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A New Way to Help People Find a Home: Creating Affordable Home Finding Platforms

When trying to find a new place to rent, many people will go online and search listings on Zillow, RedFin, or other housing registries that offer people the opportunity to explore multiple options from their homes. However, for people who qualify for subsidized housing, there are few reliable options to help them find housing, meaning many spend hours visiting or searching across online platforms to identify vacancies.

To combat this inequity, some cities, states, and organizations are trying to build reliable affordable housing platforms that provide housing seekers with information on affordable housing options and unit vacancies. Housing Matters hosted a roundtable with three people currently working on these issues to identify best practices and challenges when building out local affordable housing inventories.

  • Safiya Merchant works on the policy team at the City of Detroit Housing and Revitalization Department and served as the project manager for the creation of their affordable housing portal.
  • Jennifer Gilbert is the founder and executive director of Housing Navigator Massachusetts, a Massachusetts-based 501(c)(3) offering tools and information about affordable rental housing.
  • Izzie Hirschy works on Exygy's Bloom Housing, an open-source portal that centralizes and eases the process of finding and applying for affordable housing.
Why is your locality focused on housing inventories? What problems are you looking to solve?

Gilbert: For Housing Navigator, we aim to give people agency in finding housing. We created this inventory with the goal of having every property in Massachusetts that has any income eligible units transparent and visible for people to see. Right now, that is 3,100 listings and we’re still collecting more.

People don’t realize it’s harder to find affordable housing than it is to build it; I say that as somebody whose career was building affordable housing. All the people who the housing is intended for do not have the convenience of finding housing on things like Zillow. We need to create the inventory so that can power a search tool that gives people the power and agency to find housing that works for them. The inventory is also super useful to say what housing Massachusetts has and what are the gaps.

Merchant: Our counterpart website is Detroit Home Connect, and we decided two years ago to begin developing an affordable housing website for the city. Residents call and say, “I’m struggling and need to find housing,” and Detroit is a city where a significant number of residents face housing instability in some form. For us, the website and listing our regulated affordable housing inventory is a matter of leveling the playing field in terms of access and knowledge.

We put a lot of time into the creation and preservation of affordable housing, but if knowledge of those properties isn’t widely accessible to the population, then there isn’t equity. A lot of affordable housing is marketed in limited ways. It becomes a matter of luck to a consumer. Did I drive across the right block? See the right social media post? We tried to make a centralized tool that at the very least makes that world less opaque.

Hirschy: We believe affordable housing seekers deserve the same seamless online experience as somebody who is booking a hotel or finding a market rate house. We wanted to build a solution that was directly informed by residents who gave feedback on what their housing search looked like. We learned that people were taking multiple buses to inquire at properties with no guarantee that they would find a vacant housing unit. But that was the only opportunity they had. By designing Bloom Housing with the very real, very pressing needs that housing seekers experience, our goal is to provide residents with agency over their home search.

What outcomes have you seen since the inventories went live?

Gilbert: We went live about two years ago and it’s been incredible. We get 30,000 visitors a month; somebody starts a search about once a minute. We’re a state that is 7 million people, and the universe for the tool is about 1 million people, so we see high levels of engagement.

We hear stories about outcomes on lives. People feel like this is a dignified experience. Their time is not wasted, and time is a huge resource Ten percent of our users are over 65, and they can quickly find that information.

People are getting into housing faster. A woman used the tool, and within nine months, she was housed. She had been paying 80 percent of her income on rent, and now she can walk to her job and her rent is based on her income (30 percent of her income on rent). We hear stories like that all the time.

Many owners have started adopting things that make their own websites more transparent and finding it works in their interest, such as indicating the length of their waitlist. Letting applicants know about the waitlist lets them make a choice: maybe they can wait and maybe they can’t. When we started, everybody thought all the waitlists are 10 years long and all are closed, but that has not proven to be true. It helps shift thinking and gives people hope.

Merchant: We soft launched in June 2022, and it has been picking up steam since then. We’re getting people signed up to receive notifications and create accounts and seeing surges in usage. We’re going to do more of a marketing push later this year. Our first step since launch has focused on developing policies and procedures for Detroit Home Connect and training staff so that we can more effectively maintain the website and keep its information up to date.

Hirschy: There are powerful implications of the data the inventories can collect. Affordable housing is very diffused, meaning data lives in very isolated siloes such that jurisdictions don’t know how many affordable units they have. They cannot say with confidence how many units they have, but collecting this data allows us to say a lot about affordable housing and impact. To be able to see the affordable opportunities and see what is coming online can be a powerful narrative change. It gives a clear criteria to look to, and it’s a clear tool to leverage.

What have been some of the biggest hurdles you’ve faced in building or maintaining a housing inventory?

Merchant: While residents don’t have information, the amount of information we have on affordable properties was limited as well. While developing the website, we tried to figure out what information needed to be updated and what information residents would care about, like rents or amenities. It took a lot of time and conversations to get that data. Property managers may not be on-site, may not respond to email, may be too busy to have a full-length conversation—all of the things set up that can be barriers for residents during the leasing process was also a challenge for us while setting up the portal.

