May 22, 2020

Bloom Housing: The Value of a Minimum Viable Community

Scaling regional affordable housing solutions

Roshen: Welcome, everybody.  Thank you for joining our chat here on community building.  My name is Roshen, and you see Zach is also on the screen. We are with a company called Exygy and we will do some intros in a second.  We are in the process at Exygy of building out an affordable housing product across the San Francisco Bay area here in California.  And we are here to chat about how community building has been a very critical piece to scaling that product.  And I want to give a shout out to a lot of the principles and core pieces of what we will say here are really rooted in community organizing and community building.  So there is a long history and space on how people approach community building and we will pull on that during our discussion here.  Let’s dive in.

Zach: Hi everyone. Exygy works with social impact organizations to use design and technology to improve lives.  We’ve been doing it for 12, 13, 14 years, depending on how you count.  We are certified B-Corp.  We’ve been a B-Corp for over 10 years and we’re proud of that, and all the work we do. Myself, I’m a recovering software engineer.  Today I do design, rapid prototyping, strategy, and I get to work at the edge of some of our most exciting and interesting work in community building, including the work we will present to you today as a case study of building minimum viable communities.    

Roshen:  I’m Roshen, one of the partners at Exygy, along with Zach, and my background is in the social sector.  I’ve worked in the social sector for over a decade.  First in the non-profit side and more recently in the technology side, starting out as a product manager and now as a partner at Exygy.  I lead Exygy’s civic sector practice.  That side of our organization is focused on local and state government work on issues like housing, transit, and criminal justice.  Housing and community building are both close to my heart.  One of my first jobs was as a housing counselor in the South, and also community building being a core part of my blood with a background in racial and cross-cultural work and of course in the non-profit sector, as well.

Affordable Housing Case Study

Zach:  Today we will talk about building community in a complex ecosystem, which is the intersection of affordable housing, non-profits, and government.  We will talk about some of the key lessons we’ve learned in applying the philosophy that we take to all our work - agile - the practice of building the smallest possible thing, launching it, building on top of it, and applying that philosophy to scaling that impact across the region and across the state.  

The case study we will be talking about today is in affordable housing.  This has been work we’ve been doing for about 5 years across our community here in San Francisco, the Bay Area, and across the state of California.  Five years ago when we started this work, there was no “one stop shop” to find and apply for affordable housing in the Bay Area.  It is no secret there is a massive housing crisis going on across the country and it’s particularly acute here where we are in the Bay.  There’s a huge need for units.  While some progressive jurisdictions like the City and County of San Francisco were committed to building more housing, there was no way for folks to find it.  There was no central database and there were dozens of different websites from government agencies, non-profits - each of which were basically blocks of texts, complex eligibility criteria, really difficult for anybody to understand, let alone for folks who English may be a second language, or people who may be accessing the Internet for 30 minutes at the library.  So even if you could get through these blocks of text and these terrible government websites and determine that you may be eligible for an opportunity, you just earned yourself the privilege of filling out a 15 page paper application, attaching proof of income - which you may not have - proof of eligibility, proof of preferences to your application.  It was an extremely complicated process that took days and weeks for folks to get into and all that effort was for a tiny chance to get in because we would see thousands of applications come in for a handful of units.          

And so our work was in providing an experience for folks looking for affordable housing at the same quality as those who are looking for market-rate housing.

Roshen:  As Zach mentioned, we were tackling this piece where it was really hard for people to search and find housing and then apply for it.  And what Zach mentioned was that all of that was on paper.  It was not digital yet. So people had to fill out these very lengthy application on paper and take it in person again for a small chance of housing.  So in 2015, we designed and built and launched an initial version of the product you see here, which is the affordable housing portal.  We had this vision of doing the work across the Bay and across California, but we started with one jurisdiction who really led the charge in conceptualizing this solution, which is the City and County of San Francisco.  And so what the product does is it aggregates all the affordable housing listings in one place and it also standardizes the format of those listings.

Once a person reads through the listing and understands the particular eligibility criteria for that listing (often buildings are senior-only or veteran-only or particular income level), then they are also able to use the product to apply online in what we call a short form common application.  And what that means is it’s short; it takes less than 15 minutes to complete online.  It’s a step-by-step, really easy to read application.  And it’s a common application.  Now you can use the same application to apply to any listing in the City and County of San Francisco.  You don’t need to have a particular application for that building.  The product also helps housing developers lease up the building.  They see all the applications coming in, in lottery rank order that the city does and they are able to place the right people in the right unit based on eligibility criteria.

So all of this took a lot of stakeholder engagement for people to agree on what a listing looks like.  What does a short form application look like?  What are all the fields we really need in order for someone to apply for affordable housing?  And it also helped create a transparent process between the City and County and all the housing developers.  So the housing developers had to report back to the city and county who is placed in what unit and the product helped them do that as well.  The reason that this product is really critical is to really help streamline things for the end user.  They now have a really consistent experience every time they are searching and applying and have an ease of use of applying for that small chance of affordable housing.      

