HousingWorks (www.housingworks.net), Boston, MA

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1 HousingWorks (www.housingworks.net), Boston, MA Abstract The HousingWorks website and database provides information on affordable housing that is housing for low-income households available throughout Massachusetts as well as other housing resources to consumers and their housing advocates. The goal is to reduce or eliminate barriers to subsidized, affordable and special needs housing. In addition, providers of affordable housing can use the tool to advertise available units. The initiative is based on a model that places state and federal oversight agencies, forprofit management companies, housing authorities, housing advocates, and the homeless in a position to render each other indispensable services. Summary a. Main purpose and objective The purpose of the HousingWorks website tool is to match people in need for subsidized, affordable, and special needs housing with the available housing inventory. Because the housing inventory is funded by many different government and nongovernmental agencies, there needs to be one central place to search for all options, without forcing these government and non-government funders to use the same website, which avoids the attendant security risks and the high financial cost. The website functions as gateway for affordable housing in Massachusetts connecting consumers, housing advocates, and providers of affordable housing with much-needed information and resources. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, housing is defined as "affordable" if it costs no more than 30 percent of a household's annual income. 1 There are many kinds of affordable housing, including assisted living/special needs/nursing homes, elder/senior citizen housing, veterans housing, ex-offender housing, HIV+ housing, deaf independent living, and permanent housing-disability type of accommodation (visiting or live-in services). Eligibility criteria differ for each type of affordable housing. b. Program history (and philosophy) A HousingWorks staff member who previously worked for a non-profit organization that served individuals with HIV/Aids talked about how difficult it was as a service provider to assist these individuals to access resources including affordable housing because there was no tool that provided this information. This resulted in the development of an AIDS housing database in1999, which became the model for the HousingWorks tool. Another HousingWorks staff member who has a visual impairment and who was homeless at the time talked about the challenges of finding housing that was not only affordable but also met her special needs. Thus, the idea to develop a tool that would make it easier for both providers and consumers to be able to do affordable housing searches grew out of staff s own experiences. The first step in developing this resource was to identify and review existing tools. We always took the existing tools but at the beginning there really weren't very many, you know. The web in terms of affordable housing is relatively new, said one program staff. The next step involved gathering information and resources. Over the last ten years, 1 Source: Retrieved on 9/20/06. 1

2 staff have developed a comprehensive resource list. They were describing the HousingWorks tool as an eco-system meaning that the tool was designed from the beginning with the idea that all stakeholders must be linked in ways that do not require systems change without immediate reward. It also meant that the design can constantly evolve based on users needs. c. Program users (characteristics) The HousingWorks tool is designed for individuals and organizations working in the subsidized/affordable/special needs housing world. Specifically, the Internet service is targeted at four groups: people who are looking for affordable housing (consumers), housing advocates, providers of affordable housing; and funders and public policy agencies. Housing advocates are professionals who assist the homeless access affordable housing. They may be funded by state, federal, or local non-profit agencies such as hospitals, community development organizations, and cultural service agencies. The housing search and application process is so complicated that most consumers cannot accomplish the task alone. Providers of affordable housing include public housing providers, community development corporations, private management companies with state and federal contracts, and other non-profit agencies specializing in elder services, youth services. Funders and public policy agencies include many state and federal agencies, including U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, U.S. Department of Agriculture (rural housing), the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, state Departments of Mental Retardation, federal and state agencies providing mobile rental assistance. Staff said that the website is used the most by the housing advocates who are doing searches on behalf of their clients. Anybody can go onto the website and search for affordable housing. However, advocates and provider agencies have access to more resources, such as lists of housing advocates, food pantries, thrift shops, rental and fuel assistance, cheap furniture movers. These additional resources are freely available to all users and in fact the resources can be updated by users in the process of searching for themselves. d. Main activities How the tool works. There are three sections on the HousingWorks website: one for consumers and advocates, one for providers, and one for funder/public planning agencies. Consumers can search for housing and/or for a housing advocate who they need in order to submit an application using any Internet connection. They can perform this work from home or a public library, a neighborhood computer center, and even at a housing provider office. To prevent abuse of the system (i.e. consumers misrepresenting their housing history, or disgruntled spouses falsifying the information submitted by their ex-spouses in order to prevent them receiving an offer of housing) the consumer information can only be input at an authorized site, which can be any social service agency, housing provider, library, school, health center or state agency providing a public computer and a support staff person. This is not perceived as a limitation by consumers, because the eligibility rules for housing are so complicated that most consumers cannot fill out the forms correctly on their own and so a large percentage of their work is rejected, returned, or discarded. As part of the housing search, advocates can submit pre-filled application forms, which can be either submitted electronically or printed out and then mailed. Usage of the 2