Gilbert: I want to be hopeful. People might give up because it’s hard to collect data, but a lot of things are really hard. And a lot of data are already collected for compliance purposes to prove somebody deserves to live in a subsidized building. If a very small portion of that time and funding got redirected or equally put toward marketing and helping people find a unit, we would solve this problem really quickly.

Our team has spent almost three years trying to get our dataset complete. The data is hard to find at the beginning. One helpful thing as we collect and share the data is shifting the narrative so this is about a public resource and getting everybody into that mindset. There was a lot of resistance to this, some people didn’t want more transparency and information about affordability in their community. Our state had not comprehensively collected data since 1986.

Merchant: What we’ve learned from partners in the tech space is that it doesn’t need to be perfect to go live. Waiting for a moment for when your data is perfect is antithetical to innovation. We have tried to socialize that concept here: the idea that we’re launching to deliver a product, and then we will grow and enhance that project. That is different from how we want to function in government, which is that things need to be perfect. But saying “we will revisit this” and being agile is a helpful mindset. There is value in it at every stage.

Gilbert: We like to share the experience we had with others so they don’t go down roads that are challenging. The more places that do this, the more we can learn from each other. It’s important to be transparent that this is a work in progress. When we went live, we knew our listings were not complete. People do not necessarily trust things on the internet. We know that we need to build trust at the beginning—you should exceed expectations but be honest about where you have holes, gaps, and errors. There was value in releasing something that was good but not perfect. It was a struggle to balance a minimum viable product and to launch strong. Given our current traction, we think we found the balance.

Merchant: Trust was something we thought about. Sometimes people ask why we aren’t expanding into other types of housing, such as showing all naturally occurring affordable housing. We decided we couldn’t regulate listings for much of this kind of housing stock, since much of it is not registered, and we cannot vouch for the quality of rentals. People are worried about scams, we’re putting guard rails around this so that it’s housing with local, state, or federal funding, or potentially naturally occurring housing that has met certain property inspection standards. When you explain it to people, it makes sense and helps them build confidence. Given staff capacity, it’s hard to monitor scams and loopholes.

Hirschy: Your experiences represent a tech evolution in jurisdictions—we can lose sight of what a big change this is. I know risk aversion is a large piece of the public sector, so to find acceptable risk and do that in the service of people and put it out with good design, good verified information, and a commitment to work on it is important.

What has helped you achieve success?

Merchant: One programmatic benefit was having a cohort of dedicated tech experts from the Google.org fellowship program, who helped us get in the right mindset and understand product development. They were instrumental in partnering with us on initial user testing, product development, and engineering to build Detroit Home Connect. Internally, we also had great leadership, and these projects thrive under the right kinds of leaders.

Gilbert: It’s great to have multiple types of agencies involved, cities and nonprofit partnerships. We started with a steering committee and working groups that brought together housing partners and funding agencies, legal services, homelessness advocates, and owners to help find solutions that appealed to everybody. One of the strongest things we have found are those win-wins, like our short waitlist pilot—things that are good for owners and good for renters. That is why our state partners really got behind this. Our state now requires owners to list on our site if they get state funding. We have tried to build the biggest, roundest table to ensure that there is fair access to housing.

Hirschy: We’ve worked with broad groups, including local nonprofits and policy researchers, to design the Bloom Housing and how it looks and feels. You can have the best technology, but if it’s not supported by the right policies or staffing, it can be dead-on-arrival. So as a technology partner, we don’t want to create just a technically sound, accessible website, we want to help design an ecosystem that supports the website and learns from the expertise of city residents and staff. We also use an open source platform, because we believe products built for the people should be governed by the people.

What advice do you have for other regions that may want to build a similar type of housing inventory?

Merchant: Especially if you’re doing this with a partner who needs the assistance of local expertise, you need dedicated staff capacity internally. If all your staff are doing 70 projects at once, it can be difficult to launch a project. This is foundational but also difficult to do. It’s really important to allow people to stay dedicated and see the project through, from initial product development and user testing to product launch. We’ve talked about creating a minimal viable product and having a product roadmap inform how we want this product to evolve in the future. Starting off with that is helpful so you’re not having constant mission and product creep.

Gilbert: Constant communication, constant expectation setting, and being clear that this is fundamental. If you do not have a fair, equitable, transparent way for people to find housing, then you are not doing your job. This is about people finding a home. Being clear about why you want to do this is critical. People cannot choose housing they cannot find. It is hard, but it is doable.

Merchant: This is not about a housing or tech solution; it is a bare-bones civic engagement and governmental transparency question: What is the information we should be giving to the public? While it is difficult to implement projects like this, it is a huge public good, and the question we should ask is, “Why doesn’t every community have this?” It is important not to overestimate the information the customer has.

Hirschy: The amount of housing that is available is fundamental, but so many places fall short of providing information, and the gap can feel insurmountable. While government often is not known as being at the cutting edge of technology, it is shocking that in 2023, this doesn’t exist in more places. We are engaging in something that is innovative, and innovation can be challenging. Successful, scalable innovation takes focused commitment, learning from other projects, and collaboration with stakeholders that you don’t often work closely with—like a software vendor or community residents.