And the second reason that it’s important is that it allows the city and county to start to collect a lot of data around who is looking for housing, who is applying and who is actually getting placed.  And the hope in the long run is this data influences both policies and programs at the local level and state level on housing.  Just to give you guys a sense, we had over 400,000 applications for affordable housing in the past 4 to 5 years on the San Francisco site.  And in San Francisco, about 100 households get placed every month into housing.  

We will talk now about how we got to this place of adoption.  Both in terms of end users of actually using the site to apply and from all these various stakeholders.  The stakeholders included the city and county as well as a bunch of different types of housing developers and housing counselors and advocates that would help people apply and navigate the system.  

Again a little shout out to community organizing here.  I talked to a community organizer friend last week who told me that some of the key elements to building community included two things:  relationships and power.  I wanted to highlight that here because we will talk about them in the next ten to fifteen minutes. Relationships being that if we understand each other, if we understand people’s pain point, where they are coming from, that we can better work together.  And power meaning there are a lot of different types of power. I’m referencing collective power that if we come together across organizations, we actually have more influences together.  And if we reveal the power people have in their positions, whether they are city or housing developers, they realize they can make this process better for end users.

Defining ‘Minimal Viable Community’

So where did this phrase ‘Minimal Viable Community’ come about?  It’s a little tongue-and-cheek, it references the minimal viable product (MVP), which comes from the software industry.

Minimum viable product means launching the smallest meaningful product version as quickly as possible.  And what does that look like?  In software we have a process of developing products called agile product development and agile is centered around this idea that if you get something out the door really quickly then you will be able to start getting feedback from users as to whether you’ve met their needs.

Instead of spending years and years building a car and launching that car three, or four, or five years down the road, and people saying, this isn’t actually the car I want, you might launch something very small, like a skateboard, and get people to use it, and they will give you feedback.  I love the color of this; I love the wheels; I just want to get from point A to point B faster than a skateboard can get me there.  So you get that feedback and you are able to reiterate on the product and build it out over time.

Agile product management is really centered around the concept of the feedback loop, with the user.  Our concept of minimum viable community is centered around coalescing the smallest meaningful group of stakeholders as quickly as possible.  Minimum viable product might be about getting that feedback loop from users quickly, and minimum viable community is about building momentum for some sort of change and improvement.

The problem that we started tackling with housing in the beginning in the Bay Area and people being able to find it and apply for it is a big hairy problem and the Bay Area is very large.  It has nine counties.  It’s close to 8 million residents, 188 different cities, all these places have different processes, different ways of getting people access to housing so we had to figure out what is the group of people we can coalesce to initiate that change process.  

Zach: In this city and county of San Francisco we took an agile approach to build the smallest possible thing.  We started with San Francisco, which is a city and a county, so one city.  We started with one group of housing developers and a small group of housing advocates.  As Ro mentioned, if we had to try to do all the housing departments across the Bay Area, all at once, and all the housing advocates, and all the cities in the Bay Area, we would have gotten a lot of reasons why what we were trying to do wasn’t possible.  We certainly heard those reasons as we coalesce with a small group, but by bringing a small group together and having them co-create a solution with us, we turned our community into our champions. And I think what is critical about the minimum viable community is that the concept is that we were then able to use that community that you built first to be advocates and go out into the broader community and expand your impact.

We then worked with additional housing developers in San Francisco and when those housing developers were able to see how pleased the first group of developers were with the work that we had done, they started to say things not like, “Common application?  I don’t know, we got our own thing.”  Instead they said, “How can we be a part of this?  We see the benefit.  We see our peers, people we trust are saying how great this system is, how can we be a part?”   So bringing our developers in our first group into our second group allowed us to turn our community into our advocates and then after a couple of years, we’re building on top of the product, we started going to our neighboring communities.  And we brought with us our partners from our existing community.  We brought our partner from the city and county of San Francisco who were thrilled with the work we had done together who were so excited of scaling this to outside the border of the city and county.  So we went and talked to the county of San Mateo and all 20 cities in the county.  We started talking to folks in San Mateo county and the city of San Jose and by going to those communities with our existing community in tow as advocates, we were able to bring the wider community in and I think the secret and special sauce there was ensuring that we had folks that were trusted as we expanded into a larger footprint.  And if we had tried to do this all at once in the entire Bay Area, I don’t think it would be possible to have the impact we have today.

