Enhancing Affordable Housing Application Processes with Community-Based Collaboration
Public & Collaborative: Designing Services for Housing was launched in 2012, with the generous support of the Rockefeller Foundation New York City Cultural Innovation Fund, by the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), the Design for Social Innovation and Sustainability (DESIS) Research Laboratory at Parsons The New School for Design and the Public Policy Lab, a non-profit organisation dedicated to improving public services through design. This New York City-based project is affiliated with a global research effort of the DESIS Network, an international network of design schools and organisations focused on design for sustainability and social innovation.
As the United States' largest municipal housing-development agency, HPD’s primary mission is to expand and improve the affordability, availability, and quality of housing in New York City by encouraging development and preservation of the housing stock and enforcing the city’s Housing Maintenance Code. By providing capital and leveraging investment, HPD undertakes the preservation and development of hundreds of thousands of units of affordable housing. Families and individuals can apply for affordable homes that HPD has worked with developers to finance. The agency is also responsible for administration of the nation’s fourth-largest Section 8 rental-voucher program, a federal program providing low-income families with a subsidy that covers much of their rent. In addition, when crises force residents to evacuate their homes, HPD provides emergency shelter.
The end users of HPD’s services are the people of New York City. However, HPD’s engagement with New Yorkers includes interactions not only with residents, but also with a wide array of intermediates and representatives: tenant associations, community-based organisations (CBOs), policy experts and elected officials and housing professionals such as developers, bankers and property managers. Residents and their representatives engage with HPD through a host of channels, ranging from in-person conversations to email and the distribution of print materials.
Public & Collaborative represents an opportunity to explore the needs and perspectives of affordable housing stakeholders by talking to city residents and housing professionals about issues, developing possible solutions then testing service concepts to see how and if they work. The project's goals were twofold: to assist HPD in delivering more effective, efficient, and satisfying services and to explore ways to facilitate the involvement of community residents in the development of housing-related services in neighbourhoods with significant public and private sector investment leveraged by HPD. This work was carried out over three phases, beginning in 2012 and extending into 2014.
Phase 1: Exploration
Phase 1 work involved inquiry into the full scope of services that HPD provides. From February through May of 2012, the project developed along two interrelated tracks: the first track revolved around a hands-on collaboration among fellows and staff of the Public Policy Lab, Parsons faculty and HPD. The second program was a more independent research initiative by Parsons faculty and students, with opportunities for the Public Policy Lab fellows and HPD to observe and respond.
A lecture series organized by Parsons brought together leading European design experts – Ezio Manzini, professor at the Politecnico di Milano, Italy; Christian Bason, director of Denmark's MindLab; David Boyle, a fellow at London think-tank The New Economics Foundation; and François Jégou, scientific director of the French public innovation lab 27e Région – with New York City policymakers and academics to explore the intersection of social innovation and public services. Each lecturer also held small-group presentations with students, fellows and HPD leadership.
Two courses at Parsons during the Spring 2012 term provided students with the opportunity to collaborate with the project team. Working with HPD staff and fellows, students explored mechanisms for engagement with the agency, assessed current service offerings and generated ideas for improving points of service. A second class explored ways to promote more connected and successful communities, particularly by enabling residents’ involvement in the design and delivery of collaborative services. A series of videos produced by the students highlighted community assets in the South Bronx neighbourhood of Melrose, including social entrepreneurship, cultural diversity and channels for community-based learning.
Public Policy Lab fellows carried out in-depth interviews and a discovery workshop with HPD staff, then synthesized their findings with concepts developed via the students' work to generate a set of five possible areas for Phase 2 and 3 efforts. An assessment process with HPD revealed an agency desire to focus on enhancements to the application process for affordable units coming to market, so that became the goal of subsequent work.
Phase 2: Design
During the summer and autumn of 2012, the fellows led interviews and workshops involving HPD leadership, front-line agency staff, staff at CBOs that offer housing assistance, housing developers and current-or-potential users of the agency’s services. These co-design exercises were intended to identify challenges in the application process, generate ideas for enhancing services and to rapidly prototype and test proposed solutions. The fellow team synthesised findings from this work, selected the most promising ideas, refined those concepts and developed preliminary implementation proposals for pilot projects by HPD and community partners.
Phase 3: Implementation & Evaluation
Over the course of 2013, HPD will be carrying out pilot programs to test the efficacy of the proposals. The Public Policy Lab fellows will provide design support during implementation, monitor process and impact and draft evaluation reports. In early 2014, Parsons will host a conference to bring together community members, academics, designers and policymakers to report on the pilot outcomes and discuss public-sector innovation.
Research & Design Approach: Participatory & Iterative
The project's primary research methods were qualitative and participatory in nature. Interview sessions and co-design workshops were organized in order to identify information gaps, areas of confusion, ‘pain points’ in the current process and to gather insights that would inform and inspire design solutions. Participants included developers of affordable housing, staff at CBOs, New York City residents, applicants to HPD’s affordable housing services, HPD leadership and front-line agency staff.
Specific design-research activities over the course of the project included:
- Observations of HPD service spaces.
- Assessment of HPD online interfaces and application materials.
- Examination of HPD communication channels’ content, accessibility, and communications strategy.
- Brand and content audit of HPD information materials.
