Service Design: SMHA


As a Code for America fellow, I was embedded in the City of Santa Monica’s Housing Authority working towards improving the affordable housing application process.

Before the fellowship was even a thought, I had volunteered at Code for America’s local brigade, Hack for LA. One of the first people I met there told me that she’d had talked with the city’s Housing Authority’s manager who was hoping to improve their affordable housing application process. When I heard this, I immediately volunteered my services, excited to help with this service design problem. When the same Hack for LA volunteer told me she was thinking of applying for the fellowship and asked if I’d be her partner, it didn’t take me more than a moment to answer.

We were awarded the fellowship in May, began work in June, and completed our final presentation to the city’s housing commission mid-January. 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.

Role UX Researcher and Designer, Service Designer
From discovery to design, I led and conducted research and interviews, prototyped and tested, and developed solutions

Tools Whiteboard, Post-its, Sketch, Google Slides, Orchard CMS, Wufoo


The insights from the research showed that the problem was twofold:
  1. For community members looking for help, the affordable housing application process is extremely complex and hard to follow, but also lacking any educational resources or customer service.
  2. The Housing Authority staff are bogged down by thousands of ineligible applications from those who don’t meet the basic Section 8 eligibility requirements, as well as heavily reliant on a long, intense, manual, verification process.


There were two design solutions that I developed and a few that were proposed for future implementation.

In order to help people who are looking for answers, I redesigned the SMHA website and developed a Section 8 Eligibility Checker. In the hopes of improving the legibility of the letters being sent to that were sent to Section 8 Applicants, my partner rewrote them in plainer language and we hosted a plain language workshop for the Housing Authority staff.

Additional recommendations fur further improving trust and communication with the community included creating social media accounts specific to the housing division and workshops hosted by the Santa Monica Housing Authority.


Research process included:

  • Conducted dozens of interviews
    • Housing Authority Staff
    • Community members and leaders
    • Housing Commissioners who are also Section 8 recipients
  • Attended community meetings
    • 4 Group interviews
    • 1 Event talk
    • 3 Surveys
    • 2 Usability Testing sessions
  •  Hosted two internal workshops with the Housing Authority staff
    • Empathy Mapping and presentation of quiz wireframes for feedback
    • Plain language explanation and presentation of interview insights, journey map and service blueprints

Research insights discovered:

  1. According to our research, the community is not fully aware of:
    • what the Housing Authority does
    • how Section 8 works and who is eligible for it
    • the other assistance programs beyond Section 8
    • how to find information about ‘affordable housing’
  2. They learn everything they know from friends, family, and their community, so rumors and incorrect information are continuously circulating.
  3. Last, but not least, the city website, the only place to find details about Section 8 and Santa Monica’s affordable housing programs, was extremely difficult to use. The people I spoke with could not find information about affordable housing assistance on the site, and if they found anything, it did not answer their questions, so they often gave up.

Full process deck >

Journey Map & Service Blueprints

Section 8 Applicant’s Journey Map:

Section 8 Applicant's Journey Map

Service Blueprint Representing the Existing Service

Existing Service Blueprint

Service Blueprint Showing the Existing Process with ‘Service Patches’

Service Blueprint with 'Service Patches'


  • Website improvements
    • I restructured the site pages, created a site map, simplified affordable housing content, and added new pages related to affordable housing in order to improve usability and to make content easier to find for people needing help.
    • I added a ‘main’ navigation table to connect the main housing division pages to each other. One of the issues with the site is that the city of Santa Monica flattened its entire website and eliminated department pages. A person would have to know exactly what they were looking for to find content and can easily get lost as none of the Housing Division’s subpages were connected.
    • 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 build this?
      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. 
    • Additional use case: 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
Screenshot 2020-01-14 19.38.17


  • 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
  • Social media and workshops could open a direct communication line between the city and its residents who are so desperate for answers. 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. At this time the city is actually trying to minimize the direct contact between residents at city employees, making it even harder for people to get answers.
  • To view a full report of my recommendations, click here >


Coming soon!