Wiping away tears, Natalie Wilson stepped into her new rent-free apartment at William Penn Village and was overwhelmed with the fact that she finally will be living in a home she can call her own.
“My son has his own bedroom. This is amazing! I am just overjoyed and I cannot say thank you enough.”
The certified nursing assistant who works at the Methodist Country House was selected in May to receive 6 months of rent-free apartment living as part of a program called Apartment Angels, which donates up to six apartments twice a year to individuals or families to help them get back on their feet.
Wilson and her 6-year-old son had been living with her parents for over two years and couldn’t afford to move out – until she heard of Apartment Angels. The young mother is also studying to become a registered nurse and hopes to build up savings so that at the end of the six months, she can afford to stay as a renter. “This is just such a great opportunity; I’m just so grateful. This is my chance to get myself financially and physically stable.”
Wilson’s sunny two-bedroom apartment has a walk-in master closet, two bathrooms and views of a large, well-manicured courtyard. And the kitchen is all her own.
Apartment Angels is a transitional housing program that has turned hundreds of homeless (those living with family, friends or a shelter) into happy apartment dwellers since launching in 2010.
“The goal of the program is to help improve the lives of some who are less fortunate – to help them find a way to transition back into independent home living,” said Evergreen Apartment Group President and CEO Kevin Wolfgang, who came up with the idea of Apartment Angels in 2008.
In that election year, Wolfgang became head of the Delaware Apartment Association (DAA). But as the economy took a turn for the worse, Wolfgang faced the daunting prospect of continuing the association’s heritage of philanthropy. Traditional methods weren’t as successful as they once were. “So I put my entrepreneurial hat on and thought about what could work and how we could fulfill our promise to support our local communities.”
In what he now says was an obvious idea, he decided he would ask apartment landlords to give away their extra inventory. “Some landlords had property that was just sitting there.”
Wolfgang and his team at Evergreen spent a year ironing out the details of the give-away concept — including addressing how tenants would be screened and selected — and the careful planning paid off. “The owners of the apartment communities were really wonderful. They really got the idea and were ready to jump on board right away.”
With some 70 apartments now offered under the 6-month rent-free program, Apartment Angels knows well the community they serve. “These people have been through the wringer, and it’s just to the point that these people don’t know if life will ever get better for them,” said Wolfgang. “These are folks who have had unexpected catastrophes in their lives – medical illness and mounting bills, a sick relative, loss of job, armed services deployment.”
Several multi-housing rental communities participate in the program, which now has a committee and a program director. And since 2010, Apartment Angels has donated nearly $400,000 worth of free housing units. Participating companies include Bucchnini Pollin Group, Capano, The Gallman Group, Morgan Properties, Pettinaro Residential, Sovereign Property Management and Westover Companies.
In the last cycle, Pettinaro Residential placed two young single fathers, both who had children within the past year who were born with various birth defects. Each of the fathers held jobs, but with mounting medical bills they were sleeping on the floor in the basement of a friends’ homes, with the special needs children on mattresses.
Now they both have warm, furnished apartments, with beds and cribs donated by Apartment Angels.
“It’s a very rewarding program, and it allows these recipients, who are really trying to keep it together but just don’t have all of the moving parts at the moment, to have a place to live,” said Matt Martelli with Pettinaro Residential, who sits on the Apartment Angels committee.
Several DAA vendor members, who supply goods and services to apartment companies, were also impressed and asked to join the Apartment Angels program at the outset. One of the first to offer to help was a credit and criminal record screening company, who offered their services for free and still does to this day. Renters cannot have a felony record and need to meet other qualifying criteria.
In addition to the free housing, qualified renters receive free renters insurance and furniture that’s theirs to keep even after the 6 months has ended. Each residential company also spruces up their donated apartments with carpentry work, painting, and sometimes new wall-to-wall carpet so the units looks polished and attractive when the renter moves in.
To the entire Apartment Angels team, the payoff for all their work is of course move-in day. “The look on their faces when they cut that ribbon and they open the door is so overwhelming. It helps us sustain this program year after year,” said Wolfgang.
The program is entirely funded by donations by apartment landlords and members of the Delaware Apartment Association. And in each and every cycle Evergreen Apartments donates one or more apartments. “It was important to us, as the founders of the program, that we continue to be vested in the program,” said Wolfgang.
After six months the apartment community can evaluate whether the renter is a good fit for the community, and the renter can choose to apply to stay. “A majority of the time, the renters have built up a small nest egg, gained employment and are in a position to sustain the housing,” said Wolfgang.
Interestingly, the program’s success has also generated one shortcoming: In some cycles the number of vacant properties exceeds the number of qualified applicants. “We wish more potential applicants knew about our program,” said Wolfgang. The Delaware Apartment Association, area nonprofits with shelters and governmental agencies are aware of the program but don’t always generate enough prospects.
No matter how many they help, Wolfgang and the Apartment Angels committee is proud to offer dignity and hope to those who need it most. “At the end of the day this is about helping people and giving them a second chance.”