New online system designed to simplify applying for SF affordable housing

The outcome of San Francisco’s heated debate over how much below-market-rate housing should be required of developers remains uncertain, but one thing is clear: applying for those homes has gotten a whole lot easier.

That’s because after decades of using a cumbersome and arguably inhumane lottery process, The City has dramatically overhauled the system by migrating affordable housing listings and application processes into one online platform called DAHLIA: San Francisco Housing Portal, which is overseen by the Mayor’s Office of Housing. It is viewed as a textbook example of how technology can make government work better for citizens — and for something so critical as shelter.

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In the past, numbers on pieces of paper were literally pulled out of boxes, which some likened to the game bingo, while housing hopefuls — who had to fill out lengthy applications just to participate in each lottery and, to make matters worse, had to drop them off at each project site location — sat in crowded rooms for hours while thousands of numbers were called. The order in which the numbers were called was the order in which they would be contacted for available housing.

What may have been the last housing lottery under the old system occurred Friday when 615 numbers were called for about 60 available re-rentals in the single-room occupancy Dalt Hotel in the Tenderloin, part of the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation’s low-income affordable housing portfolio.

Late last year, The City beta-tested some below-market-rate listings — those provided by private developers under the inclusionary housing laws — and just recently is now placing all such listings online along with the online application process.

Under the new system, the lotteries are conducted electronically. There is still a public lottery meeting but the results are now available instantly with a push of a button.

Online applications for nonprofit affordable housing units, so-called multi-family affordable housing, will be up and running in about a month.

“The big bin has gone away. No more carnival tickets and things like that. You can, in 10 minutes, apply from your smartphone to a listing that you want. It pops up and tells you what your lottery number is and sends you an email with it. Within minutes of the completion of a public lottery, enter that number in DAHLIA again and it shows you exactly what your rank was in the lottery,” said Barry Roeder, a Mayor’s Office of Housing employee working with the DAHLIA initiative. “It’s pretty revolutionary.”

Still, migrating the application process online may raise concerns over those without digital literacy or access to the internet, but paper applications, which have been streamlined to four pages, can be mailed to the same address for each listing.

Olson Lee, director of the Mayor’s Office of Housing, acknowledged the challenges affordable housing seekers had to endure in a statement provided to the San Francisco Examiner on Friday.

SEE RELATED: SF’s below-market-rate housing lottery is laborious process that leaves many behind

“In the past, applicants had to find housing opportunities through a maze of information sources. And each affordable housing opportunity had its own different, long paper application,” Lee said. “The site will eventually serve as a one-stop shop to search and apply for all city-funded affordable housing.”

Lee said the site is in the process of adding materials in more languages and The City will increase digital literacy training.

The $2 million custom software effort using a Salesforce platform began in 2015 in partnership with consulting firms Exygy and Vertiba along with free design support from Google, according to Lee.

The tech upgrade, which is akin to taking San Francisco out of the stone age and into the 21st century, comes as City Hall is embroiled in a debate over affordable housing requirements for developers. It also comes as The City, for the first time, expanded inclusionary housing requirements to include not just low-income earners but also middle-income earners with the passage of Proposition C last June.

Today, the Board of Supervisors Land Use and Transportation Committee will debate dueling inclusionary housing proposals and a density bonus program. The debate is over what share of the BMR units go to lower income versus middle income earners and how to define those categories based on area median income, which is ever increasing. In 2017 the AMI went up by 7 percent, which means for a family of four, 100 percent AMI is now $115,300 and for one person $80,700.

“We’ve only had six listings to date that have had the online application functionality. We’ve gotten over 25,000 applications online,” Roeder said last week.

Brandon Flannery, TNDC compliance manager, said DAHLIA brings multiple benefits, including greater collaboration between The City, developers and applicants. He also said that “we can lease these units faster.”

Of course just because it’s easier it doesn’t mean the odds of winning the lottery are any better and, in fact, they may decrease.

“Now there [are] more applicants for a single property. It is true your chances go down,” Roeder said. “But what happens is your effort is much more commensurate with your likely outcome.”

Mission Economic Development Agency, a nonprofit housing provider, told the Examiner on Friday their “clients are benefiting from the new DAHLIA system,” calling the former process cumbersome.

In fact, MEDA argued that one’s chances for success could actually improve by ensuring applications are accurately filled out and persons receive their due preferences, which allow them to jump to the top of the list. Preferences include those displaced during the redevelopment era of the 1960s and 1970s in the Bayview and Western Addition, who live or work in The City or who were ousted from their homes through the Ellis Act.

“There is also a built-in geocoding system, meaning The City can easily determine who qualifies for the Neighborhood Resident Housing Preference — given to applicants located within the same supervisorial district as the project or within a one-half mile buffer around the location of the development — which increases one’s positioning to win the lottery,” said MEDA spokesperson Christopher Gil.

Another benefit is that the system holds developers more accountable to honor the lottery results, instead of passing over someone because of their criminal history, for example. Once filling out one lottery application online it can be used to apply to other listings, and as early as next year applicants will be able to receive alerts when they are eligible for new housing listings.

Those lottery winners who are contacted must still show up at leasing offices and fill out a longer application that includes things like income certification but the plan is to eventually put that application process online as well.

Roeder likened DAHLIA to government running more like a business. “It’s what people are used to doing in the private sector,” Roeder said. “This is how people get treated with a private company. We want to get up to that level of treating our customers like real people.”

Will Bruce skims through names and numbers, looking for his spot of priority during a housing lottery event hosted by Tenderloin Neighborhood Development and the Mayor's Office of Housing and Community Development at 220 Golden Gate Avenue in San Francisco's Tenderloin district Friday, May 5, 2017. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

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Will Bruce skims through names and numbers, looking for his spot of priority during a housing lottery event hosted by Tenderloin Neighborhood Development and the Mayor's Office of Housing and Community Development at 220 Golden Gate Avenue in San Francisco's Tenderloin district Friday, May 5, 2017. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

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