This is where we are at today.  We have a system, a one-stop-shop for affordable housing that is spreading across the Bay Area.  We have a clear roadmap to get to a single application, to get to a single listing portal.  We are really excited about the work that we are doing in the Bay, and now, we are using that work to expand to an even wider community.  So we are in conversations with folks in the 6 county Sacramento region, as well as in the 88 cities in LA county.  And how are we able to have authentic conversations with those partners is bringing the community that we have been so successful here, there.  We have built so many partnerships with nonprofits in the Bay Area that happen to operate across the state and those folks are coming with us as we go and talk about the impact we can have across a broader region and in doing so we are able to bring a much larger community in the state of California along the impact journey we are on.

5 Lessons Learned in Building Minimum Viable Communities

Roshen: I will highlight some of the lessons we’ve learned as we scaled it across the Bay Area and that can hopefully help you guys as you are also scaling similar solutions in your work.  There are four key lessons we want to share with you all:

1. Start with a diverse set of enthusiasts.

We highlighted a bunch of the different stakeholders involved in this process, whether it’s city and county jurisdictional staff or housing developers or advocates as well as applicants themselves.  So in terms of bringing together a group of enthusiasts, the main goal for us is to take the time to understand them. So to understand their various needs and motivations.  Sometimes a city and county like San Francisco that really led this charge wants to actively solve a problem and make a process better for their residents.  Other times the housing developers, for example, only want to solve a pain point of theirs and get eligible applicants into their units and not have vacant units, if there were vacancies for a month or two.  And we really got to know the various enthusiasts and stakeholders and highlighted the common goals between them and even map some of the dynamics between the different stakeholder groups.  For example, the housing developers had a role to report back to the city any time anyone was placed into a unit.  And that process was very cumbersome.  The developers wanted to do the reports back to the city but just saw it as a very burdensome process while they were also reporting back to their funding sources.  And the city of course wanted to get reports from them.  Highlighting those dynamics between stakeholders groups also helped us with solutions between them.

2. Showing vision and showing follow through.

We were lucky that the city and county of San Francisco took a lot of leadership here in terms of the vision.  They really wanted to improve the process for residents they saw really struggle through the search and application process.  And they had a lot of great principles they brought to the table, one of which is no dead ends.  I really like this in particular because it essentially meant that we didn’t want to leave anyone in any part of the process to say, “Ok, you are not eligible for this so I guess, bye.” We wanted to give them a next step to say here are resources, here are housing counselors, or check back there will be more listings at this point.  So all of these principles kind of reduce this pain point for people searching and applying for housing.  

The follow through piece is our version of the skateboard, our initial product.  We wanted something within 90 days, which those of you that work with government know that is lightning speed.  And our skateboard was a site that just showed listings.  We didn’t have the application process online, we didn’t have the ability for housing developers to see the applications come in and lease up the buildings and all these other features.   We just showed the listings and even within that, we just showed the listings of a particular segment of affordable housing rental.  So we really narrowed it down and got something out the door quickly and that way other people were really excited about it and wanted their listings to be out there and we created momentum that way.

3. Create advocates.

Setting the vision and following through on it creates advocates naturally.  The city and county of San Francisco as well as the housing developers have been very huge advocates for us as we scale this across different Bay Area jurisdictions.  I remember one of our first meetings with San Mateo county there were housing developers there that were very skeptical and had a lot of questions, and were asking how is this going to change their process.  Before I could even answer, some of the housing developers that had already used the product in San Francisco were advocating for it and answering their questions.  So we created very natural advocates out of the work.  

Additionally, the advocates started organizing together. The different jurisdictions are starting to meet together, housing developers are meeting, housing developers and jurisdictions are talking to each other in a more collaborative way. So we actually are able to create this cool community of practice that is focused on improving housing in the Bay Area.  

4. Including incentives.

Beyond people drinking the kool-aid and making lives easier for everyone, what are some key incentives to include for people to join the movement?  Obviously the product really does make people’s lives easier.  It has been vetted by a ton of stakeholders.  Something we haven’t mentioned is every other week for several years we would test this product with housing applicants so they are heavily involved in the process.  But one of our key incentives has been to create it as an open source product and what this opens up is jurisdictions have a lot of flexibility in how they adopt and maintain it.  Jurisdictions with engineers internally can adopt the tools themselves, they can potentially also share resources and maintenance cost between jurisdictions, which they are exploring now.  So the open source options really gives them incentives that this product will have some longevity and solve their problems in the long term.    

5. Bonus lesson: be patient.

We’ve worked on this product since 2015 with San Francisco and we are still continuing to work on it with them and build out the product.  We spent two years talking to a bunch of other jurisdictions before the second jurisdiction signed on, which is San Mateo county.  And so it really does take a long time to build relationships and understand what people’s needs are and how they might be different.   The second, third and fourth jurisdiction had slightly different needs and we needed to take some time to understand that. Community building, unlike agile product management, does take a lot of patience and time to slowly get momentum.

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