Two mothers who have gone through being homeless tell the 13 Watchdog team application fees for apartments in the Grand Rapids are one of the biggest barriers for people to get their families out of homelessness.
Our investigative team has been following the growing problem of child homelessness in our area to see what we could do to attack the issue.
We found affordable housing is a huge issue as the price of rent has skyrocketed as salaries have generally stayed the same in West Michigan. Add in the fact the Grand Rapids area has one of the lowest rental vacancy rates in the country and it's a perfect storm for people trying to get out of a terrible situation.
For those who have criminal convictions and evictions, it's tough to find a place because of the competition. Because they're not the best candidates to rent, they are automatically at the bottom of the list even as they still pay money to apply to rent places they won't be getting.
Rachel Van Haften is getting herself out of homelessness at Mel Trotter Ministries in downtown Grand Rapids. She says she spent $500 on application fees and wasted the money because she never was able to get any of the apartments.
"I'd say for every one place that's out there for rent, you've probably got 10-20 people who want that place," Van Haften said. They take your application fee which is anywhere from $30-$60 and you don't get the place.
Lashawnda McClendon is out on her own now after having to go to a shelter. Health issues caused her to be homeless and she says she had a tough time being able to get a new place to live.
She says she spent $2,000 on application fees before she finally found an apartment.
"I got denied and denied and denied," McClendon said. "They take your money and then deny you and then you spend your last money on application fees because this is what you want. You are really trying to get somewhere for your kids to be."
Both McClendon and Van Haften said they felt they were being taken advantage of because of their vulnerability.
"You are already homeless and then you are paying all these fees out and trying to save at the same time," McClendon said.
Many landlords across the area are charging application fees for people just to apply to rent. The money to the landlords is supposed to pay for a full background check to see whether the applicants meet certain criteria.
An example we found was an apartment in Heritage Hill in Grand Rapids for $800, somewhat affordable near a bus line. The landlord is asking potential renters to pay a $50 "per adult application fee".
Experts we spoke with say the application fee, in reality, should be no more than $35 so landlords can check for evictions, criminal convictions and get a credit report. We tested several different web sites and were able to get a comprehensive report for $24.95.
Those who help the homeless say the fees aren't helping their cause.
Cheryl Schuch from Family Promise works with landlords to try to help families housed in her shelter.
"How easy would it to be to say we won't charge app fees coming through that entity or maybe there's another way to screen it out," Schuch said. (If they can do it for cheap) that's their give back to the community."
Dennis Van Kampen from Mel Trotter Ministries says these application fees have undoubtedly kept children from being able to have a home. He says some of the homeless in his shelter don't know what to do after constantly getting turned down.
"(They say) now what do I do because I don't have any more money to pay for these fees and I am not getting accepted into a place because of the competitive environment," Van Kampen said.
Clay Powell represents more than 1,300 landlords as the director of the Rental Property Owners Association and says the fees are also an issue with the landlords too. He says it's concerning to the rental property owners because people are applying for apartments they can't afford or don't qualify to get.
"It's frustrating to the rental property owner as well," Powell said. "Why did this person spend money and why did they waste my time on this?"
Powell says at times people in desperate situations spend the money knowing they don't qualify or are hoping a background check won't be done.
"They might slip through the cracks but most good landlords and property management companies are going to follow through," Powell said.
Powell's advice to applicants is to have as frank a conversation as possible about qualifications before the applicant pays the fee, keeping in mind landlords can't stop anybody from applying.
"Make sure you are ready to go fill out an application first," Powell said.
Both McClendon and Van Haften think there are some landlords out there who are pocketing extra money using the application process.
"It was ridiculously high and not right," McClendon said. "I just feel like it should be different."
"I think there's some real dishonest people out there," Van Haften said.
We found in our research some landlords don't charge application fees and both women were able to get housing from a landlord without paying a fee, so it pays to shop around.
We also spoke with some landlords who pick a week or a couple of weeks a year to have "free application fee weeks" so people can find out if they would qualify for certain apartments.
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