March 1, 2020
March 1, 2020

Scaling Access to Affordable Housing: From DAHLIA to Bloom

It’s no secret that California is in the midst of a housing crisis: across the state, more than 40% of residents spend more than 30% of their income on shelter.
Services:
User research
DIGITAL STRATEGY
WEBSITE DESIGN AND DEVELOPMENT
UX/Ui
Vertical:
AFFORDABLE HOUSING
User research
Team Members:
ALICE YAN, BEN KUTLER
JESSE JAMES
ZACH BERKE
MICHAEL ENSLOW
WENDY FONG
VU-BANG NGUYEN
ROSHEN SETHNA

Knowing that many families in the Bay Area are struggling to find an affordable place to live, we turned our attention to an immediate concern for those most in need: making the process of applying for affordable housing more accessible in San Francisco. Working closely with city government, we created a one-stop shop for affordable housing called DAHLIA (Database of Affordable Housing Listings, Information, and Applications)—a streamlined online portal that helps people learn about, apply for, and gain access to affordable housing units.

It’s no secret that California is in the midst of a housing crisis: across the state, more than 40% of residents spend more than 30% of their income on shelter. Knowing that many families in the Bay Area are struggling to find an affordable place to live, we turned our attention to an immediate concern for those most in need: making the process of applying for affordable housing more accessible in San Francisco. Working closely with city government, we created a one-stop shop for affordable housing called DAHLIA (Database of Affordable Housing Listings, Information, and Applications) — a streamlined online portal that helps people learn about, apply for, and gain access to affordable housing units.

The result
Since its launch in 2016, DAHLIA has led to the following results:
400,000+
online applications
100+ households
placed in affordable housing every month
3.7 million
site visitors
1.1 million
site users
97% of applications completed online in ~15 minutes
replacing an in-person, paper-based process that often required 10+ pages and took hours to complete

In the words of Barry Roeder, the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development Strategics Initiatives Manager, “DAHLIA brings finding and applying for affordable housing into the 21st century, and its expansion will bring us significant tools to advance affordable housing overall.” That expansion requires an approach that involves every tool in Exygy’s toolkit—from skilled engineering to thoughtful product growth strategy. Moreover, the human impact of housing issues calls for an intentional process that goes beyond the traditional startup model. We still created a minimum viable product and iterated based on what we learned—but we always stayed grounded in the knowledge that our work would shape critical opportunities for real people who needed affordable housing the most. In order to improve bedrock human services, a product has to incorporate service delivery across different organizations, consider every aspect of the user experience, and meet essential community-level outcomes.

DAHLIA’s success demonstrated that our approach to easing this element of the housing crisis could be applied elsewhere. The resulting product, Bloom, is an open-source framework for building digital housing resources that can be adopted across cities and regions. Bloom represents Exygy’s sweet spot: scaling civic tech impact from the bottom up—and, in the process, transforming the delivery of a crucial human service.

Scaling Success: From DAHLIA to Bloom

In San Francisco, applicants for government-funded affordable housing have historically faced a web of confusing requirements:

  • lengthy paper applications
  • different document requirements for each property
  • processes mandating that applicants apply in person during specific work hours and wait in long lines
  • difficult to understand eligibility guidelines
  • an opaque post-application process that left applicants wondering what to expect next

The effort required to apply for a housing opportunity far outweighed the slim likelihood of being selected for affordable housing. In a city where it’s normal for 20 available units to attract over 1,000 paper applications, this process was incredibly frustrating—and had to be repeated for every property. Moreover, many people who desperately need housing can’t just take a half-day off of work to wait in line, making it even harder to find living space in a hyper-competitive market. DAHLIA was designed to ease the burden of these conditions by reducing application times down to a fraction of what they were before.

In order to come up with solutions, we took a deep dive into understanding our users, many of whom face multiple risk factors when it comes to secure housing. We tested versions of DAHLIA with non-native English speakers, homeless veterans, people with HIV/AIDS, those who qualify for specific housing programs, and those who access the internet in different ways—for example, at the library, on a specific mobile device, or via their case worker. Our aim was to create a product that not only made their lives easier, but also provided an experience that was actually enjoyable. As one of our developers put it,

“the low-income population deserves the same level of respect as people who can pay $6,000 a month.”


We tested heavily with leasing agents for the affordable properties, who were wrangling large and complicated spreadsheets to manage thousands of applicants. We balanced the need for an intentional process with the urgency of the subject at hand: We launched our first product, a listing platform, 90 days after we wrote the first line of code. From there, we gathered feedback at every step—and added new apps based on what we learned.

Today, DAHLIA includes two portals: one specifically tailored for leasing agents, and one designed to meet the needs of applicants. Together, they create a seamless experience that helps place San Francisco residents in safe, affordable housing.

DAHLIA brings finding and applying for affordable housing into the 21st century, and its expansion will bring us significant tools to advance affordable housing overall.
- Barry Roeder, San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development

With the goal of scaling DAHLIA’s functionality to other cities, regions, and states, we realized the need to retool the product so that it could be more easily replicated. With these changes, we are able to more quickly meet the needs of those hoping to replicate DAHLIA in their own community. The City of San Francisco benefits greatly from a customized DAHLIA that we developed for them from the ground up, but the City and Exygy knew that the system could be replicated and succeed in other places with similar needs. To that end, we developed a similar database product using an open source codebase, making it adaptable to new use cases in other communities. We named it 'Bloom,' representing the many affordable housing platforms that could grow within its architecture.

