Zi Lin Liang
Looking for affordable housing is difficult in the United States. Popular housing aggregators such as Zillow and Trulia offer filters for “low-income” or “income-restricted” apartments, but not for eligibility criteria, such as maximum household income. Similarly, some housing agencies use web tools to help low- to moderate- income households find affordable housing, but may not include all the information needed to find a home households are eligible for. These gaps in publicly available search tools can hinder housing choice for low- to moderate- income families searching for a range of available housing that best suits their needs.
To address this need, Housing Navigator Massachusetts, a free web-based tool, aggregates every affordable housing opportunity in the state, making it the second statewide aggregator of affordable housing in the United States, following Minnesota’s HousingLink. Sparked at a 2018 brainstorming session with government agencies, nonprofit organizations, housing developers and housing advocates, the website launched in 2021 and now sees more than 4,400 visitors every week. The site helps to connect users to over 190,000 affordable housing units spread across more than 350 municipalities in Massachusetts. The Housing Solutions Lab spoke with Jennifer Gilbert, the founder and executive director of Housing Navigator Massachusetts, and data project manager Elizabeth Haney to celebrate the Navigator’s first anniversary and learn how other places can pursue similar initiatives.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What initially inspired you to build Housing Navigator?
Jennifer Gilbert: My first job was working at a domestic violence shelter, and then I worked for three years in legal services with people who were losing their homes to foreclosure and eviction. So, I was in very direct service work with people in crisis who needed housing. This was a long time ago. The technology on my desk was a computer with a floppy disk, and when people needed to search for housing, I wrote resources down on a piece of paper for them. Fast forward to where we are now. Even in a very tech-friendly, tech-forward state like Massachusetts, we were not using technology. We were not leveraging online resources to help people find housing. If somebody wanted to even find out whether there were affordable housing opportunities in Cambridge–where there were buildings, where billions of dollars had been invested–they had to go to 24 different offices. We actually did the count: 24. Cambridge is not that big. It’s only 115,000 people. You shouldn’t have to go to 24 doors.
You touched on the administrative burden for tenants–investigating 24 different sites in Cambridge to just identify the location of housing units. What about owners and operators of affordable housing? How were they listing units and conducting outreach before?
Jennifer: We heard over and over again that no aggregator site worked well. If somebody wanted to use [a commercial website], they couldn’t make the platform work for affordable housing. The result was, they just didn’t have anything at all or they had a slightly built-out version on their own organizational website.
In Massachusetts, we had long discussed the need to provide some kind of online resource. It was often a top ten policy recommendation from the affordable housing community. But nobody ever moved it forward. A time finally came where enough things coalesced to get everybody onto the idea. At this point, the technology is not that difficult and people are increasingly looking online for housing.
Tell us about the data. How did you get started, and how do you get data on available units now?
Jennifer: One of the biggest challenges at the beginning was getting the data. We had to start with what was in the inventory in the first place. So, first thing: can you get the public data? Second, get those entities to agree to give it to us. It took about eight months to get an agreement for sharing the data that got us started. Then, we needed to get owners to add to the data. If you’re going to partner with government, you have to build trust. Everybody needs to feel comfortable with what you’re doing. We needed to figure out a way to make sure [sensitive information] didn’t just pop up on the internet. We made sure they felt comfortable, and we continue to do that.
Elizabeth Haney: There’s kind of a base level of information for the properties where we got information from state [and city] agencies. We are now working with owners to add more meaningful data that’s helpful to renters. Does the building have elevators? Allow pets? Owners can upload photos to let renters see, can I see this as my home? We work with some owners as they get funding from the state of Massachusetts because they are required to list their whole portfolio with us, and others who participate because they know it’s useful.
What we’ve heard from owners is that they’re able to find qualified folks faster [using Housing Navigator]. That’s really where the synergy of making sure this tool works in the long run is: it’s useful for owners, it’s useful for renters. They need to come together on our site for there to be a built-in motivation for owners to keep their data up to date. Our mechanism for making sure our data is up to date, complete, and useful going forward is allowing our tool to let owners list open units, wait lists, and lotteries for properties that have gotten funded or redeveloped and are opening up. Owners find qualified applicants, and renters find housing that meets their needs.
The Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development requires (through its 2022-2023 Qualified Allocation Plan) that owners and developers seeking Low-Income Housing Tax Credit or state subsidy funding work with Housing Navigator. How did you secure this requirement?
Jennifer: If there wasn’t some kind of mandate for participation, Housing Navigator couldn’t be self-sustaining. In terms of raising philanthropic funds at the beginning, this was really important to getting it launched. A foundation said, ‘We’re not putting money in unless there’s a requirement for participation. Otherwise, we’re just throwing our money away. This thing is going to be out of date three months after it goes up.’ Everybody was very clear from the beginning. It also took convincing members of our steering committee, who were the people in a place to enforce the mandate—the state allocating agency, state affordable housing lenders. They really showed leadership. They bought into the idea, they knew it was important, and that caused all the others to come in.
If you were to give advice to other places that want to do this, what are the first steps that they should be taking right now?
Jennifer: One of the initial steps is convening that very first meeting. That turned into the steering committee, which eventually turned into our board. It was important for the steering committee to be broad-ranging and reflective of the whole state: owners; housing providers; housing advocates; and state, city and municipal-level government. Do stakeholder and community outreach. I don’t think that means a year-long effort and listening campaigns across states as big as this one. That would take too long. But you’ve got to think about everybody who has an interest in this, so they can be included in the design and they can get behind this idea. There’s a collaborative atmosphere.
You have to figure out where to get started, which is often about where the data is. How are you going to get it? The data is all the good information on property listings. Then, at the same time, you have to design a user-friendly search tool. You can look at us. You can look at [San Francisco’s] DAHLIA. You can look at NYC Housing Connect and get a lot of cues about how to do it, or talk to us about how to do that. And you’ll want to do your own user testing.
We had a Zoom call this morning with 40 service providers learning how to connect people with housing and using our tool. It’s a huge impact.
It’s really important to think about access in ways that serve the convenience of low- and moderate-income renters. One of the things that makes me happiest is that we can see that, at 10 o’clock on a Thursday night, ten people are on our site at their convenience, searching for what they want, where they want. That degree of agency and convenience is enormous. People have enough that they have to do. They work two jobs, take care of their kids, all those things. This has such an incredible, heartwarming, wonderful impact.
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