Policy

A Deep, Elegant, Beautiful Proptech For Affordable Housing Options

Housing Navigator Massachusetts founder Jennifer Gilbert joins Ivory Innovations director of Strategy and Operations Hannah Gable in a "How I Built This"-like conversation in this episode of House Party.

Policy

A Deep, Elegant, Beautiful Proptech For Affordable Housing Options

Housing Navigator Massachusetts founder Jennifer Gilbert joins Ivory Innovations director of Strategy and Operations Hannah Gable in a "How I Built This"-like conversation in this episode of House Party.

February 2nd, 2024
A Deep, Elegant, Beautiful Proptech For Affordable Housing Options
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Anyone doing business in any field in the last decade has to have seen or heard the claim, "data that drives action."

Does it? Can it? Will it? And if the answer is "yes" to all three questions, how might "data that drives action" apply in the context of one of the social, economic, and cultural challenges of our time: Access to affordable housing options?

A short answer to that question is this: Without first having been imagined as doing so – particularly in the domain of solutions-seeking for America's housing affordability and access crisis – data could not, and would not, and will not drive action. Further, without first having been lived, recognized, heard, seen, and worked on, action – be it political, financial, technological, or real estate development – that springs out of data would go unimagined as it has for so long and to such anguishing effects.

Here are two timely, topical illustrations:

1) According to a report by the McKinsey Institute for Black Economic Mobility released Thursday in honor of Black History Month, it could take more than three centuries for the gap between Black and white homeownership to close (320, to be precise). This means that Black Americans won’t have the same access to homeownership or lower rental burdens when compared to white Americans." - Fortune
2) ... data also show how affluent Massachusetts communities are excluding families of color by reserving affordable units for seniors, said Katie Einstein, Urban-H Index associate director of housing at Boston University.
"There are 44 communities in Massachusetts that have produced affordable housing that is 100% age restricted," Einstein said in her presentation Tuesday morning. "Those communities tend to be overwhelmingly white." – WGBH

Solutions to these challenges can not begin to be imagined without getting way past the theoretical, past the abstract, past the statistical, far past all of those realms to the real, the lived, the human issue.

This is the story of an individual, and a team, and a data technology platform that has as its basic building block level real people's real plight in trying to get access to affordable rental housing in our cities, towns, and rural areas.

Incredibly, I think to most people, a simple question like 'how many units of affordable housing does the state of Massachusetts have?' couldn't be answered," said Jennifer Gilbert, executive director of Housing Navigator Massachusetts. "And it's hard to make data driven policy, it's hard to inform conversation, if you can't have that basic set of information about housing across the state and in every municipality." – WGBH

And what makes so much sense when you listen to Jennifer Gilbert – as you can do by tuning into Episode 3, Season 2 of Ivory Innovations' House Party – would remain in an irretrievable darkness without first an intimate grasp of what it's like to be someone looking, real-time, for an affordable place to rent.

Housing Navigator Massachusetts founder Jennifer Gilbert joins Ivory Innovations director of Strategy and Operations Hannah Gable in a "How I Built This"-like conversation that asks this question:

Why can we easily find market-rate rentals through Zillow or Trulia but for affordable units, some families have to visit up to 24 different offices in-person?"

Housing Navigator is a nonprofit that uses funding from nonprofits, fees for service, and funding from Massachusetts public and quasi-public agencies. They work with landlords to get properties listed on the database, then market them to renters. Using Housing Navigator, users can go online and easily access/search for rent-controlled housing units. Housing Navigator has taken the model of a site like Zillow and applied it exclusively to income-restricted properties. This tool is useful for owners, renters, homelessness providers, and housing funders.

Housing Navigator MA was a 2023 Ivory Prize for Housing Affordability Finalist in Public Policy and Regulatory Reform.

As Gilbert tells the story of how Housing Navigator Massachusetts came to be, what's starkly clear is her focus on who and what she and her team are trying to solve to apply "data that drives action."

Here, Gilbert tells Ivory Innovations Hannah Gable:

For a long time, there had been talk in the sort of policy community in Massachusetts about needing a one-stop shop, a portal. But what does that mean? That can mean a bunch of different things. For a lot of people, that's one of the things that we're trying to do. Folks on the policy side thought, 'You can just build a database, and people will go in and find information. It'll be helpful.' Our steering committee was really helpful in saying that we really need to build this with a mind toward how our renter user is going to use it, not researchers who want to find out how many units of affordable housing we have in the world. That is actually something that we also end up producing, but really, 'How do we build in the user experience and the clarity for users that lets renters, service providers, and really anyone use it to do housing searches?'

Developing a technology via discovery and requirements is typical. What's exceptional in this case is the intensity of focus on the "user story" as a framework that would drive the design of the platform. Despite or because this proptech would need to serve people in need of low-income decent housing options, the user stories were all the more essential as a baseline.

As Gilbert explains:

The word I love the most is 'beautiful' because I think it's a word that describes something people do not expect from a technology platform that's primarily intended for low-income people. And I love that we not only made that a goal, but we achieved it. And I know we achieved it because people have told us that they think the site is beautiful.
I have told this story often about a meeting we had with advocates for people with disabilities early on. We knew that there were some things about the site that weren't as good as we wanted them to be around serving people with mobility needs. So I didn't know what to expect from the meeting, but the very first thing that someone said was, 'Your site is beautiful.' I loved that that was their very first comment.
Achieving that ends up serving so many purposes. It dignifies the process for people. It respects them, and it gives our users an incredible amount of ownership, allegiance, and trust in the product. That's real; that's authentic. Another thing I'm very proud of is that we have organizational news on 'What's up at Housing Navigator.' Our renter users read about the organization, and that's in part because they're having this experience of a platform that's beautiful and created for them, and it's a product that they trust and value. That's an important word, beautiful. Also, valuing the resources of our users, the whole idea of the product is that it gives people agency.
My own career history is I started working after college at a shelter for people experiencing homelessness, and then I worked in legal services with people who were losing their homes from eviction or foreclosure. And I found that the people I worked with were amazingly resourceful and amazingly energetic and problem solvers on a level that I'll never be. What they often didn't have was information. And the tool is very much about providing people information so they can make the best choices for them, so that they can, in effect, 'comparison shop.'
All those things that I get to do as somebody with a lot more privilege and who, you know, the tech world is very interested in providing products for me. So those words, again, I think about that phrase all the time, you know, reliable, all those pieces are very much what underpins having a product that is useful and with any luck, you know, beloved and well used over time."

In this case, even in the deeply and chronically challenging domain of American housing's access and affordability crisis, data can and does drive action. That's because it first had to be imagined doing so. To imagine just how that could be, it was action – listening to, and living, and learning by heart the users' story – that drove development of the data platform.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John McManus

John McManus

President and Founder

John McManus, founder and president of The Builder’s Daily, is an award-winning editorial, programming, and digital content strategist. TBD's purpose is a community capable of constant improvement.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John McManus

John McManus

President and Founder

John McManus, founder and president of The Builder’s Daily, is an award-winning editorial, programming, and digital content strategist. TBD's purpose is a community capable of constant improvement.

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