Non-profit organization helps give low-income residents a second life

Clarissa Lomnick credits her Jersey Village apartment with changing the life of her son, Jamarcus Kinniebrew.

She moved there for school, and he is thriving in his new elementary class. The kid who struggled with making friends, looking people in the eye, or reading at school level has found buddies and will now happily sum up a plot. Teachers call, leaving positive messages about his progress.

“Nobody can tell me that the atmosphere doesn’t affect kids,” Lomnick said. “Because it is.”

But the first time she called the rental office for her family’s life-changing home, she was turned down, she said. The property management company failed to take Housing Choice Vouchers, the government housing benefit she depends on to pay her rent.

That was before a Houston nonprofit called NestQuest stepped in to act as a liaison between the owner and the family.

The problem Lomnick faces is pervasive, affecting more than 5 million people across the country who rely on housing choice vouchers to pay their rent. Vouchers theoretically give low-income families the freedom to choose where they live, a decision that research shows can strongly shape their quality of life. But in reality, most homeowners aren’t interested in jumping through the hoops of federal program participation.

A study by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development showed that 78% of more than 1,100 apartment listings contacted in Fort Worth said they did not accept vouchers. Families in Texas face greater hurdles in finding homes that will accept vouchers than elsewhere, as the state passed a law in 2015 protecting landlords who discriminate against voucher holders. Other states have laws protecting bond holders.

NestQuest, founded in 2017, decided to change that. The nonprofit rents zoned apartments to high-performing schools and then sublets them to Housing Choice Coupon families with school-aged children, with a mission to change their life trajectories. They help families overcome complex obstacles, including rising rents, long inspection periods, maintenance and social work. And now, after a years-long pilot including Lomnick and his son, now 11, the program is set to expand, hoping to inspire similar programs in other cities.

“We have all the housing authorities knocking on our door and saying this is an inventive solution…this needs to be replicated and scaled up in other states because this is a problem on every level,” Hannah Mannion said. , executive director of Nestquest.

The nonprofit organization currently serves about 50 families and is looking to increase the number to 350. Currently, it is in fundraising mode – it spends about $1,800 per family each year to cover case managers, administrative work, property management and the difference between what local housing authorities cover and what market rates in the neighborhoods its clients choose demand, among other expenses.

In the wings

Lomnick met Isabel Lopez, one of the founders of NestQuest, during a housing voucher orientation program. When Lopez described the program, Lomnick was sold. She signed up for the pilot and NestQuest helped her find the apartment where she currently lives.

Moreover, it soon became clear that NestQuest was planning to do much more than sublet an apartment. The day Lomnick, who was living out of a hotel at the time, without a car, had to move house, she fell ill. When Lopez heard, she rented a U-Haul truck and came to the hotel with her mom, sister, and sister’s husband. Together, Lopez and her family drove Lomnick and his son to their storage unit and then helped move their belongings to their new home.

Lomnick still grows emotionally thinking about that day. “Has anyone ever done something for you when you felt like thank you wasn’t enough?” she asked. “That’s really what it feels like to be blessed.”

Behind the scenes, NestQuest was also helping the owner. Two big barriers preventing most landlords from participating in the housing voucher program are that vouchers do not cover market rent in many areas and integrating an apartment may require keeping the unit empty for months. without payment.

NestQuest solves the first problem by using money from Blue Cross Blue Shield, the Texas Association of Realtors, United Way and other organizations to make up the difference between what the local housing authority considers a reasonable rate and market rents in the neighborhood. Then, by renting the apartment itself, it allows landlords to receive regular payments during what would otherwise be a waiting period during which the housing authority inspects the unit, asks for updates and makes an agreement about how much she will pay and how much the family will pay. The waiting period can take two to three months for a typical voucher recipient, said Lopez, who worked at both the Houston and Harris County housing authority, but NestQuest shortens that wait by performing its own inspection and resolving any potential issues that may be identified. in the housing authority inspection before this happens.

NestQuest also guarantees that it will cover any damage to the unit and helps families ensure regular maintenance is carried out by checking the condition of the apartment quarterly. (One reason he doesn’t put families in single-family homes is because apartments are easier to maintain.)

“The program, when I heard about it, made so much sense to me,” said John Boriack, president of Veritas Equity Management, which owns and operates six apartment complexes in the Houston area.

He said his company had considered accepting housing choice vouchers before, but had balked at regulatory hurdles and late payments. But after learning about NestQuest’s solution to those hurdles at a board meeting of the Houston Apartment Association, an industry group, Boriack quickly signed up.

Today, after working with a dozen NestQuest families, he calls himself a “disciple” of the program, enthusiastically sharing his experience with other apartment owners. “It was a wonderful experience.”

like family

When Lopez and her family arrived at Lomnick’s hotel room to help move her and her son, Lomnick felt a sense of disbelief and something akin to embarrassment. “It was like these people didn’t even know me,” she recalls.

The reason she applied for and received a housing voucher in the first place was a disability that limited her ability to work, which stemmed from a life-threatening injury she suffered as a toddler. The traumatic event was followed by a heartbreaking experience in the foster care system before her parents regained custody. Even then, her parents’ relationship with each other – and with herself – never recovered.

“It took me a long time to love myself,” she says. “So when people come into your life and give you all this support, and they care about you, and they care about your well-being, you almost don’t know how to accept it,” he said. she declared.

But she did it because she concluded that NestQuest had the same mission as herself: to provide her child with the stability that her own childhood lacked.

Today, she calls the staff her “NestQuest family” and is happy when they ask about her son’s grades and attendance. She feels safe knowing that if she ever got into dire straits – say her disability check didn’t come through and she was struggling to pay for her food – she would have someone to call. And she’s happy about the recordings and that if she doesn’t answer her phone, someone will stop by to make sure she’s okay.

“You know when people say, ‘I want everything for my child’?” she asked. “I won’t accept anything less for him than is within our reach.”

She is certain that if her son had gone to another school, as a student with autism, he would not have received the resources he needed to thrive. For that, she thanks NestQuest.

“NestQuest, they don’t have a school or anything like that. But they have resources, they have connections, they make sure you have everything you need.

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