Increasing Affordable Housing Opportunities and Resources Available Online
A guide for housing departments on getting housing resources and opportunities online, using Bloom Housing's one-stop-shop affordable housing portal.
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This is the first resource in a series that will cover the in's and out's for implementing and managing Bloom Housing's open source affordable housing portal. If you have any questions, or want to be in touch with the Exygy team behind Bloom Housing, get in touch.
Since 2015, Exygy has been busy building our affordable housing listings and digital applications platform, Bloom Housing, throughout the Bay Area and beyond. We have spoken to dozens of city and county housing departments throughout the country. The number 1 question asked of us is: “how do you get housing opportunities and resources on your portal?” We wish the answer was as simple as a magical wand - but the truth is more complicated.
After several years of working with jurisdictions, property managers, affordable housing developers, housing counselors, service providers and directly with applicants, we have a few ideas on how jurisdictions can best work with stakeholders to ensure their affordable housing opportunities are made available on your portals. We’re going to break it down between two directions: enticements (delicious carrots) and requirements (magical wands) that digital online portals for affordable housing opportunists may use to increase the number of listings and resources on their platforms.
For applicants to trust your portal is truly a one-stop-shop for affordable housing opportunities and resources, jurisdictions will need to direct affordable housing seekers to accurate pieces of information prioritized in the following (listed in order of usefulness, completeness, and ability to serve the housing seeker within the portal itself):
Referenced Journey: Although the helpful information or process is not contained on the portal itself, the resource is at least referenced and linked on the portal. Information like this can be links to another agency (like a local housing authority) or a list of local service providers (like a list of legal or rental assistance service providers) or a list of housing counselors. Clicking on the link takes you to a separate website with contact information and additional resources/information.
Directed Journey: This takes the reference and linking one step further by directing the housing seeker directly to the resource needed. This may include a “call to action” in the web portal that allows you to call a service provider, download a property manager’s own PDF of their paper application, or link directly to a developer’s own digital application on their website.
Completed Journey: In situations like this, the housing seeker is able to complete their journey within the portal itself. This is the power of having a true one-stop-shop that includes affordable housing opportunities listed on the portal as well as an integrated digital application built-in. Housing seekers can find the housing opportunity they are interested in and can likely be eligible for - and apply directly in the portal, receive a confirmation, and continue to get updated on their application throughout the lease-up process.
The three journeys allow for all affordable housing resources to be placed all in one location - a one-stop-shop affordable housing web portal. Beyond housing resources, which will take some convincing to ensure service providers and other related services to sign on to listing on your portal, the other remaining task is to on-board as many affordable housing opportunities as possible. These include affordable housing opportunities that have been accepting applicants and opening waitlists for decades, recently built properties that are opening up their waitlists, new opportunities that are going live with initial lease-ups and upcoming properties that are still in the construction pipeline but anticipate lease-ups on the horizons.
Ways in which jurisdictions can entice stakeholders to increase the number of property listings and digital applications on an affordable housing portal or platform with the lure of a tasty carrot.
Online digital listings management, applications management, and marketing. Some examples of this include a database that can easily by updated by the local jurisdiction via CMS, application management that is accessible by property managers for applicant intaking and accessible by local jurisdictions for reporting, and ease of use for jurisdictions to review listings/application page in relation to marketing plan prior to launch. Creating a publicly accessible frontend is helpful for the applicant, but developing an easy-to-use backend ensures the system will continued to be used by those in the industry that will provide affordable housing opportunities and resources for your portal.
Digital marketing platform that allows access to everyone with a computer or smartphone. According to HUD, marketing requirements are moving towards more opportunities where applicants can find applications - especially digitally.
In addition, maintaining a web or mobile site with clear information about availability, eligibility, and application processes can be a low-cost way to inform eligible housing-seekers about housing opportunities at the property – especially those who have difficulty calling or visiting during business hours. -Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO) Guidance on Compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act in Marketing and Application Processing at Subsidized Multifamily Properties.
Equitable access to available affordable housing opportunities. HUD has recommended trusted entities to list, including local jurisdictions or community-based organizations, since applicants will likely look first at their city, county or nonprofit service provider for affordable housing information. In addition to ensuring there are digital marketing options, it's important to ensure marketing efforts go wide and far, especially to reach hard-to-reach communities. Ensuring that marketing efforts are point back to a trusted government-led web portal is key, but it's also important to enlist trusted community partners that have experience in working with priority communities in your jurisdiction As part of our implementation, we work with all stakeholders from the public and nonprofit sector, including housing authorities, housing counselors, community-based organizations with strong community ties, and service providers. Although translating in languages communities members can understand is important - as mentioned in the next section - it is equally important to find partners with experience in cultural translations to reach the communities most in need.
