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San Francisco’s One-Stop Affordable Housing Application Portal Could Be a Model for Other Cities

The Bay Area has a shortage of more than 160,000 affordable homes, with fewer than 35 affordable homes for every 100 people in need. And until 2016, applying to the few affordable units available was difficult and a major barrier to access.

Interested applicants had to track newsletters of individual properties and multiple city websites to find openings, travel to collect a unique paper application, submit paper applications and eligibility documents in person, receive a physical lottery ticket, and attend a long in-person lottery to find out about selection.

In 2016, San Francisco launched a redesigned affordable housing application system with a new web portal called DAHLIA (Database of Affordable Housing, Listings, Information, and Applications), in partnership with the technology B Corp Exygy. The website has been a success; 97 percent of San Francisco’s affordable housing applications are now completed online—with more than 99 percent submitted digitally during the pandemic, when the city wasn’t able to accept paper applications.

DAHLIA and its creation process offers a model for transforming housing access through thoughtful technology use and service redesign. To learn more, we spoke with Barry Roeder, data and strategic products team; Michael Solomon, senior information services business analyst from the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development (MOHCD); and Zach Berke, cofounder of Exygy.

Housing Matters: DAHLIA aggregates all affordable units into one website and has a short, standardized application. What benefits came from making this switch?

Michael Solomon: More people in need are finding resources and applying. The information being provided is less confusing because it meets housing seekers’ needs and is consistent across the board. There is also less confusion, more accessibility, and a higher volume of applicants because the application process is consistent, simplified, and available to anyone.

Internally for MOHCD, the switch has meant the ability for MOHCD to better oversee the application process and lotteries to ensure efficiency, time savings, and fairness. We simply could not handle the volume of work that has come our way over the last few years without this system in place.

A great example is a comparison of how housing lotteries were run before versus after implementation. Before, for the hundreds or thousands of applicants, paper lottery tickets would be pulled from a box one by one, and then, they would have to be sorted by rank for each housing preference. This was a process that took hours to just run the public lottery and hours and days more for staff to process. With our new system in place, lotteries are electronic and take minutes. The system assigns rankings and sorts by housing preference automatically, and once a lottery is complete, applicants can immediately go online to view their individual results.

Zach Berke: We’ve seen benefits across different stakeholders. For applicants, it’s the single entry point for affordable housing seekers, making it easy to find housing that meets their needs, for which they are eligible. The common digital application process across affordable housing properties reduces the burden to apply.

For developers, it’s saving time and resources on processing paper applications and a simple unified experience to market properties across jurisdictions.

For jurisdictions, it’s building equity, trust, and transparency in the placement process and getting accurate data about housing needs, applications, and placement—all of which can be used to inform policy.

HM: The project included significant outreach to property managers and housing counselors to create the application and establish buy-in, plus user research with applicants. What were the benefits of this public-private partnership, and what lessons could inform other local government collaborations?

Barry Roeder: We have learned user-centric design and development as well as agile development methods, which has helped us become more responsive on a number of other fronts. I would heavily recommend other local governments partner with each other and regional entities to build a more-encompassing site, both for the regional user (especially someone who works in one community and lives in another, who can now go to one place to look in a number of jurisdictions) and for the jurisdiction (which has significant efficiencies of creating one site versus two).

MS: We have had a mixed experience working with private-sector system design and development partners, wherein some have not met our expectations and have left us disappointed, while others have been incredible (very aligned with our goals and highly involved in all aspects of the development process).

Fortunately, we have spent the last few years working with the latter kind of partners. What has been great about working with private-sector partners is the availability of their unique perspective, which has led to a superior product. There are a lot of learnings to be had from working with different parties from different backgrounds—around processes, techniques, problem-solving, creativity, and approach.

HM: What motivated you to work with the city on this project, and what would you recommend for other technology companies interested in government collaboration?

ZB: Exygy uses design and technology to improve lives, that’s our mission as a B Corp, and we’re always looking for opportunities to use our skills to improve the most lives. When we started this work, we saw it as an opportunity to scale access to affordable housing across the country. We always take a user- and community-centered approach, uplifting their stories and needs first. We saw this project as an opportunity to do that work, at scale, across the country.

HM: What are the biggest challenges of this project?

BR: The project required a significant, albeit worthwhile, investment in staff and consultants. Digital literacy and access issues for some housing seekers pose an ongoing challenge, which we work to address with our housing counselor network and by continuing to make paper applications available. With increased application volume, the gap between applicants and placements is amplified.

MS: There are still a ton of features we need to build into DAHLIA, but with limited staff and budget, we’ve had to do a tricky balancing act between development of new features, upkeep of current features, and meeting ever-changing regulatory and business requirements.

ZB: Finding champions within jurisdictions that don’t necessarily have a consistent title or department. In some cases, the champions have been housing department staff or leaders. In other cases, they have been mayoral staff. We’ve also seen outside consultants working on housing policy be our first champions. We have been approached by folks who are focused on housing preference/prioritization policies, folks who are focused on improving the resident experience for finding and applying to housing, and folks who are focused on getting the housing data.

HM: What other advice do you have for jurisdictions who want to take on a similar project?

MS: When working on any changes, do so in partnership with all stakeholders. In the case of affordable housing services, that includes housing developers, leasing and real estate agents, lenders, housing counselors, and, of course, the people being served.

From the start, we made sure to get input from the various parties so we would have their unique perspective and wisdom, as well as their buy-in around the changes being made. We never wanted to be the government office that insists on doing things its way, and that’s that. The unique perspective and wisdom of all the stakeholders led us to ideas and solutions we may not have thought about or pursued. Their buy-in has been a major key to our success.

BR: Reevaluate the process from the lens of the housing seeker and simplify it! Endeavor to create a one-stop shop with as many housing resources in one place as possible, including housing authority and coordinated entry resources. To ensure confidence in the system, build transparency at every opportunity, and require that all relevant processes come through the housing agency.

ZB: We decided to make the work open-source early on because it aligned with our ethos and values—when government funds software, it should become a public good. We’ve seen this pay off enormously, in reduced costs to jurisdictions to build and launch portals for them, while still being able to customize to their unique needs. More info is available in our short case study and detailed Bloom Housing report. Because procurement is complex, we have created a “How to Procure Bloom” document, which helps jurisdictions to select the best path for them.

This interview was lightly edited for clarity and length.