Improving the Section 8 Application Process in Santa Monica

Service Blueprint with 'service patches'

As a Code for America community fellow, I worked with the City of Santa Monica’s Housing Authority (SMHA) to improve the affordable housing application process. SMHA’s manager had been looking for some way to improve the overall process and was considering technological solutions.

We were awarded the fellowship in May, began work in June 2019, and completed our final presentation to the city’s housing commission January 16th, 2020. Though the work barely scratched the surface of the issues underlying the housing crisis, if the resulting deliverables are able to help some of Santa Monica’s low-income residents find answers, it’s a big improvement.

My Role

UX Researcher and Designer, Service Designer – From discovery to design and development, I created the roadmap for research and design. My partner managed communications, assisted with interviews, and rewrote the content of the physical letters mailed to Section 8 applicants and facilitated the Plain Language workshop that we held with SMHA staff.

Tools

Whiteboard, Post-its, Sketch, Wufoo, Orchard CMS (Santa Monica’s CMS), Trello, Google Slides/ Docs/ Sheets

SMHA Challenges

Santa Monica’s Housing Authority is very busy managing several programs, including all of the city’s affordable housing assistance programs. The most sought after program is the Section 8 waitlist. The SMHA’s manager was hoping for any help that might improve the application process.

The SMHA struggles with processing tens of thousands of applications every time they open the Section 8 waitlist. Applicants must live or work in Santa Monica and have ‘very low income’ to be eligible and prioritized on the waitlist. However, the vast majority of applications do not meet these eligibility requirements. In 2017, over 19,000 applications were submitted in 24 hours, 85% of them were ineligible. In 2012, they opened the waitlist for 48 hours and received over 33,000 applications, tens of thousands of which did not even have California addresses.

Despite HUD allowing Public Housing Authorities (PSAs) to implement their own local, discretionary rules for what order applications will be prioritized on their Section 8 waitlists, HUD does not allow PSAs to restrict any applications from being submitted, even if they are ineligible under their rules. This means Section 8 waitlists in sought-after cities in America are flooded with applications that they are required to assess.

In addition to improving the general process, the Housing Division manager hoped to increase the number of eligible local applicants and reduce the number of ineligible applications.

Solutions

In the 6 months of the fellowship, I researched (with some help from my partner), assessed the insights, conceptualized design solutions that could address the insights, and developed two improvements to the service, as well as recommending a few more ‘service patches’ that the research showed would additionally improve the affordable housing application process.

To address the issue that community members weren’t able to help themselves by finding answers online, I restructured, styled, and improved the overall usability of the SMHA website. Equally, if not more important, I designed and developed a Section 8 Eligibility Checker which would allow users to know if they were even eligible for Section 8, and if they weren’t, it would offer other available options based on their answers. Additional recommendations fur improving trust and communication between the community and the city involved creating dedicated social media accounts and SMAH hosted workshops with Q&As where community members, leaders, nonprofit representatives, and more could learn more about SMHA, what they do, how processes work, especially Section 8.

In the hopes of improving the legibility and clarity of the letters being sent to Section 8 applicants, my fellowship partner rewrote them in plainer language. We hosted a plain language workshop for the staff in order to communicate its importance and necessity.

As of May 2020, thousands of people have utilized the Section 8 Eligibility Checker. So far the numbers show that it has been successful in decreasing the number of ineligible applications and increasing the number of eligible, local applications! Not only does a potential applicants understanding of their eligibility and other possible available programs help them to make informed decisions for their future, it reduces the number of ineligible applications. These inundate the SMHA staff who must manually check and update all of the applications that come through with errors and invalid information. Less ineligible applications equals less work, which means more time for staff to be able to process eligible applications and issue Section 8 vouchers sooner.


