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Reimagining the Affordable Housing Process in San Francisco

Jesse James Arnold
Jul 18, 2017 · 10 min read

How Exygy designed a platform that helps users find and apply for low and middle income housing.

If you want to use human centered design and technology to better serve your users, please reach out to Aashna at

Allison’s Journey

Allison only has forty-five minutes before her shift starts at the hospital, her second job of the week. She’s in a heightened state of stressful multitasking, trying to make sure she reaches work on time while simultaneously assembling materials for a housing application. Allison just found out last night about a opening for a new affordable apartment; the deadline to drop off her application is at 5 o’clock today and this small window of time between her jobs is the only time she has to get her application in. When she arrives at the apartment building, she sighs. The applicant line is at a standstill, coiling around the block. With only thirty minutes of her time remaining to complete what she expected to be a quick errand, she rushes to get in line.

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Securing an apartment this affordable will help her and her two kids stay in the city so Allison is always prepared. She carries around copies of a housing application she found online, precisely to be ready for moments like these. As she approaches the front desk she realizes the application she has ready is not accepted by this building and she’ll have to fill out a new one from scratch. She skims through the requirements of the new application and sees that it requires a few documents that she doesn’t have on hand, namely a bank statement. She only has a few minutes left before she needs to make her hospital shift, so she crosses her fingers, submits the pay stubs and other documents she has on hand, and picks up a small paper ticket with her application lottery number on it.

It’s been a full month since Allison dropped off her application and she is more frustrated now than she was then. She has been calling the building every week to see if her lottery number had been chosen from the hundreds, if not thousands, of applicants. Unfortunately, she didn’t have time to attend the lottery in person to see if her number was drawn, and now she isn’t sure how to find out how she ranked. Eventually she gets through to a leasing agent, and they direct her to a PDF online with all 1,200 applicant lottery numbers listed. She scans the document with anticipation for twenty minutes before locating her number; she was ranked 324 out of the 1200 applicants.

At this point, Allison is left with little information as to what she should expect next. Does a ranking of 324 give her a solid shot at a unit? Is someone is going to reach out to her? Were her pay stubs sufficient documentation?

Allison is not alone. Affordable housing applicants in San Francisco represent a diverse set of citizens with a wide range of needs. Each applicant faces a variety of hurdles in the affordable housing search and application process. The Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development partnered with our team here at Exygy to rethink applicants’ experience.

The Hurdles

The first step for our design team took was to gain a deeper understanding of each hurdle the applicant faces in their journey to apply for affordable housing.

Where do I find available listings? As applicants began their search, the first hurdle they encountered was informational. Applicants struggled to find one comprehensive resource for affordable housing options in the city.

The city has a variety of policies that support affordable housing creation. This housing is built by both for-profit and non-profit developers and advertised through a variety of channels including the developer’s websites, city websites, and PDF lists that non-profit housing counselors create for their clients.

When applicants found a listing, they were met with varying levels of information and inconsistent listing formats. Eligibility criteria were hard to understand, so applicants often spent time calling the developers or the city for more information. What is “area median income?” Will you accept my housing voucher? What is a “housing preference” and why do I want one?

Meanwhile, details that you would expect from a market rate listing — a map of the apartment’s location, a list of appliances, or the building’s pet policy — were buried or absent.

“Why wouldn’t we want to make these listings look really really nice, if you have 0 to 50,000 or whatever the max income is. I just think that the low income population deserves the same level of respect as people who can pay 6,000 bucks per month.”

How do I apply? Obtaining an application was not easy. Applicants had to pick up paper applications at the housing developer’s offices, which were usually only open during business hours when most people were working.

Each listing had a unique application with varying degrees of requirements. Some applications were several pages long, requiring a significant amount of documentation just to enter the lottery for a chance at a unit or a spot on a waitlist.

Long lines were common, as most people would apply on the day of the deadline. This left many applicants in a state of uncertainty and fear that they wouldn’t get through the line before the cut-off time.

“It’s a lot of work, so many laws and rules. When you’re applying, some of them say they don’t take my housing voucher and I still need double the rent [to qualify]. I was basically having to go in on my own and pitch my voucher like a salesperson. That’s a really hard thing to do.”

What happens after I apply? After the application deadline, each developer works with the city to run an in-person lottery. Hundreds or thousands of applicant’s tickets would be placed in a metal drum. Tickets would be withdrawn one at a time, creating a ranked list that leasing agents would use to fill available units in the listing.

Lotteries are public, but most applicants do not have the time to attend them. Applicants were able to find a list of ranked tickets online, however there was little to no explanation on what came next and how they should interpret their ranking. Applicants often called the building every few weeks to check on their status for a unit.

