Housing People in Communities with Low Vacancy Rates

This blog is part of the “You asked for it” series. In December, on the OrgCode FaceBook page I asked people want blogs they wanted to see. These blogs are a direct response to the most popular suggestions. This one goes out to Matt Ashdown.


I get it – you want to house people out of homelessness. But – and this is making your life difficult and their life hell – you cannot find any place to rent because the vacancy rate is low. Let me give you three things to ponder for your community.

First of all, the vacancy rate is misleading. Depending on what country you are in, it is captured in different ways. For example, in Canada many may be familiar with CMHC’s Rental Market Survey that comes out in October. Check the fine print. It only reflects buildings with 6 or more units, with three or more storeys. Does it capture the secondary market? No. So while it may tell you what is going on in larger property management firms, it doesn’t tell you much about the entire universe of rental housing stock. Another way the vacancy rate can be misleading is that it doesn’t do a great job at looking at seasonal fluctuations in the rental universe. It is a point in time, which can be a good barometer, but I think we can all agree that communities that are influenced by their college population or seasonal jobs like tourism are bound to experience changes at different times of year. If all people do is look at the vacancy rate and feel defeated and think there is no reason to even bother looking for housing, that is a problem.

Second, once a community gets to a certain size (say 100,000 give or take) it makes more sense to have a housing locator team for the entire community rather than having each organization hunting for and fighting over the same housing stock. If you have done coordinated access and common assessment properly, this is the next step in the evolution of coordination. You want a housing locator that is an expert in the rental market. You don’t want a social worker trying to be a housing locator.

Third – and this one has been a huge boost to several communities I have done work with over the last couple years – go to some of the neighbourhoods known to have the lowest incomes in your city. What will you find? A whole bunch of people that never experience homelessness despite living on meager and insufficient welfare, or having no formal source of income at all (though may participate in the informal economy). Start asking them how they are able to find and maintain housing and then replicate it. Sometimes our problem is that we apply a middle class lens to the issue and are oblivious to how a whole contingent of the community stay housed in tight and unaffordable rental markets.


Iain De Jong

About Iain De Jong

3 Responses to “Housing People in Communities with Low Vacancy Rates”

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  1. Angela says:

    What if our housing market is lacking 20,000 units? It’s not just a sense of a low vacancy rate in this market. They say that Portland is becoming another Seattle or San Francisco. Thank goodness I am in the next county to the south. Just interested in your thoughts as always.

  2. Linda Kaufman says:


    thanks for this. I get this question all the time, and this is very helpful. The other thing I am doing some thinking about is that the folks who move from the streets to housing do just about as well (85-95% tenancy success) as open market rentals (~90% tenancy success). People do well moving from the street to housing — and landlords get additional help through case management if there is a problem. How cool is that!

  3. Sarah says:

    Thank you for this Iain! My agency commissioned a study on the local housing market, which indicated a 96% occupancy rate. After reading this, I plan to dig into exactly how that number was determined.

    A question about your second point– I hail from Lancaster, PA. The homeless service system is coordinated countywide (population: 529,600). Within our county we have very rural areas, urban areas, small towns, and suburbs– this includes 60 municipalities with different ways of handling rental permits, etc. Our city center population is 59,325. Is it your suggestion that a system such as ours would benefit from a housing locator team for the entire county? Can you provide examples of communities similar to Lancaster doing this?

    Thanks again!