way of Kern County, which is the lead agency in the 30-member Kern County Homeless Collaborative. "Every unit committed is a life potentially saved."

Added Ian Sharples, spokesman for the trade group Income Property Association of Kern, "It’s a very good first step. We were aiming for 50 units, we got 47."

The voucher program is one of three primary ways the county's Housing Authority engages with landlords to encourage them to rent to people with nowhere else to go.

With grant money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Housing Authority subsidizes people's rent according to their ability to pay. While some beneficiaries' housing is paid in full, others who can afford it are required to pay about 30 percent of their total income toward rent, leaving the county to cover the rest.

The county agency was unable Thursday to estimate how many housing units are currently subsidized through the program or how much money has been devoted to it in the current year and years past. The number of people still waiting for help through the program was also unavailable, though officials said 70 residents have been screened and are considered to be in the most urgent need.

Another way the Housing Authority works with landlords is by contracting case-management services from outside organizations that counsel and prepare homeless residents to move into rental housing. The agency was unable to say how many people the program currently serves or how many are awaiting such assistance.

A third tool the agency employs to help people without housing is a form of insurance paid to landlords whose previously homeless tenants end up damaging rental units. The Housing Authority pays up to $750 to cover damages exceeding a unit's rental deposit. Come Jan. 1, the cap will rise to $2,500, thanks to a one-time infusion of state money.

Despite these programs, some landlords still hesitate to rent to people who are homeless, said the executive director of Kern's Housing Authority, Stephen Pelz.

He said their reticence is sometimes based on misconceptions that the would-be renters commit crime at a high rate. But in fact, people who are homeless are more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators, he said.

Pelz asks landlords to keep an open mind.

"If you rent to a police officer and he skipped out on you and didn't pay last month's rent," he asked, "does that mean you're never going to rent to a police officer again?"

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

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