3 HousingWorks tool is free for consumers and so are the services provided to them by housing advocates. Housing advocates and providers have the option to use the system at a no-fee and a for-fee level. Training and technical assistance. In addition to providing a comprehensive and up-todate list of affordable housing and related resources, HousingWorks staff offer on-line training on how to use the website tool as well as technical assistance over the phone. The system interfaces are fully accessible, can respond to speech, can speak to the limited vision user, and are color-coded to make it easier for users with low computer/internet skills to get technical assistance (they only have to say which color page they are on). This also makes it easier for staff to assist users. Program staff found out quickly that people with different kinds of disabilities and people who easily become overwhelmed by paperwork found this feature very helpful. In addition, staff have developed quick guides for housing advocates and providers with basic computer skills. A full reference guide is available for those who wish to become expert users of this tool. What is unique about the tool? The ecosystem model. The helping system has become so complex that the system itself has become a primary obstacle to getting help. For instance, there are 18 different kinds of subsidized/affordable housing in Massachusetts, and a single client might be eligible for 15 kinds of housing. The housing providers suffer from this because they waste time in thousands of phone calls from consumers they cannot offer housing to. Also, because there are 18 different types of housing, and the same person applies to all, it is not possible as a public planner to gain an unduplicated count on how many persons actually are searching for a certain size bedroom in a given area, which makes it impossible to know what to build. HousingWorks system solves all these issues without requiring the various players to use the same waitlist software, to change their eligibility, or to add additional workload to staff. It allows everyone to maintain the historical work process, but eliminates much of the time that would normally be required. Additionally, it collects the data in the background as an automatic side effect of increased service delivery. This is the ecomodel in action. Universal access. Program staff spent a year and a half developing the input form that would make the search process for the housing advocate as easy as possible, while making it as accessible for people with different kinds of needs, including people with disabilities, people who do not have high-end computer skills, people whose first language is not English. The high level of detail included in the housing search is another feature that is unique to this website tool. One of the program staff with a visual impairment used the website tool to find affordable housing that was located near a subway station with a grocery store and a pharmacy in the neighborhood that she could walk to. To obtain this level information, program staff spent much time consulting with the different groups of consumers and then adding the categories of information to the website tool. What are the benefits of this tool? Benefits for consumers: The website tool collects and provides necessary information and resources on affordable housing for people the majority of who do not have very many computer/internet skills and do not really understand the different kinds of 3

4 affordable housings. The questions on the website are simple and straightforward. If a user moves the mouse over a question (edit field), a window will pop up with an explanation of this question. Consumers have to fill out only one page of the application, but the more pages they complete, the more time they save when they generate the prefilled applications. Consumers also have control over how much information they would like to provide, which is another important feature of this website tool. Benefits for housing advocates: The tool provides housing advocates with up-to-date information on affordable housing in Massachusetts. Provider waitlists for affordable housing maintain and update themselves automatically. Thus, housing advocates can go into the database and check the list of housing options that fit their clients needs on a daily basis. In addition, each of the affordable housing provider agencies/housing authorities in Massachusetts has its own forms that advocates need to use for submitting applications. HousingWorks obtained copies of all these forms and made them available online. This resulted in advocates spending less time searching and applying for housing Instead, they are able to use the additional time on helping clients build life/job skills. Benefits for providers: The program created a simple way for providers to report how many available affordable housing units they have. Providers go into the online database and simply check a box whenever a waitlist opens, which makes the application available to eligible applicants. In addition, providers enter updated income eligibility requirement once a year. Providers love this because one of the biggest headaches that providers have is letting people know - it s a nightmare for them to get their information out there to a population that needs it but is entirely unidentified This work flow cuts down on providers time, provides a boost in both Fair Housing compliance, but also gives housing providers a tool to run waitlist outcome reports, as well as an increased ability to market hard to fill units. Public policy and planning bodies also benefit from this initiative in that they know what to build and where. They can obtain an unduplicated count of the need, how long people are waiting for housing, what their incomes are; they could also get data on how many different types of housing clients are eligible for, and how many types of housing clients actually apply to. e. Strategy/strategies used to encourage disadvantaged people to use information communication technology (ICT)/e-government services The usual procedure in designing a software is to create a tool usable for the general (largest possible) population and then try to make it accessible to minority groups. By reversing this system - creating a tool for people with the most barriers - all groups benefited. Involving end-users from the beginning in the development and testing of the tool was a second strategy that HousingWorks used to encourage consumers, housing advocates and providers to use this Internet service. Program staff invited individuals and organizations to investigate and test the tool with and without training. They targeted different users to test different aspects of the tool. For example, they had housing advocates test the content since they were the primary users. In terms of overall accessibility and content, staff worked with both advocates and consumers including people with various disabilities. They also involved providers in refining the list of 4

