- The City of Detroit announced earlier this month that it is partnering with the philanthropic arm of Google to build an affordable housing search tool.
- The team aims to make it easier and faster for people to find and apply for affordable housing opportunities by having all the information listed in one place and updated frequently. It also intends to provide information about how affordable housing works, users' eligibility for different types of housing and requirements for applying.
- Thirteen Google employees will spend six months working with Detroit's Housing & Revitalization Department. The portal will be ready for people to use later this year.
The Detroit initiative is through Google.org's Fellowship Program. In a previous fellowship, Google team members also worked with the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development, San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation and Exygy to develop what is now DAHLIA, the city's housing portal.
The Detroit fellowship team is meeting with the team behind the Massachusetts Housing Navigator for idea sharing as well.
"We have the benefit of learning from that fellowship team a few years ago," said Gabriel Doss, Google program manager fellow and lead for the Detroit fellowship team. "We're trying to pull from a number of inputs to understand how to create the best product for Detroit."
The fellowship team went into the community to find out what users most need from the tool. They spent about a month conducting interviews and holding focus groups to learn about and understand Detroiters' experiences and challenges with finding and securing affordable housing.
"So many of the stories we heard were about folks spending an entire day's work Googling what is the best number to reach a property, calling and leaving a message, then eventually getting a rejection — or even worse, paying an application fee and then getting rejected," Doss said. "Technology can help drive some equity in this space. We're looking for ways to do that."
While no imminent plans have been announced, Google is not ruling out the possibility of developing other affordable housing search tools like Detroit's.
"This trend of making housing information more easily accessible, particularly for residents with the lowest amount of tech, is something that would be a great benefit to a number of cities," Doss said.
Some affordable housing search tools have existed for years. Examples include DC Housing Search in Washington, DC and Socialserve, which covers dozens of markets across the country. The biggest obstacle for housing tools, and any similar listing service, is getting quality data into the system and doing so in a timely matter, said Peter Tatian, Urban Institute senior fellow.
"That information all has to be gathered somehow and updated on a regular basis so when people look on the site they find information that's accurate and current," he said. "Google obviously has a lot of data experience... Google could be helpful in cleaning up some of the complications with the data and could create a much stronger foundation with these tools."
In many cases, Tatian said landlords or property owners are responsible for finding tenants for their affordable units and also for entering data into search platforms. Whether they are diligent with updating the information frequently and quickly dictates a search tool's accuracy.
Streamlining the process of filling out and transferring documents would benefit users, as affordable housing applications involve a considerable amount of paperwork, Tatian said. There are also a lot of rules to navigate, such as who can be part of a household and what counts as eligible income. A one-stop portal with all the eligibility and application requirements clearly laid out would help users.
"There's no general requirement in affordable housing programs that there be a single point of entry, for example, for all the different housing that's available or if there is any systematic reporting done on available units," Tatian said. "[The search tool] is actually really valuable if it works well... There's definitely a need for this system."
Google also could add value by integrating the tool with its existing products, such as Google Earth, to give even more in-depth information about each property, Tatian suggested.