Creating an online affordable housing portal

A Civic Bridge case study from the 2015 cohort.

City Partner: Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development
Pro Bono Partner: 

Applying for affordable housing in San Francisco used to be an opaque, competitive, and time-consuming process. To match families to housing units faster, the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development (MOHCD) and Google’s design team transformed an in-person, paper-based application process into a now-regionally adopted one-stop, online portal, DAHLIA.

The challenge

In 2015, searching and applying for affordable housing in San Francisco was a confusing and competitive process. A complex host of City agencies, community-based organizations, and property owners managed the City’s affordable housing programs, and with so many stakeholders involved (each requiring different materials), residents struggled to identify where and how to begin the application process. Additionally, the use of paper applications meant applicants had to travel to pick-up and drop-off forms. The in-person demands of the process required residents to find time to wait in line or be on hold during business hours, which often overlapped with work, childcare, and commutes. The City needed to develop a simpler and more accessible way for residents to find and apply for affordable housing.   

The process

A Google team of designers worked with MOHCD to better understand the City’s affordable housing system and design a new streamlined approach. The team used the following four project phases: discover, define, design, deliver.

​Discover | Understand and validate the problem

  • Interviewed stakeholders and residents involved in the housing application process
  • Posed as applicants to get first-hand experience of the application process including touring units and attending lottery selections
  • Researched other municipalities’ housing application processes

Define | Analyze and synthesize findings

  • Synthesized user research and created user journey maps to identify common roadblocks in the housing application process
  • Explored ways to streamline the application process for both residents and housing program administrators 

Design | Develop concepts and prototypes to address the pain points

  • Identified desirable features to include in an online housing application portal, including search preferences, user profiles, and tools to help residents calculate income
  • Created a blueprint for a one-stop online portal, and held multiple feedback and testing sessions with real applicants, property managers, and City staff

Deliver | Finalize the prototype and strategy recommendations

  • Finalized a short, universal application form 
  • Designed a web and application-based portal where residents can apply for housing and easily view and filter available units based on their eligibility, household size, and the units’ amenities  

Prepare to Launch | Socializing the deliverable and getting buy-in

  • Trained City staff, property managers, and housing agencies how to use the online portal 
  • Shared the new application portal with residents through press releases and community engagement

The project team actively listened to the experiences of residents, City staff, and agencies managing affordable housing programs in San Francisco. The team’s structured discovery work and user research helped them create an application platform much like a mainstream real estate website — with residents easily searching for housing units and information about amenities and the surrounding neighborhood, tracking their application process, and getting support along the way.

The impact

DAHLIA and its living catalog of affordable housing is San Francisco’s first stop for residents applying for affordable housing opportunities. As of May 2021, DAHLIA has received more than 650,000 affordable housing applications (accounting for 97% of all applications), placed 50 households in homes per month, and has had 1.6 million visitors.

Once residents find a housing match, they only need to submit a single, short application that draws information from their stored user profile. After submission, clear next steps in the application process are laid out and follow-up notifications are automatically generated when an application’s status changes. Support options for residents are also located within the portal. With better customer service and accompanying images and unit specifications, DAHLIA makes shopping for affordable housing more convenient and transparent for residents.

DAHLIA was also built to be open source so that other cities could use the portal’s user interface and features as they innovate their own affordable housing processes. In 2021, San Mateo County adopted the application portal, and Santa Clara county and San Jose are partnering to launch a local version of DAHLIA.

Last updated May 19, 2022