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Four Things San Francisco Learned While Upending its Affordable Housing Application Process

The department tried an agile, user-centered approach to building its new housing portal. It liked the outcome.

SAN FRANCISCO — When the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development sat down with people looking for affordable housing to test out a new website they could use to search and apply for a place to live, one woman turned to the testers and told them that she didn’t think she was on the right site. It looked too nice. Sort of like a website one would use if they were looking for a market-rate house to buy.

That was the point. After a long time working with a faulty patchwork of websites to guide affordable housing seekers, the office turned in 2015 to a private-sector partner, the public benefit corporation Exygy, to create a new portal.

Since it launched in late 2016, the website has given the office good results. It’s taken in 80,000 applications through the site and driven the rate of people applying online up to 90 percent, all while making the process easier for just about everyone involved. It used to take a day or two to fill out an application, now it takes 15 minutes.

Before DAHLIA, people applying for affordable housing had to go to several different online listings from different agencies and nonprofit groups. They would have inconsistent information and text-heavy eligibility descriptions.

Then came the paper application process.

“You had to usually go in person to pick up the application, because each building had a different application, so you had to make sure to get the right application for the right building,” said Roshen Sethna, a partner with Exygy. “And once you did get your hands on it, these applications were really lengthy, so 15-plus pages, (and) often required a lot of supplemental information — tax returns, pay stubs, things like that. It was a really cumbersome process to get the application together. It might take several days to do that.”

And then, the lottery drawing to determine who got which units.

“We literally pulled out a roll — think about toilet paper unfolding — of red carnival tickets, and you got one, and it went into the drum, and we had to tape the door of this drum shut because it flies open when you spin it, and we had to pull the tickets out,” said Barry Roeder, who works on strategic initiatives for the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development. “It’s an absurd process, at least for this day and age.”

Roeder credits the turnaround largely to human-centric design and an agile approach to building the portal.

Sethna and Roeder spoke about the portal and their process to create it at day one of the Bridge SF conference in San Francisco on May 22. Here are the four things Roeder said his office learned in the process.

1. Ask the User

It’s always best to ask people who are going to use a new system what they need and how they use the current system, Roeder said.

“The idea is to sit regularly with people who have to use this. It doesn’t mean let’s have a community conversation on one afternoon in a conference room and think about what are you looking for, or let’s … build something and then send out a SurveyMonkey and ask, ‘Do you like it? Yes/no, on a scale of one to 10.’ It’s like, no, let’s sit with people all the way through and talk about what their needs are,” he said.

Further, he said, one should look for broad input.

“It’s not just the applicants, there’s a whole ecosystem around this project,” he said. “There are housing developers, leasing agents, property managers on one side, housing counselors and housing advocates on the other side. And they all have something important to bring to this.”

2. Go Agile

In a traditional gov tech procurement, an agency would probably lay out its system requirements and then ask a company to build it.

With an agile approach, the office and the private-sector partner would sit down to watch how people navigate the current system, then build pieces of the new portal one at a time, test them with users, improve them and then repeat the process. These “sprints” are often run on a weekly or biweekly basis and will focus on individual components of the larger system.

3. Build the Right Team

One should aim for people hungry for change within the government agency, Roeder said. Then leaders need to create a culture where people want to work together and aren’t afraid to do things in a way they’ve never done them before.

That can be a bit of a problem when it comes to agile methods, because government put the traditional procurement processes in place to limit risk. Telling a supervisor that a project doesn’t have an easily-set budget or specs can be tough. But Roeder has a way of “selling” an agile approach in a way that addresses risk.

“What our (chief financial officer) of our department says, which is really great … is, ‘Every two weeks you’re getting something, you’re getting delivered something, and at any point if you don’t like what you’re getting you shut it off,’” he said.

Getting that buy-in also helps to create change to support the technological shifts, as well. For example, the partners were able to convince the right people to let applicants break up when they submitted certain pieces of information, easing the application process.

4. Find the Right Partners

It’s important, Roeder said, for government to find people who really care about solving the problems and are eager to do so.

“It makes a big difference to have somebody, particularly in an agile process, that’s thinking with the same mindset, because none of us know at the outset … what it’s going to look like,” he said.

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.