For a quarter century, New York City’s homeless have had a powerful ally in their corner. Founded in 1990, Breaking Ground is on a mission to fight homelessness in the city by providing housing to the city’s homeless as well as affordable housing for those at risk for homelessness.
“We provide what’s called supportive housing: safe, stable, and secure housing with essential onsite support services to help formerly homeless New Yorkers address their most pressing needs,” said Breaking Ground Vice President of Leasing & Quality Assurance Carrie Bloss. “It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s also amazingly effective.”
The organization got its start with the Times Square Hotel, a dilapidated albeit historic building from the city’s gilded age located in the bustling Times Square area. Breaking Ground restored and converted the Times Square into permanent supportive housing for homeless and low-income New Yorkers. With 652 units, The Times Square is still the largest supportive residence in the country.
Breaking Ground was an early pioneer of the Housing First model, in which individuals are placed in housing without any requirement of sobriety or adherence to mental health treatment.
“We believe that everyone is ready for permanent housing and people are more likely to deal with all the issues in their lives if they have an apartment,” Bloss said. “If you’re using drugs and alcohol and you’re living on the streets, you’re not going to stop using to get into housing.”
“It’s scary living on the streets, but if you can get into housing and find some stability in your life you might be willing to join an AA meeting,” she added.
Once they have a stable place to live, tenants are able to access the on-site services to address the factors that kept them homeless in the first place, including mental illness and substance abuse disorders.
The mission was a success and other building restorations quickly followed suit. Fast-forward to today and Breaking Ground now has 3,300 units of permanent and transitional housing, comprising both restorations and ground up new construction located throughout New York and Connecticut, including the Prince George Hotel, The Christopher (former site of the McBurney YMCA of the eponymous Village People song), The Schermerhorn in Brooklyn and The Hollander Foundation Center in Hartford. Breaking Ground currently has another 1000 units in development.
Over the past 25 years Breaking Ground has helped over 12,000 people avoid or escape homelessness.
While Breaking Ground places great importance on helping those most in need, potential tenants must still undergo a qualification process much like one the average renter goes through for a conventional apartment.
When it comes to qualifying renters for move-in, Breaking Ground trusts On-Site. Whether for criminal background checks, credit history, or landlord-tenant history, On-Site’s all encompassing rental report includes the data Breaking Ground needs to make informed decisions about potential renters.
“We use On-Site to check that applicants don’t have the recent history that will give us concern about their ability to be a positive member of the community,” Bloss said.
With a proven approach to fighting homelessness and the right technology in place, Breaking Ground stands today as a template for supportive housing programs throughout the world.
Innovation in the fight against homelessness
New York State is one of the few places in the country in which the right to shelter is guaranteed by the state’s constitution. By recent account, there are nearly 60,000 homeless people living in New York City, half of whom struggle with issues that contribute to their homelessness, including mental illness, substance abuse, and chronic health problems.
Traditional methods of combatting homelessness in the city have involved stopgap measures. The homeless are shuttled into overnight shelters where the possibility of permanent housing is contingent upon a recipient’s ability to complete a rehabilitation program or attain sobriety. In the meantime, the chronically homeless cycle through shelters, emergency rooms and jail cells.
Compounding the issue, the average length of stay in New York City shelters is on the rise, hitting 439 days, a 34% increase since the year 2000. The need to transition the city’s homeless into permanent, stable housing is more pressing than ever.
Following Breaking Ground’s appropriately groundbreaking success with permanent supportive housing, the organization branched out. Through its Street To Home outreach program, Breaking Ground actively searches out and assists people who have been living on the streets for months and even years. Breaking Ground provides street outreach services on behalf of the City of New York in the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, and nearly one-third of Manhattan.
Breaking Ground’s staff walk and drive the City’s streets, seeking out those in need. Concerned New Yorkers and visitors can also call the City’s 311 hotline to dispatch a member of Breaking Ground’s outreach team to assist a homeless person in distress.
But street outreach is not just a matter of responding to calls; it’s also about building trusting relationships over days, weeks, and months.
“If someone has been out on the streets for ten years and has severe psychiatric problems, they’re not very likely to say ‘Yes I’ll move into housing tomorrow.’ It’s going to take some convincing,” said Bloss. “Our goal is to work with them to build trust so that they will accept services and move into housing.”
Bloss remembered one homeless man living on the streets in Brooklyn who had refused help for many years. Eventually the Breaking Ground staff member who had been working the homeless man’s case informed him she was moving on to another position within the organization and that she would no longer be seeing him. She warned him a new person would be “bothering him.” The man immediately moved into transitional housing and shortly thereafter signed a lease on an apartment. This caseworker’s dedication is indicative of Breaking Ground’s culture writ large.
Even the “hardest to house” homeless—those who have been living on the streets for decades, potentially suffering from chronic health problems—can and want to live in stable housing.
Breaking Ground often uses transitional housing to help a homeless person in need stabilize while they find permanent housing for the candidate and qualify him or her for move-in. The ultimate goal is to move those living on the street into permanent housing.