The same applies for posting on social media, local listservs, and other sites relevant to housing-seekers in the market area (including registries of affordable housing maintained by local governments, housing authorities, or community organizations). - Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO) Guidance on Compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act in Marketing and Application Processing at Subsidized Multifamily Properties
Online listings and digital/paper housing applications translated to major languages spoken locally. HUD marketing efforts have stressed the need to not only translate materials, but also to provide in-language support. Ensuring your web portal has the ability to toggle between locally spoken languages and includes in-language housing counseling services at the click of a button can meet this requirement.
When conducting marketing and outreach, the presence of LEP persons among the eligible population in the market area should be evaluated and appropriate language assistance services resources, including translated materials, should be developed accordingly. - Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO) Guidance on Compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act in Marketing and Application Processing at Subsidized Multifamily Properties
HUD requirements also go beyond marketing and includes ensuring the application process is explained in an accessible manner - in locally spoken languages.
Detailed information in English and non-English languages should be available to potential applicants about screening criteria and preferences, what information may be requested and reviewed, and how applicants may contest adverse determinations – including on a property’s website. - Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO) Guidance on Compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act in Marketing and Application Processing at Subsidized Multifamily Properties
Online platform that is built for accessibility and vetted by accessibility experts. Ensuring your online platform meets accessibility needs will not only ensure you meet Fair Housing requirements, it also means more stakeholders will utilize your platform. What does it mean to ensure your online platform is accessible? Accessibility access can include four major components:
Visual: Visual disabilities can range from mild or moderate vision loss to substantial or complete loss of vision. Accessibility needs can be addressed by contrast & structure.
Hearing: Hearing disabilities include mild, moderate, severe, and profound hearing loss in one or both ears. Accessibility needs can be addressed by pairing audio with other feedback.
Physical: Physical disability is defined as when a person’s physical functioning, mobility, dexterity, or stamina is limited. Accessibility needs can be addressed with operability.
Cognitive: Cognitive disabilities are defined as a person having a hard time remembering, learning, concentrating, or making decisions that affect their everyday life. Accessibility needs can be addressed by organization & clear/simple tasks.
All Exygy projects, especially Bloom Housing, strive to meet a baseline of accessibility that is laid out by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 and Section 508. This includes the following:
Keyboard access: All interactions can be accessed with a keyboard because assistive technology uses keyboard-like inputs.
Text hierarchy: Heading elements are nested in a logical way, because heading elements are used to navigate a pages quickly.
Accessible forms: Form elements, or application fields in Bloom Housing, are associated with help text instructions and error messages, while also being accessible via a keyboard, allowing users of assistive technology.
Color contrast: For people with visual disabilities it's critical that all text should have a ratio of 4.5:1 or greater with the background.
The first recommendation we have to ensure accessibility improvements meet local needs is to partner with a local organization that has the capacity to test the platform and recommend improvements. In the Bay Area, we have partnered with two organizations, Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired and The Arc. Between the two organizations, we have partnered to update our platform on an ongoing basis to ensure we are designing and building an accessible product with updates to site content and user experience for people with visual, learning and developmental disabilities - especially the following:
Design consulting: We worked with an advisor to give us early feedback on the core user experience when in early prototyping
Accessibility review: We met with experts to access features as they were being developed before being released to the public
User testing: We worked with user groups from a number of backgrounds to provide feedback to the product
Clear and simple: We broke up a long application process into a session of simple pages with a clear indication of progress
Reading level: We are write at a more inclusive reading level which benefits people with cognitive impairments as well people who may be distracted while reading
Empty space: We utilize empty space to break up sections and draw attention to the content. A user can be overwhelmed by dense content
Web accessibility also benefits people without disabilities, including:
Slow connections: People who have limited internet or expensive bandwidth
Situational limitations: People in situations that compromise their senses including bright sunlight or loud environments
Temporary disabilities: People who are recovering from a broken arm or who may have lost their glasses
Alternative devices: People who are using smart watches, TVs or some other alternative device
Listings and applications are built with preference language - including questions based on local housing preferences. Some jurisdictions have built their entire online listings and applications portal to implement housing preferences while others have expressed interest in implementing an online portal if only to launch new housing preferences. Jurisdictions and property alike will jump on board with listing opportunities if a web portal is able to handle this complicated process that is different jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Bloom Housing has a built in feature to implement almost any housing preferences, allowing complicated local housing preferences to be explained in an accessible way while also asking questions to get closer to determining applicant eligibility to those preferences. The feature also presents the data in a way that property managers can view and sort to determine the next step of running a lottery or determining eligibility. The feature can handle both ranked preferences as well as a point-based preference system.
