Helping low-income residents to apply for housing in a competitive housing market.
Olen Ronning of 10,000 ft
There is a general lack of transparency in the application process. There is no way to check how your application money is being used, and if your application isn’t selected you often don’t find out why. Additionally, application fees add up, especially if you have a family. Many landlords are now changing background check fees for children as well as adults. So, for example, if you have a family of 5 and the landlord is changing 12 dollars per child, and she is applying to 4-6 apartments, that quickly becomes unaffordable.
Our target user makes a household income of between 30-50% of area median income, or 25-45 thousand dollars a year. This segment of society is an under-served group. They are not quite disadvantaged enough to be guaranteed social services, and not affluent enough to take advantage of benefits offered to the middle class, such as subsidies for home ownership.
These issues are already being addressed on an individual scale by case managers. However, these managers are not available to everyone who needs them. There is an opportunity to replicate the methods used by this group, as well as import methods from other industries - such as universal applications (education), and a reusable background checks (hiring in the private sector).
Six months of research, concept development and design, distilled into a ten minute presentation. Watching this video is a good place to start.
We looked over 50 different literary sources ranging from housing affordability and living agendas prepared by the mayor of Seattle to blogs tracking the affordable housing crisis, and even studied Seattle’s census data to understand the landscape we were working with. Our initial secondary research led us to dig deeper into the extremely low income, however, we continued to conduct research well into our ideation phase to make sure our overall concept would be grounded in research.
SUBJECT MATTER EXPERTS (SME)
Two rounds of interviews were conducted with various SMEs. Early on in the process, we interviewed urban planners, resource workers, and non-profit workers devoted to policy making for affordable housing.
As we refined our problem space, the second round of SME interviews consisted of low income housing case managers. This was the most beneficial since case managers work closely with low income persons to find housing.
We were fortunate that one of our SMEs was able to connect us with low income residents. We had the privilege of interviewing three end users and also had the opportunity to conduct prototype evaluations with each person. The responses gathered from each person and their feedback about our designs are what guided Handshake’s design
Initial Research Questions
What barriers are preventing low income resident from obtaining housing currently? What pressures are causing low income residents to be displaced? What are the factors and problems that will affect their ability to retain their housing?
What are the most difficult problems facing the low-income group people when they are looking for affordable housing in Seattle? What tools and services are low-income residents using to find information about affordable housing for themselves? How’s the current process of finding affordable housing on their own?
What are the other factors or stress they are dealing with when trying to find affordable housing? What are the other areas they need help with when they need help with finding affordable housing? Can caseworkers effectively help them through this difficult period of time?
What’s the experience like when single parents earning below 30% AMI go to caseworkers to ask for help in finding affordable housing? Are the caseworkers proficient enough to connect these people to their needs in general? What’s lacking in the current process?
What types of experiences or outcomes would be more ideal for our target user? What are single parents’ ideal living situation? What are their goals when it comes to long term housing goals?
The city’s becoming too expensive for nearly half the population,” says Lauren Craig, policy counsel at Puget Sound Sage, a Seattle nonprofit that advocates for affordable housing, workers’ rights and environmental sustainability. “An influx of new workers in high paying tech jobs, combined with development of new high end, expensive housing has caused housing prices to skyrocket. These pressures are displacing low- income people — who are often refugees, immigrants and people of color — out of Seattle and into the suburbs.
Lauren Craig, Policy Counsel at Puget Sound Sage, a Seattle nonprofit that advocates for affordable housing
The whole goal of case managing is to help people to become sufficient so that they don’t need you anymore...what you guys are talking about puts everything so that somebody can take care of all these steps themselves and promote themselves, I love that!
Alicia McJanet, Case Manager Low Income Housing institute
I don’t apply unless I talk with [landlords] and know for sure. I don’t want to waste money on application fees if landlords are going to say ‘no’.
“Daniel” Low income resident, mother of six.
We looked at the most notable companies related to housing: Redfin, Zillow, and Trulia. Redfin focuses on buying and selling, while both Zillow and Trulia have a search option for rentals. Trulia also had a rather comprehensive and interactive city overview (shown to the right) that we thought would be beneficial to home buyers and renters of all kinds (affordable housing included). Unfortunately, all of these services do not cater to those looking for affordable housing.
There were housing rental specific sites such as rent.com or rentals.com, but there were no affordable housing options as part of the search process. There are organizations and services that help people find and secure affordable housing. At a national level, socialserve.com develops and supports affordable housing database listings in multiple cities (including Seattle).
The Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) is a key player in the affordable housing space. Filling out an online pre-application allows people to apply for housing programs with open waiting lists, including Low Income Public Housing; the Seattle Senior Housing Program; High Point, New Holly, and Rainier Vista; and Impact Property Management / Special Portfolio. They put together an application guide filled with information to help navigate the affordable housing market.
Aptfinder.org is a non-profit website that connects low-income households with affordable apartment communities throughout Washington State. Properties listed there include both subsidized and non-subsidized apartment rentals offering income and rent restrictions designed to help low- income families, individuals, seniors, and persons with disabilities.
Low-income Housing Application Process
This is a diagram of a typical application cycle. The applicant applies, spends money and waits. Often, they don’t hear back or find out why their application was not selected. We also, see the addition of a case manger - who is stepping in as an advocate and educator. The first thing the case manager will do is show them their background check, so that they can see what landlords are seeing, and provide insight into the application process. The case manager in some cases may also helps by driving them to appointments, and calling properties on their behalf. Unfortunately, there are not enough case manager to go around, and they are only authorized to help those who meet the criteria of their organization's mission, leaving many gaps for people who do not qualify.
To build a tool that gives the applicant more confidence in their ability to market themselves effectively to landlords on their own. Crucially, this solution requires no extra work on the landlord’s end. In fact was our goal to reduce the amount of time and work required by landlords to review a low-income application- making it as easy as possible to say yes.
How can we help very low income residents who are in the process of finding affordable, equitable, and appropriate housing in a competitive housing market?
1. How can we reduce application fees and increase the chances of a successful application?
2. How can we make the applicant more self-sufficient and confident in their ability to find housing?
Our ideation process started with 50 ideas, then was narrowed to our top 8, which we refined. This was done in parallel with research to influence our concept development.
We created frameworks to put our problem space into perspective.
We developed concepts and sketches, then dscussed them as a group through a concept sorting exercise
Those ideas were then narrowed, refined, combined and refined using a consistent criteria created in collaboration with our sponsors.
This diagram was created to give us an overview of the stakeholder relationships. This helped us to target key relationships and to discuss the impact of concepts on key stakeholders.
This map was created to create historical context for our problem space. One key insight is that the subsidized housing market has changed hands from being mostly government owned to mostly run by non-profits. This map not only helped us to synthesize our research, but also to ideate by tracking trends and thinking about the era to come.
At the recommendation of our sponsor, we began using icons to label our ideas. We used the three icons to the right to guide the ideation and narrowing process.
1. Project Criteria
2. Refinement Process (labels)
3. Selection Process
Sketches and Storyboarding
Sketching was an essential part of our concept development. Including the following techniques:
We conducted an interview with a representative user in order to gain insights. A key finding was that this low income resident contacts landlords before paying the application fee in order to see if she has a good chance of getting the apartment. Specically, a turning point for this resident happened when the landlord met her in person and saw that her children are well behaved.
We conducted a hybrid semi-structured interview that included a usability testing and user interview. We observed and probed on comments provided by each participant and primarily relied on the participant to think out loud. The primary questions we wanted to answer was if the cover page could be successfully filled out by each participant and if the finnal output of
the cover page was beneficial to the low income person. We conducted three rounds of prototype evaluations. This included the digital prototype, as well as the profile page. First with a case manager, then with someone who has experienced both being a case manager and a low income resident, then with a low income resident.
1. Case Manager
Testing with a case manager gave us valuable insights about the application process, from the point of view of someone reviewing an applicaiton. We also interviewed 3 landlords in the private market.
2. Case Manager / VLI
We evaluated our product with one low income resdient, who has section 8 housing and also interns as a case manager at a local non-profit. She was able to give us insights from both sides of the applicaiton process.
3. VLI (Very Low-Income)
Insights from our very low income residents were the most valuable. We gained unique insights about the tech habits, experiences with discrimination, and their struggles to find, apply to and secure housing for themselves and their families.
We developed a paper prototype, laser cut from mat board. This gave us the ability to test or concepts with general participants, before building a digital prototype to be evavaulated with our target user. This was a valuable tool for gaining quick insights, and allowing everyone in the group to contribute notes, sketch new ideas on the fly and critique the user interface.
