Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
Tyrone Poole, the founder of NoAppFee.com, was homeless once. Now he’s demystifying the rental search, one application at a time.
Tyrone Poole had nowhere to go when he dragged himself on crutches to a Portland bus station in late 2006. His leg, still healing from a devastating muscle tear, seared in pain. He collapsed and vomited on a bench. A police officer found him and took him to a local YWCA, which begrudgingly accepted him after hours.
“I got to a cot on the gym floor. I smelled like throw-up. Everything I owned was in a bag under the bed,” says Poole, now 34. “I couldn’t believe I’d gone from winning at life to lying here.”
Just a year before, Poole was a young man moving up. He had completed his degree at Portland Community College and was training to be a firefighter. But a leg injury and a lengthy hospitalization cost him his spot in the academy and sent him deep into debt. Eviction followed. His car was repossessed. Poole crashed with friends until the last one gave him the boot. And just like that, he found himself homeless.
The morning after rock bottom, a shelter worker stopped him and insisted on taking Poole’s name. She told him he could get rent assistance if he simply applied through the local housing bureau. He hesitated—he didn’t identify as someone who needed help. But he applied, and immediately qualified for a year’s worth of support. “I was ecstatic,” he says. “I thought I’d be out of there within a week.”
He was wrong: It took months, and not for a lack of available units. Poole discovered the biggest blockade between him and an apartment was the mysterious web of qualifications that landlords required of him as a renter. Property managers seemed to have no rhyme or reason for whom they’d accept, and he just had to cross his fingers and guess. Every time he applied and failed, it was another $30 or $50 he didn’t really have, down the drain.
This would be the turning point in Poole’s life: He made it his mission to help others cut through that bureaucratic mystery and financial burden. Today, he’s the founder and CEO of NoAppFee.com, a single-entry online platform that screens hopeful tenants against the exact specifications of vacant units, virtually free of cost. It’s an elegant solution to what is a maddening process in Portland and other cities. And it could eliminate a needless barrier for lots of apartment seekers, at every income level.
Up by the bootstraps
According to the Portland Housing Bureau, more than two-thirds of the city’s 125,000 renter households qualify for affordable housing. Yet only 25 percent of the 14,000 affordable housing units that PHB oversees turn over every year. After all, this is one of the hottest markets in the country. That’s the main thing keeping people from finding affordable units in Portland.
But on top of the shortage, tenants must match a vexing array of criteria—different at every property—when they apply for a unit. Though federal law requires that these criteria be public, in most cases applicants still have to know to ask for them. Otherwise, they find out after they’ve forked over their fees that certain properties have special allowances for certain kinds of tenants (ex-felons, say), but no allowances for others (like folks with bad credit or past evictions). This is as true for the homeless as it is for the general population—but it’s a way bigger burden for people who don’t have the time, or money, to figure it out the hard way.
After Poole finally found a unit, he started working at the shelter. As he pulled his life together, he watched individual after individual struggle with the same moving targets in their housing search. Some had Section 8 vouchers, or assistance from Veterans Affairs, or support from disability or domestic violence programs—but they kept getting shafted. Poole manually compiled a list of all the screening criteria he could find to help them, but managers’ conditions kept changing.
By now, it was 2013. Why couldn’t this process be automated, Poole thought. The simple concept was thrilling to everyone he told. A lender at a local bank introduced Poole to Portland’s economic development agency, which was launching a funding contest for civic-minded startups by entrepreneurs of color. Poole, who is black, entered in 2014 and won, gaining serious financial backing, free office space, and a host of tech-industry connections.
Poole launched NoAppFee.com in beta in 2015. This version was targeted at the general housing market, not just affordable-housing seekers. Eight Portland-area management companies agreed to participate and provide their open units—at, above, and below market rates—and screening criteria to Poole and his team. They paid nothing to include their listings (about 80 at first); renters had to enter their Social Security number and date of birth and pay $35 for a credit and background check, refundable once they have paid the first month’s rent. In return, they’re matched with all vacancies that they qualify for, automatically.
One application, multiple apartment listings: Talk about disrupting the housing market. Within the first month, Poole says, the website had 1,700 registered users—overwhelming the starter supply of units. “We were giving away 10 or 15 refunds a day,” Poole recalls.
Partnering with Portland
Around the same time, the Portland Housing Bureau was looking for ways to help locals push through the maze of nonprofits and private property managers offering affordable-rate units. “Someone seeking housing would regularly have to contact 10 to 20 organizations on a weekly basis to find out about vacancies,” says Matthew Tschabold, the policy & equity manager at PHB. “It was a big burden for people who are already low-income and struggling to live and work in our community.”
Presenting the need for a simpler, single point of entry to the affordable housing search, PHB won a chunk of cash from the city’s innovation fund in 2015 to bid for a better product. That’s how it connected with NoAppFee, which wound up winning a contract. Now PHB and Poole’s team are working to build a .gov website powered by NoAppFee software that’s tailored to Portlanders served by PHB. Tschabold says it should launch sometime in the next year.
There will be some key differences. For example, the .gov version won’t require a Social Security number or a credit card to pay, since not everyone has those. But the streamlined experience will be the same. There are other cities with single-entry housing search platforms, like New York. But NoAppFee is unique in that corrals an ecosystem of property owners and types into the same, level space.*
A single platform for housing matches will also give Portland a leg up on identifying cases of renter discrimination. If applicants match all the criteria, but still don’t get accepted by a property manager, that tips off housing officials that another factor could be at play—like race, disability, or religion. That data could be indispensable as the city pushes to increase its affordable housing supply to begin with. After all, the state of Oregon only just overturned its ban on mandatory inclusionary housing. “If we see there are large swaths of renters prevented from getting into housing, then that could help better inform decisions about landlord-tenant laws,” says Tschabold.
Meanwhile, Poole is gearing up to relaunch NoAppFee.com for the general market, with hundreds of additional listings. Another key improvement: The relaunched website will tell applicants who don’t match with any units exactly what they need to do, be it build up their credit or complete a “responsible renter” course. Dozens of additional property management companies have also been brought online. Poole says a few have been wary of his project—they like having control over who gets into their units—but most are enthusiastic about automating the exhausting process of finding quality tenants, even if it means losing application fees.
NoAppFee has also launched in small markets in Kings County, Washington, and pockets of Georgia, through partnerships with officials there. But Poole is mainly focused on making Portland a booming success so that he can replicate it elsewhere. Ultimately, Poole says, he’d love to embed the software on sites like Zillow to bring a smooth, simplified housing search to everyone in the market—rich, poor, and middle-income alike.
“That will be the game-changer,” he says. “That’s when we end unnecessary homelessness.”
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this story inaccurately stated that New York City owns and operates the properties on its housing-match platform.