How I did the Research

Primary Research

  • Stakeholder and SME interviews
  • Contextual Inquiries with Housing Authority Staff
  • Dozens of in depth interviews with
    • Housing Authority Staff
    • Community members and leaders
    • Housing Commissioners representing Section 8 recipients
  • Attended community meetings and spoke with participants
    • 4 Group interviews
    • 1 Event talk
    • 3 Surveys
    • 2 Usability Testing sessions
  •  Facilitated 2 internal workshops with the Housing Authority staff
    • Empathy Mapping exercise, and a presentation of quiz wireframes for feedback
    • Plain language explanation and exercise, and a presentation of interview insights, journey map and service blueprint

Secondary Research

  • SMHA data analysis of Section 8 applications
  • HUD guidelines
  • SMHA documents, including administration reports
  • Comparative analysis:
    • Dozens of regional housing authorities (called PHAs) websites and social media accounts
    • Dozens of Section 8 pre-applications that were opened for other PHAs around the country

What I learned

The research made several issues very clear. From a high level view, the problem was twofold:

  1. For community members looking for help, the affordable housing application process is extremely complex and hard to follow, but they also could not find any educational resources or personal assistance. According to the research, the community’s challenges included:
    • not knowing what the Housing Authority does
    • how Section 8 works and who is eligible for it; knowing only that it is extremely complex and hard to follow
    • what other assistance programs exist beyond Section 8
    • how to find information about ‘affordable housing’ in Santa Monica; there was no way to educate themselves online
    • believing the only assistance came from a local nonprofit developer
    • only learning everything they know from friends, family, and their community; rumors and misinformation are continuously circulating.
    • Last, but not least, the city website (and the only place to find details about Section 8 and SMHA’s programs) was impossible to use. No one interviewed could find help on the site and they often gave up.
  2. The Housing Authority staff are overworked and lacking resources. The staff’s challenges included:
    • overwhelmed by thousands of ineligible applications from those who don’t meet the basic Section 8 eligibility requirements
    • being heavily reliant on a detailed, manual verification process that could not be automated
    • not having the resources to help applicants find out what programs are available to them
    • not having a website designer or trained content manager
    • having only complicated information and documents online
    • HUD’s requirements that require that they allow anyone to apply, whether or not they are eligible under the city’s ‘discretionary preferences’ (which are permitted by HUD)

What I designed

I proposed, designed, and developed both the website and Section 8 Eligibility Quiz.

Website Improvements

  • I restructured the site map, the main navigation, and site pages
  • With my partner’s assistance, I simplified and rewrote much of the content
  • I added new pages for content that was being hosted on a different website (i.e. beta.santamonica.org) and split up a long list of resources into labeled resource pages
  • I added a ‘main’ navigation table to connect the main housing division pages to each other, allowing users to browse all of the SMHA content. A big issue with the website is that the Housing Division website exists as a page on the city’s website. Adding to the difficulty of not having a dedicated URL, the city of Santa Monica had flattened their entire website, eliminating all department/division pages. This was not conducive to browsing the site to look for information. A visitor using the site would need to know exactly what they were looking for, or what keywords to search, to find information. Thus, it’s easy to get lost on the website, especially since the Housing Division’s subpages were not linked to one another, discoverable most easily from the main search field on santamonica.gov.
  • I added visual hierarchy by adding headers, font styling, indentations, and anchor links to frequently asked questions at the top of longer pages
Website Comparison

Section 8 Eligibility Checker

Why Create this Quiz?

1. People were wasting months to years waiting to ‘apply’ for Section 8 without knowing if they were even eligible
2. The Section 8 waitlist has only been open twice recently, in 2012 and 2017, for 24-48 hours each time. In 2012 the city received over 33,000 applications.
3. The pre-application requires a lot of sensitive information including the social and birthdate of every household member
4. 85% of those that submitted pre-applications were not eligible
5. Unless they were eligible and came up in the lottery, those that applied received no communication from the city. People who applied in 2012 were still calling the office to find out if they made the waitlist.

The Section 8 Eligibility Checker only asks a few questions to determine if someone is eligible and also includes educational content about Section 8 so they can learn more as they answer. This tool is extremely important as everyone we spoke to believed the only assistance options were Section 8 or a local non-profit developer. I also developed a Spanish version.

It could also filter applicants who want to apply to Section 8, decreasing the thousands of ineligible applications that city employees have to manually look over and verify

The Process

  • Research
    • Brainstorm of quiz questions
    • SME interviews to ensure questions are applicable
    • Facilitating a staff workshop with empathy mapping; listing alternative programs and eligibility requirements
    • Community interviews – what are they hoping to learn? How might the quiz help them?
    • Comparing and contrasting the required application information for their housing programs
  • Design
    • Wireframes
    • Paper prototypes
    • Testing with staff
    • Interviewing a community influencer and advocate who clarified goals of the quiz
    • Reiteration of quiz from “What program might help me” to “Section 8 Eligibility” quiz which responds with available alternative programs for ineligible applicants
    • Building and launching a basic version of the quiz in Wufoo to test how it might work with POD program applicants, which had very limited, specific, and strict rules for eligibility
    • Reiterating the designs
    • Building the Section 8 quiz in Wufoo, coding several IfTTT rules that dictate the various custom responses
    • Usability testing with community members
    • Reiterating the designs based on testing
    • Launching the final quiz as a link from the Section 8 page of the website
Screenshot 2020-01-14 19.38.17

