Wisconsin Department of Commerce WiFrontDoorHousing Web Site Executive Summary

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1 Wisconsin Department of Commerce WiFrontDoorHousing Web Site Executive Summary Administered by the Wisconsin Department of Commerce, WiFrontDoorHousing is a statewide Web-based community service intended to better connect the providers of affordable housing and housing services with the renters who are looking for affordable housing. The goal is to provide access to up-to-date housing information and user-friendly tools. These tools are customized for each of the user groups: renters, landlords and property managers, and the staff of social agencies helping people find and keep affordable housing. WiFrontDoorHousing offers a number of tools and services: Housing Locator: Landlords can list and renters can search, both at no cost, for affordable, accessible or special-needs housing. Housing Calculator: A tool for renters to use to determine their affordable monthly rent. Housing Services Locator (coming soon): Anyone can search for services provided by local agencies that address a variety of housing barriers and issues. As a result of working closely with associations of rental property owners to create incentives for them to list their affordable housing units, the Wisconsin Department of Commerce has been able to add more than 40,000 private units of affordable housing to the statewide inventory available on WiFrontDoorHousing. This augmentation has accounted for a 36% increase in the inventory available statewide. In addition, WiFrontDoorHousing allows the listing of accessible housing units at any rent level, providing an important tool to help address another crucial housing need. Wisconsin Department of Commerce- Page 1

2 Wisconsin Department of Commerce WiFrontDoorHousing Web Site A.) Description of the project Operational since January 2005, WiFrontDoorHousing (http://www.wifrontdoorhousing.org/) is a statewide Web-based community service intended to better connect the providers of affordable housing and housing services to the renters who are looking for affordable housing. The system is administered by the Wisconsin Department of Commerce. WiFrontDoorHousing is funded in part by grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority, and the Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services. The goal of WiFrontDoorHousing is to provide access to up-to-date housing information with user-friendly tools. These tools are customized for each of the user groups: renters, landlords and property managers, and the staff of social agencies helping people find and keep affordable housing. All sizes and types of units can be listed, from single room occupancies (SROs) to single family homes. The only requirement for units to be listed on the Web site is that the unit must be affordable to households earning up to 80% of the County Median Income (CMI) for that county. WiFrontDoorHousing also lists "accessible" units at any level of rent. A Statewide List of Affordable or Accessible Housing A Web-based listing of affordable housing options is not a unique idea. However, most such Web sites are developed at the municipal level and target the same municipal audience. Wisconsin's WiFrontDoorHousing is one of the few Web-based listings of affordable housing compiled on a statewide basis. While some other states (e.g., New York and Arizona) do maintain a statewide Web listing, none have the detailed information and search capabilities of the Wisconsin site. Beta Test for the Vendor Important to note is the Department of Commerce's arrangement with the vendor, Bowman Internet Systems of Shreveport, LA. In the search for a product to meet the needs of a statewide listing, no vendors were initially identified. At the same time, Bowman, whose product HousingPoint most approximated the project's requirements, was looking to develop the product into one for a statewide rental market. In a mutually beneficial arrangement, the Wisconsin Department of Commerce obtained the license for this application at a reduced rate by serving as the beta test site for the vendor's new statewide application. In exchange, Bowman's statewide product was beta-tested in a real-market situation. The HousingPoint application is written in ColdFusion, using a SQL Server 2000 database for data storage and retrieval. The mapping and geo-spatial portions of HousingPoint, including maps, utilize the MapQuest service. Wisconsin Department of Commerce- Page 2

3 Participation of the Business Community Early on, project managers at the Wisconsin Department of Commerce realized that the site would not be a success without the participation of the property owner community. The following organizations representing this group participated in the needs analysis and design of the system: the Apartment Association of South Central Wisconsin, the Apartment Association of Southeast Wisconsin, and the Wisconsin Apartment Association. Since the Department of Commerce would rely on the owners and managers of the rental units to populate and keep current the information on the properties, their satisfaction with the system was crucial. Many features were added to make the system user-friendly for property owners to encourage them to use the system. These organizations continue to support the project by marketing the Web site and encouraging their members to list affordable units on WiFrontDoorHousing. Meeting User Needs WiFrontDoorHousing is designed to meet the needs of each of the three primary user groups. Immediately upon entering the Web site users select the way in which they wish to use the system: as a renter, as a landlord, or as an agency staff person. Renters and agency staff primarily employ WiFrontDoorHousing to search for housing. Many functions of the system were designed with these users in mind. A "housing calculator" function allows renters to estimate how much they should be spending for rent and utilities each month, based on their household income and number of individuals in the household. The calculator utilizes the guideline that a household should spend no more than 30% of their gross income on rent and utilities. After using the housing calculator to determine a user's estimated maximum monthly rent and utility expenses, the user can immediately search a list of rental properties with rents at or below this maximum amount. Although users do not have to register to search, registered users are able to save lists of properties they have located with a search. These saved lists appear on their WiFrontDoorHousing home page whenever they log in. To register, users must have an account and are provided with information on how to obtain a free account. Users can search by more than 30 additional criteria. Besides "typical" renter concerns such as location, availability, and unit size, several additional search criteria are available to better serve the needs of those in search of affordable housing: Users can find units specifically designated for those with special eligibility requirements (e.g., HIV/AIDS, developmental disabilities, probation). Users can locate private properties whose landlords accept Section 8 vouchers. Wisconsin Department of Commerce- Page 3