- Professional practice research into service design for the public sector and design precedence for future recommendations.
- Assessment of affordable housing policy, analysis of data collected by HPD and other desk research with housing-related resources.
- Site visits to the HPD field office in Brooklyn and to HPD developments in the Bronx.
- Observations and interviews with developer and HPD staff at a lease-up interview site, also in the Bronx.
- A group workshop with 20-30 HPD policymakers.
- More than a dozen one-on-one and small-team interviews with HPD and HDC leaders, division heads and staff.
- On-the-street interviews, in Manhattan and the South Bronx, with several dozen past and potential affordable housing applicants.
- Multiple in-class working sessions and critiques with Parsons students, faculty, fellows and HPD staff.
- One-on-one and small-group interviews with several community-based housing organisations, located in the South Bronx and in Chinatown.
- Design workshops in the South Bronx with more than a dozen past or potential applicants identified by CBOs.
- A design workshop with more than a dozen front-line staffers from multiple housing-development organisations.
During and subsequent to these engagements, the fellows created multiple versions of most aspects of the proposals and the supplemental resources. These rounds of design research, creation, presentation, and revision ensured that the informational materials, implementation plans and related strategies were vetted in full by HPD and received input from other stakeholders.
Overview of the Pilot Proposals
The pilot projects developed by the Public & Collaborative team are intended to help New Yorkers more successfully navigate the affordable housing-application process. These proposals are designed for collaborative implementation by housing developers, CBOs and HPD and its sister agency, the New York City Housing Development Corporation (HDC). The proposals seek to generate efficiencies for service providers and, above all, to extend the reach of the City's affordable housing program to a greater number of eligible New Yorkers.
The pilot proposals recommend that HPD enhance the application process for affordable housing by:
- creating new, human-centred informational materials
- encouraging hyper-local marketing by developers
- supporting community-based 'housing ambassadors'
- Forming a street team for in-person HPD outreach.
In combination, the proposals create a knowledge-sharing infrastructure that enables the dynamic and reciprocal exchange of information between residents, community-based partners, housing developers and HPD leadership and front-line staff.
Guiding Design Principles
Each pilot proposal seeks to support a robust infrastructure for New Yorkers to share knowledge about the affordable housing application process. A number of design principles, identified during analysis of design research, are the glue that ties the infrastructure together and that are meant to guide the pilots’ implementation. If proven effective during piloting, HPD can use these principles as a foundation to shape the design of future community outreach and interactions.
Account for Applicants’ Lived Realities
The team recognised that New Yorkers do not apply for affordable housing from within a vacuum, but from the context of their daily experiences. An applicant’s view of the application process for affordable housing is intimately tied to the realities of their life and how they perceive government and its services in general. Further, the affordable housing application process requires applicants to interact with multiple private and public organisations to complete an application.
In response, the pilot proposals have been designed to connect with individuals in their everyday environs, rather than asking applicants to step into more official surroundings. Person-to-person interactions, ideally with trusted CBOs, peers or neighbours – as opposed to solely digital distribution or formal presentations from professionals – are recommended as a primary mode of active information exchange (in addition to the official channels HPD currently provides). These forms of interaction put a human face on a seemingly complicated process. In addition, the newly proposed informational materials attempt to guide and equalise person-to-person conversations with accurate and usable information. Applicants are provided with tools to manage their application process holistically and within the context of their ‘everyday’ interactions.
Enable Informed Decision-Making through Human-Centred Information Design
Many applicants understandably have difficulty following the complex details of affordable housing application processes. To mitigate this complexity and enable informed decision-making, all of the pilot proposals address informational needs across various communication and distribution channels and formats.
The following tenets guided the visual and content design of the proposals’ informational materials specifically:
- Provide consistent, up-to-date, and straightforward information in human terms
- Create highly visual material for diverse readers
- Communicate processes clearly and in a timely manner through reasonable expectation-setting with applicants
Encourage Information Accessibility and Exchange through Asset-Based Collaborations
Agencies do not need to be the sole distributers of reliable program information. Indeed, systems of co-production can be supported among service partners (CBOs and developers) and members of the public. As one constituent learns new information, they become an ambassador or teacher of that knowledge to others, enabling residents to be active participants in the process by honouring their expertise and role in the exchange of information.
The person-to-person, everyday approach used by the pilot proposals relies on the varying scales at which HPD and its partners – including CBOs, elected officials, developers and marketers – reach or interact with potential applicants. The proposal for housing developers targets the immediate vicinity of a development: community groups are encouraged to reach out to all members of their neighbourhood network and the city agency is asked to focus on outreach that spans neighbourhoods and income groups.
Evaluation & Outcomes
The pilot plans will be implemented over the second half of 2013. They are trials on the part of HPD to understand whether creating a knowledge-sharing infrastructure results in a more informed public, an increased understanding of and trust in the application process and better service delivery during the affordable housing application process.
The planned project evaluation is intended to enable HPD to understand what works and what doesn’t work from a process and usability perspective, in order to modify the proposals prior to full-scale implementation.
Within the context of a formative evaluation, the project team will attempt to evaluate the extent to which the proposals lived up to the project's theory of change. By the end of this process, HPD hopes that residents who participate in this project's pilot programs will have a clearer understanding of the application process for affordable housing and will better understand how and when to access HPD's services.