5 housing types. Conducting focus groups was another strategy that staff used to engage users and solicit their feedback on the tool. Implementing the initiative from the bottom up rather than from the top down. HousingWorks implemented the resource tool starting with consumers (homeless people) and their advocates, followed by the service provider agencies, and finally the state agencies. This approach, staff said, would be useful for any e-government initiative. In e-government it s important to first not put up stuff that satisfies the government bureaucracy but rather that satisfies the most crucial needs of the users and then grow from that rather than sort of say well you can come into our office and fill out a document that will then populate all these other licenses and stuff. People need to first get comfortable using the technology. f. Staff experiences and qualifications The project is run by paid staff and volunteers, but the system is designed so that consumes and providers maintain the information as they use it for their own purposes, so the project s attention is entirely devoted to maintenance of the hardware and product development/simplification. Most of the staff have extensive social service histories and as well as computer programming skills. A woman with a visual impairment who is an expert in web accessibility has dedicated many hours of consulting to this project. g. Assistive devices available (if appropriate to initiative) If a person looking for housing wanted to run a housing search on his or her own, program staff would refer him or her to local public libraries, which have adaptive equipment available at work stations. HousingWorks also provides technical assistance and training on how to fill out the form using adaptive software on an as-needed basis. h. Recruitment of users Community outreach and partnering with state agencies, affordable housing providers, housing advocates, disability organizations, and many other community-based organizations is one way in which HousingWorks recruits potential users. Staff have distributed flyers in libraries and community centers; they have sent out s to various housing lists and developed extensive grassroots contacts. It should also be noted that outreach and marketing efforts started very early on when the website tool was still being developed. Word of mouth resulted in many agencies calling to ask to use the tool even before it was launched. Program staff said that they contacted different organizations at different stages of research and development and asked them to provide feedback. i. Program partners (nature of partnership, advantages and disadvantages of partnering) HousingWorks has partnered with many agencies to get their feedback on the tool but to also market this resource to the various target groups. j. Funding, and funding issues (including sustainability) The majority of project funding comes from contract work with federal and state agencies and community-based organizations that partner with HousingWorks to develop resource databases for their target population. Initial funders included the U.S. Veterans Administration, private philanthropic investors, and some staff. Local university staff from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology volunteered three years of development. 5

6 k. Challenges and barriers (especially in regard to e-government services) Program staff talked about the many technical challenges that they encountered while developing and testing the website tool. Developing a tool that would interface with a database system and still collect very complex and sensitive data, program staff said, was a major challenge. In addition, the level of technology that staff thought they had simplified enough for the users continually remained too complicated and staff had to keep simplifying it more. Government bureaucracy as a barrier to e-government. The primary block to e- government in Massachusetts, program staff said, is state government bureaucracy itself. What e-government can do is, force a complete breakdown of the walls between bureaucracies; however bureaucrats won t generally tolerate that because they believe their helping system can't exist without those walls. As a consequence, upper and mid level staff are among are the most resistant to e-government initiatives. Staff also mentioned that those who are implementing e-government services do not seem to allow for the fact that grassroots organizations such as HousingWorks are also developing linking systems, trying to create an interface between the large e-government system and the end-user. l. Evidence of program success (e.g., anecdotal evidence, success stories, program data) and reasons for success There is evidence that the project has made a positive impact at all levels from the individuals who are searching for affordable housing to the housing advocates and the affordable housing providers. We re seeing a rise in a much greater cross-section of people getting housing. We see them getting housing faster. We see the reporting is getting more sophisticated and more efficient. And we re seeing that other organizations that are not necessarily dealing with housing are beginning to get interested in the philosophical approach demonstrated by the success of this software, said one staff member. In addition to anecdotal evidence, program staff track data on the use of the website by target groups. The website tool can indicate how many persons are generating applications through the system, which information was updated and when. This data is used in many ways. For example, affordable housing providers contract with HousingWorks to not only advertise available housing on the website but to also generate reports for auditors to justify their funding. Advocates use the system to demonstrate the extent of work required for one family to get housed and the astonishing lack of sufficient housing. On a city, county or statewide level, it is possible to generate reports on how many different persons are waiting for a 2 bedroom unit in Gardner, Massachusetts; how long have they been waiting; what is their income; the reason for needing the housing, and what is their family size, disability needs, etc. This allows, for the possibility of responsible building programs. 6

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