4 Users with young children at risk for lead poisoning can search for units built after (The Federal government banned lead in paint manufactured after 1978.) Users can search by a given proximity (e.g., 0.25 miles, 0.5 miles, etc.) to a specific address. For example, they can use this search function to identify rental units within one-half mile of a school or place of employment. Many functions of the site were designed with the property owner in mind: Landlords control exactly how their property is listed and when information is updated, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Landlords avoid having to re-enter information each time a unit goes on the market. Once information on a unit is added, it remains regardless of whether the unit is currently available. (However, only available units are displayed in a renter's search.) Landlords can use the system to pre-screen applicants. The vast search options eliminate certain properties from searches. For example, properties that don't allow pets will not be listed in the search results for a pet owner. Landlords are provided with a free account and can list as many qualifying properties as they wish at no cost. Future planned functionality includes an online rental application and a wait list management tool. B.) Significance to the improvement of the operation of government Previously the only statewide inventory of affordable housing units was maintained on a desktop application. A printed directory of this information was distributed either in hard copy or electronically as a pdf document. This printed inventory only listed units provided through state or federal housing programs. No privately owned units were listed, even if the rents were considered affordable or the landlord accepted Section 8 housing vouchers. Under the old system, the information found in the directory was difficult to update and keep current. Once a year printed pages from the directory were sent out to local public housing agencies. Staff at these housing agencies marked up the printout with their changes and mailed it back to state staff. The new or updated information would subsequently be entered by hand into the desktop file where it would sit until the next printing of the directory. With the advent of WiFrontDoorHousing this process has been highly automated. The property owners or managers themselves are able to update information on affordable housing units in real time. The system also provides an opportunity for much more detailed information on each unit. Previously the inventory held only the most basic information on a public housing property Wisconsin Department of Commerce- Page 4

5 (e.g., project name, address, contact person, number of units, etc.). Information on individual units was not available. With the increased functionality of WiFrontDoorHousing, individual units can now be listed with up to 40 descriptive elements and a map. C.) Benefits realized by service recipients, taxpayers, agency and/or state Renters of Modest Means This group gains access to a free, current and comprehensive listing of housing opportunities with the ability to search the data based on individual needs. Unlike previous statewide listings, both public and private properties are listed. Renters in Search of Accessible Housing Units Prior to the WiFrontDoorHousing Web site, there was no statewide listing of accessible housing of any kind. By allowing the listing of accessible housing units at any rent level, WiFrontDoorHousing provides a tool to help address another crucial housing need. Landlords As a free listing service for property owners, WiFrontDoorHousing creates a great incentive for landlords to list private units on the Web site. Generally, a listing on a commercial real-estate Web site can cost between $30 and $40 per month. Typically, these types of properties do not generate the income to justify the expense of advertising. As one satisfied property owner noted, "In addition to spending $350 in advertising in the newspaper on our duplex, our new renter found us on this (WiFrontDoorHousing) site. Thank you." As a result, more than 40,000 private units of affordable housing have been added to the statewide inventory. This increase has accounted for a 36% increase in the inventory, for a total of 111,000 units. Taxpayers To the extent that individuals of modest means are able to identify housing opportunities that meet their needs, they are able to remain independent. Often families enter the homeless shelter system because they cannot find housing within their budgetary constraints. Available to the homeless individuals, families, and the agency staff working with this at-risk population, WiFrontDoorHousing helps minimize the stay of the homeless in shelters and other transitional living situations. D.) Return on investment, short-term/long-term payback As noted earlier, the Wisconsin Department of Commerce obtained the license for the application at a substantially reduced rate by serving as the beta test site for the vendor's new product. (In exchange, the vendor's new product was beta-tested in a real-market.) Therefore, when making cost-benefit comparisons, it would be best to base them on the true market value of the application. The Wisconsin Department of Commerce estimates that the market value of a similar application with similar functionality from this vendor would have been about $200,000 for the State of Wisconsin. Wisconsin Department of Commerce- Page 5

6 As with all states, homelessness is an expensive problem in Wisconsin. In 2003, the Wisconsin Department of Commerce estimated that 35,000 individuals in Wisconsin were receiving emergency housing services (i.e., were served by homeless shelters or programs). 1 If just 1% of these individuals, or 350, find affordable housing via this system and can avoid the monetary costs to society as a whole of homelessness, WiFrontDoorHousing even if it had been purchased at market value would more than pay for itself. Wisconsin school systems will spend fewer dollars to meet the special needs of children from homeless families. Public social service agencies will be able to devote fewer resources to serve the needs of these families. 1 Bureau of Housing, Wisconsin Department of Commerce, Annualized Homelessness Data, April 1, March 31, Wisconsin Department of Commerce- Page 6

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