Provides web analytics and application data, per listing opportunity. Local jurisdictions gaining access to much needed data on applicants - across all properties, regardless of developers/property managers - and property managers getting data in a manageable and accessible manner can lead to more affordable housing opportunities being listed in your city or county. Property managers who have never had access to their colleague’s data - from other property management companies or developers - will hopefully be interested in listing, it only to access data aggregated at the city or county level.
From city to city, county to county, regional affordable housing developers use the same portal to launch opportunities. A developer or property manager may consider the lift of placing their property listing and digital application process on one city’s platform to be arduous. However, the more neighboring jurisdictions who adopt a similar platform, the easier the lift will be for a property manager. Better yet, if a county were to implement a platform and take the lead, property managers who work regionally will see similar processes no matter what city they are listing their affordable housing opportunity. Regional consistency and certainty are significant reasons for participating in listing properties on your platform.
Property managers and developers are currently experiencing individual customer support needs for their properties. Most inquires are similar in nature across properties and can benefit from a share approach, especially at the pre-application phare. Shifting a portion of existing customer support needs from various developers/property managers to an online platform with shared customer support can lead to economies of scale. Questions like, have you received my application? Where am I on the waitlist? What is my income? Can all be answered from a central source since they are not typically property-specific or property manager-specific. Even when they are specific, those questions can be directed to the property or property manager, but can be screened by a central customer service source, thus limiting the impacts on busy on-site property managers.
Providing a system that property managers can use for their whole process, listing opportunities to managing applications. Some property managers are using paper applications, others have robust digital application processes, but lack lottery capabilities. No matter what capacities are, many properties and property managers can benefit from one aspect of an online application and all can benefit if it comes from a trusted government source that can direct its local residents from a .gov website to a property listing or digital application. For property managers with robust application systems already, having their existing application linked from single source of trust, like a city or county’s one-stop-shop, can bring additional applicants - a requirement from HUD’s marketing direction - if replacing their existing system is not preferred.
Once an opportunity has launched and closed, re-listing an opportunity to receive more applications is easy to launch. At the click of a button, a property manager can open up their listing and application to solicit more applications if they inevitably need more applications - whether for an available housing unit or to fill a waitlist. Rather than go through the technical hurdles of re-launching a listing and application themselves, going through a portal like Bloom Housing makes the process easier the second or third time around.
The public portal is easily accessible - and more often used via a smartphone, which a significant number of affordable housing seekers have access to. We are in a world where the majority of applicants are applying through a mobile device, so Bloom Housing has been built with this in mind. With its ease of and features that are mobile-friendly, property managers and developers may be enticed to list on the platform for this feature alone since mobile phones are the only way for many applicants to submit an application.
Ways in which jurisdictions can encourage property listings and digital applications on affordable housing web portals and platforms with a one wave of a magical wand.
Building in - via policy language - the requirement for developers and property managers to utilize the portal. When jurisdictions are funding project developments, they can also require use of the platform as part of their funding. This language can be incorporated into city or county loan docs and mentioned specifically in Notice of Funding Availability far in advance so developers can build into their plans and processes accordingly. Many existing Bloom Housing implementors have languages that accomplishes this, including language that may meet existing HUD Fair Housing marketing requirements.
Fair Housing Marketing
Fair housing marketing requirements, including language accessibility, digital access, reaching out to hard-to-reach communities, and other requirements are more often required by Fair Housing requirements. If an existing affordable housing web portal that a city or county has developed is currently up and running, not using the portal for at the very least as marketing purposes, may not meet HUD marketing requirements when it comes to Fair Housing. As mentioned earlier, HUD has recommended “maintaining a web or mobile site with clear information about availability, eligibility, and application processes” and “posting on social media, local listservs, and other sites relevant to housing-seekers in the market area (including registries of affordable housing maintained by local governments, housing authorities, or community organizations). Choosing not to list on such a portal means denying access to applicants that may only rely on their own government resources for exposure to affordable housing opportunities. Property managers and developers, when asked if they have exhausted all opportunities to advertise their openings to everyone in the community are likely not able to meet HUD marketing requirements if they have turned down listing on the city or county’s own .gov website.
Soup to Nuts
Jurisdictions may require property managers to list their properties, implement digital applications, and run lotteries with specific requirements that may be beyond their existing capacity. Having a system that can meet all those required needs -which will only benefit the applicant if a developer/property manager does not have adequate capacity to market their properties or run lotters for example - can be the solution that meets all their requirements. Whether it’s listing properties and application processes in multiple languages or requiring property managers to use a portal to receive ranked order applications via a lottery- jurisdictions can set the level of requirements that need to be met while also providing access to the very system to meet those requirements.
We hope this has been a helpful guide to understanding how to get housing opportunities and resources onto the Bloom Housing portal! If you'd like to connect with an Exygy team member, we're just a few clicks away: https://www.exygy.com/housing/contact-us.
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