Increased demand for affordable housing requires integrated solutions
Automated and timely data can help housing authorities meet the need and manage backlogs
The shortage of affordable housing was exacerbated by the pandemic, and even with a new eviction moratorium from the Centers for Disease Control in place through October, continued pressure on public and affordable housing organizations is expected. Cities and states have been working to both plan for and implement additional assistance programs while also keeping up with the backlog of changing (and sometimes temporary) requirements and increasing applications.
While federal assistance brought some relief, Public Housing Authorities (PHAs) continue to quickly sort through new rules while processing growing numbers of assistance applications. Housing authorities constantly balance the need to improve efficiency with ensuring they provide benefits in a timely manner to qualified, need-based applicants. During a recent webinar for public housing officials presented by Equifax and the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials (NAHRO), there were some interesting takeaways:
- More than one-third of attendees reported caseload growth as the biggest challenge they faced in 2020, and
- Nearly two-thirds believe that improvements in headcount, reliable data and technology are needed to help process housing applications faster.
Reliable data helps make more informed, faster benefit decisions
Data is being incorporated in a number of ways to help social service agencies make determinations of need with more confidence. PHAs are just beginning to incorporate data and the tools to create impactful analysis and process changes. For example, internal analysis of application data can help catch duplicate applications from over-anxious individuals, helping eliminate double work for case managers. Similarly, aggregating zip code data from applications can help identify rising needs in certain neighborhoods.
Commercial data can help add a layer of assurance when verifying an applicants’ income, as such data often return results more timely than validating the data manually—which can be particularly challenging with small and medium employers operating on limited hours and many HR teams working remotely; or using available government data like State Wage Data, which can be anywhere from 30 to 120 days old. During the webinar, Osceola County (Fla.) Human Services Assistant Director Danicka Ransom commented: “We have found that The Work Number is the best solution to get real-time information, especially during COVID. Having a solution like The Work Number has really allowed us to continue to move forward with ensuring that we are income-qualifying clients the right way with the most recent information.”
When using automated verifications, income data that matches the applicant’s stated income can move along quickly, allowing caseworkers to expedite benefit determinations during periods of high application volume. Chrystal Dawson, another webinar panelist and Kinston, N.C., housing authority property manager agreed, commenting that “[Our] policy states that we have to have at least two documented attempts of trying to obtain employer verifications before we can allow a tenant to self-certify. It can take quite some time to reach these employers or HR departments.”
PHAs, like Kinston and Oscola Counties, can use third-party data sources that offer credentialed verifiers with permissible purpose the ability to check employment and income records that are updated every pay period. This kind of access to a database with real-time income and employment information helps increase efficiency and reduce burden for both the agencies and tenant applicants. It also means PHAs can oftentimes secure a verification of earned income faster than the household can provide it and help keep tenant applications moving forward quickly for those who are income-qualified.
When incorrect or outdated data is used to make a decision, it creates increased workload across multiple departments and functions, triggering investigations, additional fact-checking and in some cases, delaying benefit decisions. Using automated and real-time verification data to validate qualified applicants can help speed up the income qualification process for tenant applicants so they receive their benefits sooner.
Technology modernizations offer improved experiences for applicants and caseworkers alike
Making the move towards greater adoption of technology and data will be critical for housing authorities as they move through and adjust to the demand for assistance. This kind of “systems-first” approach will help to create an automatic, integrated system that can give housing authorities the ability to streamline both tasks and requests.
For instance, individuals seeking rental assistance must prove they meet need-based standards for the program, which typically requires applicants to gather appropriate documentation such as tax returns, paystubs, W-2’s, 1099 forms, etc. Automated access means with the applicant’s permission, the agency can digitally pull and review the data required. Applicants may no longer need to stop and start during the application process to collect, scan, send or upload eligibility documents.
With a systems-first approach and strong technology infrastructure, caseworkers can also potentially access multiple data sources such as income, employment, incarceration and assets instantly on one platform, rather than working manually or pivoting to pull different data from different sources. A systems-first process could also allow for re-determinations to be calendared and occur automatically to help protect the integrity of the rental assistance or other housing programs. PHAs might also have an easier way to proactively review current beneficiaries and make adjustments, if needed. Standard determination periods could be scheduled, with batch reviews helping to quickly flag when benefits should continue or be modified.
By moving to a “systems-first” approach, an efficient, integrated system can give housing authorities faster access to the data they need to make better decisions.
The bottom line—serving more individuals with greater efficiency
Technology that supports automated services and integrated data can help agencies maximize program integrity by streamlining nearly every stage of the process. Now more than ever, housing authorities (public and private alike) are doing more with less and identifying ways to quickly adopt more efficient technology or integrate automated data through the decision process can only help. It’s a good time to establish new processes and tackle existing problems to help compensate for the increased need and deliver more timely, accurate, benefit determinations.
Juan Cole is vice president, strategy and solutions consulting for Equifax Government Services. He works closely with government and industry partners to deploy data-driven solutions and trended data analysis that address the ever-changing challenges faced by government clients. Cole leads a service architect team that supports clients in CMS SSA, and state health care government agencies to implement solutions that help mitigate risk, prevent improper payments, facilitate verifications and improve program integrity.