What we're making: District Housing


by Sarah Fathallah
@sfath
30 Oct 2014

Let me tell you about Cynthia.

Cynthia lives in Washington DC, is the mother of a beautiful 3 year old son and, up until a few months ago, was a stay-at home mom. Her ex-boyfriend and father of her child left them both, and overnight she found herself in a situation where she urgently needed to find a job and a new apartment she could afford.

So Cynthia did what I think many of us would have done: she went online and literally googled “affordable housing in DC.” What she came across is Section 8, a program of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that subsidizes privately owned buildings to offer affordable housing units to low-income households.

The problem is that HUD’s website offers very little in terms of information about the program or its eligibility criteria, and much of the information it does offer is outdated. So Cynthia took it upon herself to call the management of every single participating building in DC to see if they still existed and, if so, whether they still offered Section 8 units and, if so, how she could get herself onto the waitlist.

But her problems didn’t end there. Cynthia then had to visit each of these buildings, in person and usually during working hours, to pick up paper application forms, and fill out, repeatedly, by hand, information about herself, her son, her past 5 addresses, her past 3 employers, and other information as complicated to obtain and intimate as her Social Security Number, whether she was pregnant, and the balance on all of her financial accounts.

And as Cynthia found out, each of the more than one hundred Section 8 buildings in DC has its application. No two applications look alike or have the same eligibility criteria. None of them are available electronically.

Code for DC's District Housing aims to help people like Cynthia navigate the labyrinth that is affordable housing in DC. District Housing is a web application that contains all the information needed to fill out all of the applications for buildings where someone like Cynthia is eligible and that accept waitlists. Using District Housing, a person in completes a single unified "mega application," which will then be used to automatically fill in the individual PDF applications for each relevant Section 8 building for submission.

To take District Housing from a concept to a finished product, we're working alongside a team of passionate and dedicated case workers from local nonprofit Bread for the City. Cynthia, like many other individuals we've been lucky to interview, had to navigate the existing process alone. Others, like Gene and Robert, have been lucky to have assistance from social service providers like Bread for the City. District Housing is meant to ease the burden on applicants and case workers alike, and Bread for the City will pilot District Housing before we partner with them to launch it publicly.

Ultimately, our goal for District Housing is to increase the likelihood that an eligible DC resident can gain access to affordable housing and help reduce the administrative overhead for social workers, freeing them to connect with more of those in need.