As homelessness has skyrocketed in Rhode Island, one nonprofit is combating the issue by giving private landlords thousands of dollars in cash for every homeless person they house. 

“It's really just a relentless pursuit,” said Albert Schiavone. He works for Amos House, a nonprofit organization in Providence that offers a wide variety of services and resources for homeless people in Rhode Island.

Schiavone makes at least a dozen cold calls before lunchtime every day, trying to convince landlords to rent units to homeless Rhode Islanders. He gives them a pretty good reason to sign up.

“So it’s a one-year lease,” he explains on a call to one landlord. “We're gonna give you $6,000 in guaranteed incentives, in addition to first [month’s rent] and security [deposit], and guaranteeing the rent to be paid via a housing voucher.” The state keeps a waitlist of people looking for homes, and ranks individuals based on how vulnerable they are, their physical and mental health, whether they have kids, and more. It’s Schiavone’s job to connect those people to landlords through Amos House’s landlord incentive program

By all accounts, Schiavone is very good at this job.

“He's just a really good salesperson. He works really hard convincing, and he chases people,” said Schiavone’s boss, Amos House CEO Eileen Hayes.

She says the landlord incentive program has been around for about three years. They’ve acquired about 375 units in that time, most of which have been pledged since Schiavone started the job last August.

Why has Schiavone been so successful in convincing landlords to sign up for this program? For one, landlords trust him. That’s according to Matt Patty, whose company, Century 21 Shoreline Properties, is a major player in Rhode Island’s real estate scene. Patty said he’s usually turned off by government-funded projects like these. 

“Local government’s one thing, but the federal government? Forget it,” he said. “There’s this severe paranoia in a lot of a lot of people about this topic, you know, myself included, admittedly.”

Patty says that’s why Schiavone’s involvement in Amos House was key in convincing him to set aside some of his units for people experiencing homelessness.

“For somebody like Al to be involved in it builds trust and credibility right away, because I know he's a businessman. I know he's a landlord, too,” Patty said.

Schiavone is very passionate about real estate – he approaches it like a game.

“The pursuit is awesome. Do the numbers work? Is it a good investment? Is it a great location? There's the whole wheeling and dealing between you and the seller. It's kind of like a who wins, who loses type of thing,” he said.

Besides the clear monetary perks in the landlord incentive program, landlords can also rest assured that their rent is guaranteed. The vouchers that pay for the units come directly from the various public and private apartment voucher programs to the landlord’s hand. They can also find out a potential tenant’s criminal or eviction background.

“You can do your own background check,” Schiavone said in one of his pitches. “We give Social Security, birth, birthday, location, email, we give you everything. There's no deception. It's all straightforward and right out on the table.” 

Schiavone and Patty are both from Rhode Island, and both around the same age – Patty is 41 and Schiavone is 39. They say homelessness has gotten worse in their lifetimes, something they blame on the out-of-control housing market. Rental costs have risen in Rhode Island over the past 10 years by more than thirty percent. And homelessness has steadily risen since the pandemic began.

They say giving property tax breaks to landlords could incentivize them to keep their rental rates down, thus easing the housing crisis. That’s a similar idea to what Providence Mayor Brett Smiley has proposed. Plus, Patty says, the market has a way of easing costs.

But some are wary of this free market approach – like leftist activist Daniel Denvir, co-chair of the housing justice organization Reclaim RI.

“We're certainly supportive of anything that gets housing insecure people into homes,” Denvir said. “But we also strongly believe that private sector developers and landlords can't solve the housing crisis.”

Denvir wants the public sector to play a larger role in funding and building affordable housing. That’s why his organization has teamed up with state House Speaker Joe Shekarchi on a number of legislative measures to address housing affordability, including a budget proposal to create a statewide $50 million revolving fund to build more mixed-income public housing.

“There's only one entity in the state of Rhode Island with the fiscal capacity to actually build the homes to solve the housing crisis – both in terms of getting homeless people housed, and also ensuring that people who are precariously housed are securely housed. That is the state of Rhode Island,” Denvir said. “And a lot of different entities, including the private sector, including nonprofits, have an important role to play. But until this public sector really steps up and starts building and building big, this housing crisis will continue.”

Amos House’s funding does come from the state, but it’s come from a variety of sources over the years. 

Jessica Salter, a spokesperson for Amos House, said over email that some of its units are publicly subsidized as well. She said Amos House agrees that the state needs to invest in developing more truly affordable housing. But she also said we’re in a housing crisis now.

“We need both a short-term plan now to address the record number of households who are currently unhoused, as well as a long-term plan to ensure greater stability for all our neighbors,” Salter wrote. “Our goal is to house the most people, period.”

Over coffee and oatmeal at the Geneva Diner in North Providence, landlord and developer Karley Carto said two formerly homeless people have moved into his units just this month, and soon he’ll welcome another two. He says he signed up for the Amos House program in part because he has a soft spot for vulnerable tenants. He grew up in public housing after coming to the U.S. when he was a toddler, as a refugee from the Liberian civil war. 

Participating in the program as a landlord is “not the smoothest process,” Carto said. “But if you're going to join it for smoothness, then it's not for you. It's more for the impact – whether it's a temporary impact or long-term impact.”

Like Schiavone and Patty, Carto is a businessman, and thinks more tax break incentives for landlords could help ease the high cost of rents. 

Carto’s stance on the success of the program is somewhere between Patty and Denvir. 

“I think there just needs to be an intentional approach,” Carto said. “Amos House’s incentive program is just one step to put a band-aid on it. It's not something that's supposed to last forever.”

And it is a band-aid. Right now, about 215 Amos House clients are housed through the program (there are additional clients from other organizations), but that’s out of an estimated daily homeless population of about 1,000 in Rhode Island as last tallied in April. It’s a drop in the bucket, but for those lucky people in Amos House units, it’s the drop that makes all the difference.

Metro reporter Olivia Ebertz can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @OliviaEbertz