We created two versions of a digital prototype. The first version was created in parallel with the paper prototype and used for a first round of evalutions with a general audience, as well as with input from our sponsors. The second prototpye was then built into an interactive prototype in InVision for evaluation with our target user.
Profile Page Feedback
The profile page is the first thing that a landlord will see when reviewing an application. All participants were presented with two versions of our profile page, “formal” and “friendly”.
- Likes the professional look.
- Received feedback that the rental history needs to be included.
- Monthly income is very important and should be one of the first things they see.
- Easy to scan.
- Likes the professional “resume-like” quality.
- Photo should be optional. (fears of discrimination)
- Too casual
- Priorities don’t need to be that visible.
- Timeline with quotes does not seem serious enough. 4. Icons are confusing.
- Likes the professional “resume-like” quality.
- Photo should be optional. (fears of discrimination)
Applicant Profile Page
We gathered feedback about the cover page from a property manager and landlord that has rented to very low income tenants.
Very low income applicants, property managers, and landlords thought that the cover page was beneficial and useful to the application process.
Primary changes made after the prototype evaluation:
- Addition of information important to landlords, such as rental history.
- More prominent display of monthly income.
- A more elegant layout, that work equally well in print, as an email, or as a pdf.
Handshake is an end-to-end solution to secure appropriate housing for low income tenants.
Handshake is an end to end solution to secure appropriate housing for low income tenants. Handshake starts by providing the tenant with a background check, up front, so that they can address any issues with their record. Next, they search for housing, and select affordable properties from a map.
Then, they fill out a universal housing application, which they are guided through step by step.The next goal is to present them in the best possible light to landlords. We do this by helping them to build a profile page which will be the first thing that a landlord sees when reviewing their application. This is made easy by extracting information from their application to generate a short bio.
As a final step that can contact multiple properties, track responses and refine their application.
The user interactions are divided into 3 main sections: search, apply, build profile. Our goal is to build a tool that gives the applicant more confidence in their ability to market themselves effectively to landlords on their own
As we have discovered from user interviews, the current problem with searching for low income housing is that there is no comprehensive search engine for this population and current tools do not indicate the availability status of the properties.
Therefore, the first part of our user interaction is focused on building a search experience that pulls property information from different websites such as craiglist.org and aptfinder.org. People can also enter specific eligibility information which may give them a better chance of being matched with the correct housing (such as being a veteran, senior, or single parent).
The second section of user interaction is the universal application. Currently, each landlord is likely to use a different application form.
Our low income residents might hold two jobs at the same time, it’s time consuming and highly inefficient for them to craft different applications for the places they are applying to.
Therefore, we designed a universal application system. The benefits are two-fold. Low income residents only have to fill out their detailed information once and reuse as needed, and they are guide step by step with difficult terms explained. For landlord, they don’t have to spend time to developing their own application forms.
The essence of our Handshake is the profile building experience. Currently, most of our low income residents are not fully were of the importance of meeting with a landlord in person to secure housing.
Much of this information is extracted from the application stage to construct the profile. People only need to spend 10 minutes to review and edit if they desire. Customization is optional- they can add a photo and indicate personal preferences.
Transparency is ensured as people are informed of the questions being asked to their references.
Design by Yingri Guan
After the very low income applicant has built their profile, they are now ready to hand in their application package which includes: the profile page (highlighting positive attributes), a universal application, and a background check. Giving the landlord everything they need up front and making it as easy as possible to say “yes.”
Housing is a human right, and housing affordability is just one building block to a more equitable city. Handshake is designed to make strides toward such a future, helping each applicant turn their hope for housing into a reality. Before we conclude, we’d like to thank our instructors and sponsor for supporting us on this project. Also, many thanks to our lovely actress, SMEs, landlords, and last but not least, our end users. This project would not have been as successful without all of you.
For this project, we imagine moving forward with a non-profit model, funded by local government. Similar products have been developed for government based programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in New York City, which is a TurboTax-like system for food stamp applications.
The next step for this project would be to begin presenting to civic leaders, government officials and venture capital to receive feedback on the current iteration of our concept. Our project in composed of three main sections: search, apply, and decide. Although we have a strong framework for the entire end to end solution, our prototyping and user testing focused primarily on the “apply” stage of the application process. Further prototyping and testing would be critical to creating a complete end-to-end solution.
- Scrapping listings from craigslist and aptfinder.org.
- Partnering with service who can provide a secure, reusable background check.
- Email tracking and verification