Housing counselors give Exygy designer Jesse James feedback on DAHLIA.
Our Approach

It’s no small feat to scale a product like DAHLIA—one that addresses an essential human need, requires integration with several different government agencies, and must be tailored to several audiences at once. We had a few key ingredients that helped us build it out for new geographies.

5 Must-Haves to Scale Bloom

The first must-have: partnerships. We formed strong relationships with key players in regional politics, like Barry Roeder from the San Francisco Mayor’s Office and Vu-Bang Nguyen, formerly with the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. Both are trusted partners who helped us join conversations in new jurisdictions; their passion for the wider community lent credibility to the potential of Bloom’s impact.

The second key building block: lessons learned. As the second iteration of this affordable housing product, Bloom benefited from everything we learned in creating DAHLIA—and our past experiences helped us avoid potential future missteps. Each element that led to shifting 97% of applications to our original online portal could be used to shape future versions of it. Additionally, our analytics told us where users were getting stuck—and how we could improve their experiences.

The third must-have: mindful customization. As we looked to scale Bloom in other places—like San Jose, San Mateo County, and Alameda County—we recognized that these very different communities would require personalized products. For example, it would need to work with and without the Salesforce platform; some cities and regions use Salesforce for their management systems, and some don’t. We also had to consider different languages, specific policies, and different preference rules for housing. Our partner jurisdictions were also structured differently: Alameda County contains 14 cities, San Mateo County includes 20 cities, San Jose is the largest city in the Bay Area, and San Francisco is both a city and a county.

We took a human-centered design approach with each partner, blending our previous learnings with a curiosity about the specific needs of each new community—and involving all key stakeholders, from affordable housing advocates to hopeful tenants to property developers.

The fourth must-have: thinking regionally. Even as we tailored platforms to specific cities, we stayed cognizant that our technical choices didn’t only have to support individual jurisdictions; we also envisioned a regional system that could centralize technology support. To whatever extent different parts of the region wanted to work together, we wanted to give them a federated platform that could make it happen. Today, we have active projects throughout San Mateo County, Alameda County, and San Jose. There’s also increasing momentum for activity at the regional level.

The fifth must-have: engineering expertise. Creating open-source products for government entities requires strong technical leadership. Our team must translate human stories into a robust technology system, taking into account all of the complexities that our users embody. Moreover, they’ve got to ensure the  products can adapt as they grow—for example, building modular platforms that work for a wide variety of jurisdictions, but can also be integrated into a regional system on the horizon. Within those considerations, our engineers also facilitate the following:

  • Guiding and training clients toward a successful handoff and product longevity
  • Ensuring accessibility for people with visual impairments or other barriers to usage
  • Creating a system with two distinct interfaces—one for applicants and one for property managers—that serve very different users, but must work together
  • Evolving the product over time to keep up with the best available development tools and approaches, enabling ongoing development in order to accommodate policy changes and new user needs—which also means significant investments in the underlying technology to keep engineers productive and features flowing
Stakeholders come together in Alameda County.
Impact

No matter the partner or project, we’re always seeking to build sustainable, impactful solutions. With those criteria, Bloom represents a success story on several levels:

  • It transforms a sticky pain point for California’s residents—applying for and accessing  affordable housing—into something that’s easily integrated into their day-to-day lives.
  • It moved 97% of affordable housing applications online, once it was translated to multiple languages, when no such option existed before—saving close to half a million applicants countless hours in completing paper forms and standing in line.
  • After handoff, our clients successfully manage their platforms themselves; we may provide engineering support if needed, but our clients feel a sense of ownership over their products and see themselves as co-creators—because they are.
  • We’ve relied on strong partners, including Enterprise Community Partners, to help facilitate regional conversations on how to link different iterations of Bloom.
  • We’re currently in dialogue with cities across California and beyond, as well as state-level housing agencies, seeking out expansion options nationwide.

Bloom can also lead to innovation within our clients’ organizations. For example, the City and County of San Francisco created a Digital Services team to support and expand their use of DAHLIA, alongside other related digital needs. We helped them shape it, recruit for it, and train new team members. Our approach to developing innovative systems like DAHLIA ensures that clients get a customized product and the support to maintain it—which could mean that we stay directly connected, the client brings product maintenance in-house, or we help to create a transition plan.

Overall, the same factors that fueled Bloom’s growth can be applied to the delivery of a broad range of services. Exygy’s signature human-centered approach, iterative process, committed partnerships, and technical expertise allow us to take on deeply entrenched problems across government, philanthropy, healthcare, and more. Looking forward, we’re planning to expand Bloom in order to reach more than 3 million people in the Bay Area and many more worldwide—and, as always, we’ll use what we learn to continue changing essential everyday systems for the better.

Services:
User research
DIGITAL STRATEGY
WEBSITE DESIGN AND DEVELOPMENT
UX/Ui
Vertical:
AFFORDABLE HOUSING
User research
Team Members:
ALICE YAN, BEN KUTLER
JESSE JAMES
ZACH BERKE
MICHAEL ENSLOW
WENDY FONG
VU-BANG NGUYEN
ROSHEN SETHNA
Exygy partners with social impact organizations to design and build technology that improves lives