“You’ve got about 500 people for one re-rental unit, it’s never going to happen; it’s really like winning the lottery plus trying to play Super Lotto Plus. It’s crazy.”

We Can Do Better

The DAHLIA San Fransisco Housing Portal, a new product from the City and County of San Francisco, centralizes all affordable housing resources online and makes it easier to find and apply for affordable housing.

A Single Trusted Resource. When housing applicants arrive at DAHLIA’s homepage, they immediately see a comprehensive list of available units in the City.

The site launched with Below Market Rate (BMR) rental listings, which are units in new, market rate housing developments that have been priced affordably as mandated by the BMR policy. These listings often target low to middle income families.

We then layered on features that allowed the city to add another type of housing stock, Multi-Family rental listings, to the site. These listings are often funded in part by public money but built by non-profit housing developers. They include housing for seniors, veterans, and low income families. Due to our iterative build, the city has been able to collect all rental listings in one place over the course of the project.

Using Human Language. Housing listings now tell a visual story, using illustrations and non-jargon language to walk the applicant through the process. Eligibility criteria are clearly spelled out, focusing on those details that allow applicants to identify a valuable opportunity at a glance such as household size limitations.

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It Should Feel Like Home. Affordable housing is limited and can’t always meet applicant’s needs. Applicants understand this but, at the same time, need access to information that helps them navigate the existing options. Features like a map of the apartments’ locations ensure they will be safe and have access to public transportation. A simple list of the unit’s amenities support an applicant’s desire for a place to call home and the ability to make a choice as to what that means to them.

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A Shorter Standard Format. One common, short application is now used for every listing. Applicants can now choose to apply online in 10-20 minutes or download the application on paper. Each question is simpler and written in conversational language.

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Offer Value for Additional Work. Housing preferences can greatly increase an applicant’s chances in the lottery. For example, if someone was previously evicted or lives in the same neighborhood as the listing, they can get a higher ranking in the lottery. In the past, overly-technical descriptions and tedious requirements to upload documents added friction to the experience and often left the advantages unrealized. Now, DAHLIA uses simplified language to explain housing preferences and convince applicants to take the extra time.

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Save and Finish Later. At any point during the application, if someone is stuck, needs to contact their housing counselor, or can’t immediately locate a document they need, they can simply save their progress and continue again when they’re ready.

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A Clear Path Forward. As soon as an applicant completes their application, they receive their lottery number digitally. If they create an account, they can check the status of their application at any time. When lottery results are posted, the applicant simply returns to DAHLIA, enters their number, and sees where they placed in the lottery.

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The platform’s impact. As of today we’ve had 230,000+ citizens use the platform since its alpha launch in February of 2016. More than 29,000 citizens have applied through the site since online applications were made available in November of 2016. When online applications are available for a listing, 85% of applicants apply online vs on paper. In addition, Exygy has ensured that the site is accessible, allowing visually impaired users with screen readers to move through it with ease. City staff are now able to run lotteries digitally, manage and store submissions in one database, and flag duplicate applications through the system.

The Vision

The DAHLIA San Francisco Housing Portal democratizes and drastically improves the process for San Francisco citizens searching and applying for affordable housing. Our goal was to transform Allison’s journey so that the stressful process of finding an affordable home became easier. We are proud to have worked with the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development as well as our partners at the Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation to re-design this experience for citizens.

The site has already met a slew of user needs. Exygy sees a future where effective government digital products can actually help, in turn, improve policy and resource allocation. Both the user interview process to build the site and the anonymized data the city receives through users interacting with the site, allows them to help understand how to better serve citizens. If users during interviews, are telling the story of different sources of affordable housing listings they access, we can better bring those sources into one comprehensive database. If we see on the site, that listings with three bedrooms are getting way more views than two bedrooms, the city can dig in to understand if there is a higher demand for investment in three bedroom units. If we understand the volume of demand for affordable housing, we can better meet that demand.

Exygy believes that government has the ability to be one of the most user centric organizations in the world and that we can help you get there. We believe that, as citizens ourselves, we have the responsibility of making our government work for everyone and honor all of our experiences. If you are a city, state, or federal agency that wants to understand how you can better serve your citizens, reach out to Aashna at

Check out the DAHLIA San Francisco Housing Portal here.

Our work is open source! Check out our pattern library (front end designs) as well as our Github repository (code).

Co-Writers: Roshen Sethna, Mari Toledo, Alice Yan, Matt Luedke, and many more at Exygy.


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