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Can Simulation Tools Soften Tension Over New Housing?

The SaaS company Balancing Act, which sells budget simulation software, now has a similar tool for local housing plans. The company aims to boost public engagement in cities as pressure mounts for affordable dwellings.

Houses being built.
Few issues can spark the wrath of residents as much as new housing plans — whether it’s a move to increase density down the block, construct a new apartment building or anything else that means “change.” To reduce such unwelcome surprises in this era of digital citizen engagement and web-based public participation, the Denver-based software-as-a-service provider Balancing Act has a new offering to give residents an inside look at the housing approval process.

That SaaS tool, Simulate for Housing, enables residents to offer their own suggestions for changes to city housing plans. Via maps and other features, residents using mobile phones or computers can make their own tentative housing plans for client cities, with completed plans able to be shared anonymously with city officials and other constituents.

The tentative plans must follow the same restrictions faced by city planners under local, state and federal laws. That gives users the chance to explore housing disputes in greater detail, and perhaps cool some of the emotions often seen at planning and zoning meetings, said Balancing Act President Chris Adams.

“Public engagement on housing is very intense and very narrow,” he told Government Technology, echoing comments from at least one city planner who helped inspire this technology. “Current homeowners come out very hot.”

Not only that, but “the issue of housing and housing supply is really coming to a head,” a factor that suggests opportunity for this product, Adams said.

ENGAGEMENT BENEFITS


Making housing plans virtually might not erase all the tension that comes with the process, or change the majority of minds in a dispute — especially in states such as California, where political pressure for more affordable housing is running particularly high — but a new avenue of public engagement still could bring significant benefits, according to Adams.

“Balancing Act is providing a way for people to put themselves in the shoes of decision-makers,” he said. “What we found is that this almost creates a sense of empathy.”

So far, a handful of cities in California have bought the new product, as well as one in Australia. The California clients must conform to a state law from 1969 requiring all local governments to regularly “meet the housing needs of everyone in the community,” according to the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development website.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently signed a series of bills designed to increase the state’s stock of affordable housing, among other tasks, upping the pressure around housing decisions.

ELK GROVE EXPERIENCE


A closer look at what Balancing Act’s new SaaS tool means for cities — and how it can play a role on their housing plans — comes from Elk Grove, a Sacramento suburb of around 175,000 people and an early user of Simulate for Housing.

The city used the tool to solicit feedback on an update to its housing element, required every eight years under state law.

“As part of the plan, the city is required to identify sites around the city that could be built at densities that support various income categories,” Elk Grove said via a product demo provided by Balancing Act. “This site focuses on sites targeted at low and very low-income households. The city has to identify enough sites for 4,265 units, as well as any additional, or buffer, sites the city selects.”

Elk Grove invited residents to make their own housing plan using potential sites listed by council district. Users could include or exclude sites simply by selecting “yes” or “no,” and each site came with information about how many units it could take. Elk Grove staff then reviewed those housing plans and provided summaries to local elected officials.

According to Adams, the tool attracted 1,482 page views in Elk Grove, along with 91 completed housing plan submissions from users. Average time-on-site was nearly nine minutes per user.

PRICING ISSUES


Elk Grove and other Balancing Act clients pay a yearly subscription fee based on city size, Adams said. As the product rolls out to other regions, prices could become more attractive thanks in part to an early deal the company struck, he said.

In California, the Association of Bay Area Governments — which includes nine counties and 101 cities in the San Francisco Bay Area — has bought an initial order of 25 licenses for the product.

“The housing planning process that Bay Area cities and counties will undergo over the next year will be extremely challenging,” said Heather Peters, a project manager for the group, in a statement. “We’re all united in wanting more housing, and Balancing Act helps create broadly supported decisions.”

The growth from that deal will serve to keep prices competitive and also help fuel innovation for the tool, Adams said.

“Now, we’re having a little bit of scale,” he said. “We can become more affordable and feature rich.”

COMPETITIVE SPACE


Balancing Act built its housing simulator after years of experience with budget simulation tools for public agencies, counting some 160 clients for that software, most of whom are located in the U.S., according to Adams. The company is not the only firm active in this general simulation space.

For instance, Symbium, a startup, recently won a $240,000 grant to expand use of its own housing software, which helps residents figure out whether accessory dwelling units (ADUs) are feasible in certain areas, and how much they could cost. Symbium’s technology uses local regulations and a library of floor plans to help users make those determinations.

Adams didn’t see direct competition for Balancing Act as it seeks to broaden its public engagement offerings.

“There are not many more (companies) out there” offering such simulation tools, he said. “We really don’t have many competitors. I would say (there are) complimentary services.”
Thad Rueter writes about the business of government technology. He covered local and state governments for newspapers in the Chicago area and Florida, as well as e-commerce, digital payments and related topics for various publications. He lives in New Orleans.
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