Housing Technology in the Rental Market
Technology applied to housing has the potential to make housing access more equitable. For example, a standardized application can save renters time and money by eliminating the need for them to apply to each property separately and pay multiple application fees. Photo credit: iStock.com/Jitalia17
During HUD’s June 2023 Innovative Housing Showcase, HUD Secretary Marcia L. Fudge announced a new partnership between HUD and Terner Housing Innovation Labs at the University of California Berkeley (Terner Labs) to launch the “Housing Technology Series,” a seminar series that will explore the opportunities and challenges that new technology presents in developing affordable housing and sustainable communities. On September 25, 2023, Terner Labs and HUD hosted the first symposium in the series, “The Search for Affordable Housing,” which focused on how technology impacts renters’ ability to access affordable housing. Solomon Greene, principal deputy assistant secretary at HUD’s Office of Policy Development and Research, delivered the opening remarks. Kara Murray-Badal, director of the Terner Housing Lab, moderated the first panel, which featured KC Crosby, cofounder and chief operating officer of Pronto Housing; Eric Shaw, director of the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development for the city and county of San Francisco; and Janey Rountree, executive director of the California Policy Lab (CPL) at the University of California Los Angeles. The second panel, moderated by Jason Pu, regional administrator for HUD Region IX, included Catherine Bracy, founder and chief executive officer of TechEquity Collaborative; Sharon Wilson Géno, president of the National Multifamily Housing Council; and Shkëlqim Kelmendi, founder and executive director of Housing Connector. During the virtual event, speakers examined the technological innovations that are facilitating the search process for subsidized rental housing and market-rate housing as well as the barriers that technology can pose for low-income households.
Making Housing Accessible Through Technology
In his opening remarks, Greene noted that the more than 44 million households in the US that rent their homes increasingly rely on technology to search for rental units. Panelists highlighted the roles of their organizations in using technological advances to improve access to affordable housing. To streamline the application process, Wilson Géno, Bracy, and Kelmendi advocated for property managers to adopt technology that allows applicants to complete a single housing application on a centralized platform that housing providers and properties can access. A standardized application can save renters time and money by eliminating the need for them to apply to each property separately and pay multiple application fees. Kelmendi suggested that a centralized application could stay current on the platform for 60 to 90 days to give applicants time to find housing.
One example of such a centralized platform is DAHLIA, which provides users with a standardized application based on real-time housing availability for units in San Francisco. The San Francisco Mayor's Office of Housing and Community Development launched the housing portal in 2017, and Shaw stated that it processes 200,000 applications annually. Rather than completing a new application for each property, applicants can use DAHLIA to find housing that matches their income, household size, and other preferences. Pronto Housing, an affordable housing compliance software package, helps property owners in New York City improve efficiency through a standardized and automated affordable housing compliance process. Leasing managers can automatically generate forms for any affordable housing program and communicate with applicants by email, text message, and fax within the Pronto Housing platform. Pronto Housing employs a trained compliance team that helps property owners adhere to federal housing policies. Crosby explained that Pronto Housing is a good entry point for people who may not be able to complete a rental application in person because of disabilities, a lack of child care, or work constraints. Most of the communication on the platform is through text messaging because many clients do not have jobs that allow them to send email during normal business hours. More than 80 percent of Pronto Housing’s users access the platform between 6:00 PM and 1:00 AM. Crosby indicated that platforms such as Pronto Housing can help mitigate the “application fatigue” that people may experience when they learn about a housing vacancy but fail to pursue it.
Rountree explained that technology can help create homelessness prevention policies, especially those pertaining to young people aging out of foster care. In her work at CPL, Rountree is developing predictive models to help agencies such as the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services identify youth who are at high risk of using an emergency shelter or transitional housing when they age out of the foster system. CPL also identifies people at risk of homelessness by linking administrative data from several Los Angeles County departments and systems, including public health, health services, mental health, criminal justice, and the CalWORKs public assistance program. CPL compiles a list of individuals linked to these systems and sends it to the county. In 2020, CPL’s work helped launch a Los Angeles County homelessness prevention unit (HPU), which reaches out to those at risk of homelessness who may not know how to find resources or may not otherwise seek help. HPU offers rental assistance and services to clients of the Department of Health Services and the Department of Mental Health, whom CPL’s models identify as the populations most at risk of experiencing homelessness. CPL’s work demonstrates how predictive modeling can influence policy change.
Balancing Technology With Human Intervention
Shazia Manji, research associate at the Terner Center for Housing Innovation, explained how differences in owner type and technology affect tenant screening and selection. Mom-and-pop landlords with few units often use subjective methods or gut feelings to drive tenant selection. During face-to-face interactions, landlords may exercise bias and screen out applicants based on race, income level, and gender. On the other hand, corporate landlords of large properties tend to use more formal screening technology to select applicants based on credit scores, past rental history, and criminal records. Although technology reduces the individual bias that more subjective methods can introduce, it also can reduce the likelihood of selecting African-American and Hispanic applicants because these populations disproportionately experience eviction and interact with the criminal justice system. Mom-and-pop landlords, however, might be more willing to overlook past criminal records, eviction history, or low credit scores, Manji noted. Bracy suggested that when technology drives the selection process, it can disempower tenants from the decisionmaking process. "When there's an opportunity for the tenant to make their own case to the landlord and have a face-to-face interaction that isn't intermediated by technology, and when they have some sense of what the landlord is basing their decision on, they're better positioned to sort of make a case for themselves instead of just being judged on a score that is not transparent at all," said Bracey.
Kelmendi explained that the property technology industry has a long way to go before it can fully automate manual processes. He suggested that a national source of income protection law could prevent landlords from screening out voucher holders. Housing Connector, a self-described “tech-for-good” nonprofit organization, is addressing discrimination in tenant selection by prenegotiating the screening criteria with developers and property managers to lower the barriers to housing, said Kelmendi. In partnership with Zillow, Housing Connector’s platform enables people to search for units aligned with their preferences without being denied housing because of their source of income or rental history. In exchange for lower selection criteria, Housing Connector provides participating property managers with rent guarantees and damage mitigation funds and will mediate behavioral or financial challenges with tenants in partnership with case managers.
Tailoring technology to account for the unique needs of applicants can improve access to housing. Many property managers use online systems to collect monthly rent payments, which may be difficult to manage for tenants who receive irregular paychecks. One innovative strategy, noted Wilson Géno, is for property managers to adopt a rental insurance plan or a flexible payment plan for tenants in need. Allowing rent payments in weekly or biweekly increments can make housing more accessible to those who work irregular hours, such as Uber or Lyft drivers, and who may be unable to pay their rent upfront every month.
As technology and housing systems become more intertwined, local agencies and property managers will need to develop a collective understanding of available data and technology infrastructure. With so much overlapping data across public systems, panelists emphasized the importance of collaboration among local officials to identify areas that can be streamlined and centralized. Because few central repositories for vacant units exist, applicants must navigate long waiting lists and deal with the effects of disjointed data systems. Although technology has the capacity to speed up the tenant selection process, panelists also emphasized the continued need for human interaction that can account for the specific tenant characteristics or needs that software cannot. As Murray-Badal stated, "Technology works the best when it's an extension of a human-centered process… for the people who are in the system, not the other way around." With millions of households using technology to find rental housing in a tight market, centralized applications, flexible payment plans, and human-centric platforms can be useful tools to facilitate the user experience and increase access to housing.