Additional Recommendations

Social Media

The Housing Authority needs to have its own social media accounts to post important news, updates, and educational content in order to fill in a lot of the gaps where customer service is not available. Social Media is a low cost and easy way to get information out to residents and interact with the community.

Workshops

The Housing Authority should host workshops on Section 8 and other affordable housing programs and services. The workshops could definitely increase community education and dispel the misinformation being circulated. They could also be used to improve communication and increase the community’s trust in the City by showing that the city is making efforts to help.

Benefits of Social Media and Workshops

Residents need affordable housing help, don’t know where to find it, and felt that no one in the city was willing to help them. As of writing this (January 2020), the city is actually trying to minimize the direct contact between residents at city employees by implementing a phone tree to direct phone calls, making it even harder for people to get answers.

Social media and workshops could open a line of communication between the city and its residents who are so desperate for answers, at a very low additional cost to the city. It could also help build trust in the city, which many community members said they did not have for a few reasons, one of which was that they didn’t feel like the city was available to help them and answer their questions.

Interest List

Creating an Interest List for people wanting to apply for the Section 8 waitlist would remove the major obstacle that exists. The existing protocol was to inform anyone asking about Section 8 that the “waitlist wasn’t open and they didn’t know when it would open” and “the only way to know when it will open is to keep checking the website”. By creating an Interest List where people could enter their email, the city would easily be able to let everyone on the list know when the Section 8 waitlist was going to open.

View the recommendations report >


What was the outcome?

In May 2020, the City of Santa Monica Housing Authority opened their Section 8 waitlist pre-applications. I’m updating this section on May 18th, having just received feedback from the SMHA manager and staff.

Barbara, SMHA’s manager, emailed on May 1st to say that as of that day, “6,563 [had] used the quiz and applications.”

And on May 18th, Ben, who keeps track of SMHA application data, emailed:

…it definitely seems so far like we are getting a much better ratio of local/not local applicants this time around. The quiz and your insights in to what the public does/doesn’t know about housing in SM were both helpful in planning the opening [of the Section 8 waitlist].

Thousands have now used the Section 8 Eligibility Checker to answer the most important question: Am I even eligible?

In the past, people were told by a friend that they might get help if they applied for Section 8. They often waited years for the waitlist to open, not knowing their eligibility or how it all works. They’d apply with their household’s sensitive data and wait again, with no feedback, for more years. If they weren’t eligible, they’d never know. (2012 applicants often called the SMHA in 2019, asking about their waitlist status, only to learn that their app had been purged when the waitlist opened in 2017.)

By answering a handful of questions in the Section 8 Eligibility Checker anyone can find out if they may be eligible. If they aren’t, it will tell them why, and what other assistance options may be available to them.

Additionally, less ineligible apps equals less work for staff, which means more time to help eligible applicants get vouchers sooner!

What did I learn?

I learned a LOT! I had no experience with affordable housing or Section 8 prior to working on this project. Speaking with all of the SMHA staff and so many residents in need in the community was eye-opening. I learned so much from everyone.

In the beginning I went head-down into the interviews and secondary online research. SMHA’s manager was easy to work with but I could see that the recommendations and insights weren’t that easy to digest in our weekly meetings. No one at the housing authority had worked with a UX Designer or Researcher before and did not understand what I did.

I created a presentation of my process with research insights and my comparative analysis of Section 8 in other cities. This presentation along with the User Journey map and Service Blueprints really helped me better explain to the SMHA manager and staff the what/why/how of my work, the research insights, and the recommended solutions. I learned that those artifacts really helped people unfamiliar with UX understand what problems existed and how the design solutions could help improve the process.

Presenting a recap of our fellowship work at Code for America, San Francisco

Sidenote: I was referring to my service updates as ‘service patches’ within the overall blueprint. I learned that Jen Pahlka, Code for America’s founder, liked that phrase, and quoted me during a presentation at the Brigade Congress in Cleveland. This was super exciting for me!