Rental Signs

After years of neglect and false starts, low-income housing is finally finding an online home.
February 2006
Ellen Perlman
By Ellen Perlman  |  Former columnist
Ellen Perlman was a GOVERNING staff writer and technology columnist.

The housing deck is stacked against the poor. Besides having little money to spend for rent, they often lack a car or fixed address to receive information. Even more disheartening, bureaucracies and agencies created to help end up putting them on lengthy lists for the few affordable apartments available in their inventory. In some states, people remain on such lists for as many as six years, and then they may be shown one available unit--on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.

That is not, of course, the case at the high end of the real estate market. High-powered real estate agents and developers have bankrolled online listings for everything from million-dollar houses to modestly priced rental apartments. At the low-rent end of the market, however, landlords don't usually have the wherewithal to advertise vacancies in any coordinated way.

Some states have tried to step into the breach and create their own online sites for low-income apartment listings--but the job has turned out to be too complicated. Georgia, for instance, created a low-income housing site three years ago and used it for two years. But the Department of Community Affairs found it too labor-intensive to do the outreach to landlords.

Colorado, too, tried to develop a system on its own. Various agencies had their own lists and portfolios of housing units that typically weren't updated in a timely fashion. People looking for housing received out-of-date lists that weren't helpful. In designing a site, however, the state ran into an administrative nightmare. Funding for social services comes from so many different local, state and federal sources that there was a lot of overlap in housing lists. Each agency tracked units in its own way and the state had trouble sorting out the duplication and culling down the information.

A similar situation in North Carolina sent Van Gottel to the drawing boards. Gottel had been a housing development director for a nonprofit in Charlotte and was frustrated by the lack of any online program to serve his client base of homeless people. He set up his own nonprofit company and developed an online listing service, Socialserve, that can provide service for any state that signs up. Fourteen have done so, so far.

New Jersey, for instance, allows residents seeking low-cost housing to go onto, get a bird's-eye view of available units across the state and contact numbers for landlords. The list can be searched by municipality, county or ZIP code. It can also be searched by unit size, rent amount or proximity to public transportation. Potential renters can see pictures of apartments and determine whether the unit takes pets or has a flat entryway for a wheelchair. On any given day, there are roughly 1,000 rental units available in the state. For those searchers without computers, a call to 211 will connect them to someone who can do the search for them.

A similar Web-based program is provided by Bowman Systems, a software provider for the social services industry. It was developed by the technology department in Portland, Oregon, which got calls from jurisdictions all over the country hoping to buy or replicate the program. The city contracted with the vendor to sell it to others and gets a portion of the proceeds from each sale. Wisconsin has implemented the system statewide.

Homeless people and agencies aren't the only ones who find these online programs advantageous. So do landlords. Wisconsin's housing site, for instance, markets directly to the landlords' and the housing agency's client base: people whose incomes are less than 80 percent of the median income in the county where they live. Free marketing is particularly helpful to landlords of low-income properties since, as Loren Hoffmann, the IT coordinator at the Wisconsin Department of Commerce, puts it, "the lower the rental price, the more difficult it is to do adequate marketing."

When Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit, states experienced additional proof of the value of an online service for the low-rent market. Socialserve, for instance, got calls from officials in several states who were frantic for housing help for all the families from Mississippi and Louisiana who were displaced by the hurricanes. Within a couple of weeks, the service was able to add 14,000 units to the list of apartments available nationwide.

Although most states say they are satisfied with the Web-based systems, they have found there are some drawbacks, particularly on the administrative side. One is that there doesn't seem to be an easy way to measure effectiveness. "It's been one of the difficulties because we don't manage it ourselves," asks Rachel Basye, director of marketing and strategic development for Colorado's housing authority. She hopes that in the future, there will be a way for the site to generate reports useful to the authority.

Ellen Perlman
Ellen Perlman | Former columnist |