One Month to Make a Difference: Using Data to Streamline Public Housing Applications

September 4, 2015 7:00 am PST | Data as a Service, Data Rockstars

Stacey Johnson and Marcus Louie at Bread for the WorldIt’s almost a full-time job to apply for public housing in Washington, D.C. Applicants need to fill out a paper application for each building they want to apply for. With more than 100 Section 8 buildings in the city, each with their own paper application form, no standardization between forms, and unavailability of online submissions, the unwieldy process is a significant barrier to city residents looking for affordable housing.

Since 2013, I’ve been working with a local non-profit called Bread for the City and a Code for America project team in Washington, D.C., to streamline the process of applying for affordable housing in the city. Together, we built a solution so that an applicant could complete an online form only once to fill out a number of different applications in PDF format. This online form automatically maps the input to PDF versions of each building’s original application form.

A Chance to Be Data-Driven

Data is a critical element in measuring whether Section 8 housing is serving the needs of the community. This data gives public officials and non-profits information to help them create better policies and processes, helps residents find affordable housing, and sheds light on discriminatory patterns. With a paper process, there is no opportunity to capture data regarding these applications and their outcomes.  

With a digital process, residents could get answers to their questions about available housing:

  • Given my family size and income, which building applications should I submit for the best chance of being accepted?
  • What’s around the building? (nearby grocery stores, good schools, public transit, health care facilities, and houses of worship)
  • What are the neighborhoods like near available housing? (average income level, public safety, diversity, walkability, etc.)
  • Is there anything else I need to know about these buildings? (building type, average utility costs, average transit costs, lead paint hazards, wheelchair accessibility, etc.)
  • How long should I expect to wait to obtain housing for my family?

Policy makers would have more information to answer their questions:

  • How many people are applying for Section 8 housing? How many are successfully placed? How many are not?
  • On average, how long does the application process take?
  • At what rate do different target populations (families, elderly, disabled, minorities, female-led households, veterans, victims of domestic violence, persons with HIV/AIDs, the chronically homeless, etc.) seek assistance? At what rate are each target populations successfully housed? Is there evidence of discrimination in the process?
  • How does the acceptance/rejection rate differ across target populations, buildings, neighborhoods, and the city?
  • Which buildings and neighborhoods do applicants find most desirable?
  • Does Section 8 housing help families move to the best buildings in high-opportunity neighborhoods?

However, there is a way we can collect this data, and I helped develop it through my open data sabbatical.

(Editor’s Note: Marcus, an employee in the Washington, D.C. office, participated in Socrata’s “One Month to Make a Difference” Program. Many Socrata employees choose us because they are passionate about our company values of open data, civic engagement, and transforming the world. To support that vision, Socrata offers a paid sabbatical and $5,000 to one employee each year to implement a civic engagement initiative that they believe in.)

My Month to Make a Difference

Rental ListingOn Monday, February 12th, 2014, I arrived at Bread for the City (Bread) to meet with Stacey Johnson. Stacey is a senior case manager with 20 years of experience who manages the Housing Access Program, a weekly workshop that brings applicants into the office to help them complete Section 8 housing applications with case workers.  

Stacey arrived at the office with a newspaper in her hands. She said, “I just saw this on the way in,” pointing to a rental listing. “A building just opened up a waiting list.”

Many buildings have waiting lists for Section 8 housing that are so long that they are perpetually closed. It’s a big deal when a waiting list opens to new applicants, and it means that Stacey and her staff can help people improve their chances of getting housing.  

Finding out which buildings have open waiting lists is still a wholly manual process — there is no central reporting when apartments open their waiting lists, and no incentive for them to publish this information in a standard format so it could be harvested. In addition, the Washington Post only publishes waitlist openings in the print edition of the paper, not in a digital searchable format.

Find out how Marcus helps address the problem by automating the application process in next week’s installment.


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