“We’ll put them into transitional housing just so we’ll know that they’re safe, not exposed to the elements and less likely to be preyed upon,” Bloss said. “It’s a placeholder on the way to permanency.”
Qualifying renters with On-Site
Of Breaking Ground’s 3,300 units, 60 percent of the units in each building are reserved for the formerly homeless, while the remaining 40 percent are for low-income working individuals.
“The low-income tenants help bring balance to the building,” Bloss said.
The rental criteria for the two types of units are dissimilar. However, the flexibility of On-Site’s Screening allows the technology to accommodate both applicant types.
Those moving into low-income units must demonstrate they earn within certain income boundaries, which are based on low-income tax credits. It is these all important tax credits that provide capital funding for the construction and renovation of all of Breaking Ground’s buildings. With so much at stake, finding and qualifying the right renters is of paramount importance to Breaking Ground’s success. The slightest mistake or missing piece of data could put valuable tax credits at risk.
At the same time, Breaking Ground must also ensure prospective low-income tenants meet the organization’s credit, criminal background, and rental history criteria.
On the other hand, the homeless moving into the majority of Breaking Ground’s available units bring with them a number of special needs. Many of these renters suffer from severe and persistent mental illness while others suffer from substance abuse disorders.
“Many of them have a complicated history,” Bloss said. “Our goal is to make sure they’re not going to do something that’s going to put them at risk of losing housing and that is primarily a concern about committing violence in the building or selling drugs.”
As Bloss points out, Breaking Ground’s buildings house a large number of very vulnerable people because of the populations that the organization serves.
“It’s really important to us that we don’t have people that are preying on them or people who are going to threaten them while they live there,” Bloss said.
On-Site’s Screening tool allows Breaking Ground to set rental criteria and make rental recommendations against them. Using these settings, Breaking Ground can, for example, give special consideration to an applicant who may have committed a crime 20 years ago, but hasn’t done so since. Similarly, Breaking Ground can make special considerations for applicants who were sick for a prolonged period of time and have a large amount of debt related to medical care.
“We try to look at the whole person and On-Site enables us to do that, because we get a full list of all the things that have happened in their credit and in their criminal background,” Bloss said.
Partnering with On-Site
Before Breaking Ground partnered with On-Site, the organization’s screening process was in desperate need of an update.
“Our old credit reporting software gave us what looked like dot-matrix printouts,” Bloss said. “Now we get them in beautiful color-coding with a big thumbs up on it when the system doesn’t see any issues.”
On-Site’s thumbs up/thumbs down decision engine is a quick, no-nonsense way for Breaking Ground to see if potential renters meet the organization’s rental criteria.
Her team also reported that their old rental reports seemed like something “written in another language.”
While the reports may have looked like low-tech relics from a bygone era of computing, Breaking Ground hadn’t seen anything that they liked better until a fateful partnership with a conventional housing provider.
Another extension of Breaking Ground’s mission is to help private housing developers fill the affordable units in their mixed income housing—what in New York City are called 80/20 buildings. As the name suggests, 80 percent of the available units are dedicated to market rate renters while 20 percent are reserved for low-income renters. The housing developer insisted Breaking Ground use On-Site to qualify the low-income renters they were passing along to the 80/20 buildings.
Breaking Ground was initially apprehensive about using On-Site for the first time. They were relieved to find On-Site easy to use.
Within a couple of months, Breaking Ground canceled their contract with their old screening provider and switched full-time to On-Site. A big determining factor was the completeness and readability of On-Site’s reports.
“It can get rather complicated when you have somebody who has a large credit history and you’re trying to figure out what the concerning issue is, or if there is one at all,” Bloss said. “The On-Site reports made the situation much clearer when we were on the fence about somebody.”
In some cases, reporting agencies provide outdated or incorrect credit, criminal and rental history data. In these cases, On-Site’s Renter Relations team is on hand to help resolve these issues as expediently as possible. Whether by call or by click, both Breaking Ground’s leasing team and their potential tenants can get free and unlimited support, seven days a week, which can speed up the rental process.
“Breaking Ground’s tenants, applicants, and our staff have all had positive things to say about Renter Relations,” Bloss said. “We’ve had applicants who’ve been rejected for credit reasons who have called up Renter Relations to get a better understanding. We’ve heard that they’ve found them to be really helpful and accommodating.”
Breaking Ground’s expanding mission
Homelessness in New York City is at an all-time high for complex reasons beyond the scope of this story. However, in response to the housing crisis in the city, Breaking Ground has expanded, as announced recently, to include: increased outreach through the Street to Home program, new transitional housing resources, and two new 24-hour drop-in centers where the homeless can seek help and take the first crucial step towards stable housing. The total sum of these programs now makes Breaking Ground not only the largest provider of supportive housing but also the city’s largest provider of homeless street outreach services.
Through this expanded mission, On-Site continues to support Breaking Ground’s leasing and compliance team with top-notch renter qualification tools, enhancing their ability to provide safe and secure housing to struggling New Yorkers.