Going Digital With King County Housing Authority
The King County Housing Authority (KCHA) wins a 2019 Award of Excellence in Administrative Innovation for developing an online rent increase system and an automated workflow and notification process that improved landlord interaction, streamlined landlord contact with the agency, and allowed KCHA to handle increased rent requests. Nominated from among the NAHRO Award of Merit winners each year, the Awards of Excellence winners are chosen by national juries and honored at the annual National Conference and Exhibition in October. They represent the very best in innovative programs in assisted housing and community development.
When the housing market stabilized after the 2008 recession, the Seattle metro area experienced some of the fastest growth in the nation. Housing prices in King County have been on the rise, with home values rising 88 percent over the past five years. The rental market was severely impacted by this growth, with average rent increasing 60 percent between 2010 and 2017. This unprecedented growth also led to a rise in the number of rent change requests from KCHA partner landlords, which grew steadily to an average of 368 a month in 2014.
When a landlord requests a change in the rental price of a Section 8 unit, they need to complete a “Rent Increase/Decrease” form. Prior to 2016, this was a manual process: a landlord would download the form, fill it out, and then send it to KCHA case managers via mail, email, or fax. Individual case managers would process the forms, determine if the rent increase was reasonable, and communicate the resulting information to both the landlord and tenant.
In 2016, KCHA saw rent requests nearly double from an average of 311 requests a month to 506 requests a month. The manual system in place was ineffective in monitoring this new volume of requests and led to processing omissions and errors, which in turn delayed processing the rent increases and delayed notifying tenants of the rent increases.
To improve customer service and to better track rental trends in the community, KCHA developed a three-part solution:
- Develop an online rent increase process for landlords to use;
- Staff a facilitator position to handle rent increase requests; and
- Set up an automated workflow process with email notifications.
KCHA worked closely with agency partners, landlords, and the KCHA IT department to develop a low-cost solution within the workflows and systems that were already in place. A workgroup was established in December 2016 to identify the needs, security concerns, and capabilities of the current system and any improvements that were needed. KCHA explored ways to design an online solution that would streamline the process and integrate our existing software, looking to the methods used by neighboring PHAs to handle rent increase requests for guidance.
The KCHA’s goals after implementing the new online system were to:
- Enhance customer service;
- Improve landlord interaction;
- Encourage owner participation in the process;
- Streamline contact with the agency; and
- Allow rent increase requests to process more quickly.
A new embedded online form was developed, and a pilot project was implemented and tested with a select group of landlords in April 2017. KCHA made improvements based on feedback from the pilot program, then integrated the process with the website the housing authority used for Rent Reasonable determinations. KCHA also developed new training materials and presentations that were developed to inform KCHA clients and staff and created a permanent facilitator position to monitor this vital process. Caseworkers now defer all rent increase requests to the facilitator, who collaborates with the Housing Quality Standards (HQS) department on the Rent Reasonable process and responds in a timely manner.
Since the new process went live in May 2017:
- The number of steps required to complete the rent increase request process has decreased from 16 to three.
- Requests are processed in a more timely and accurate manner, with fewer lost requests. This increase in efficiency has also led to a greater success rate in meeting the 30-day notification deadline to tenants for rent increases.
- Landlords receive automated notifications at multiple stages of the processing and an email confirmation once their request has been processed, which reduced the number of phone calls from landlords.
- KCHA servers have processed over 6,000 requests in the last 18 months, and this only represents 20 percent of their 2,300 landlords.
An increasingly large share of total rent increase requests is initiated through this process. If the trend continues, the vast majority of rent increase requests will be using the online form by the end of 2019. The KCHA also received positive feedback for the new process from their most recent landlord survey.
The new process has also created other benefits: The time savings allowed reallocation of staff resources to other urgent needs. Data collected during the rent increase request process has provided more accurate information to the KCHA policy department as they update the payment standards. Due to the success of the online form, the agency is currently working on replicating this process for their Request for Tenancy Approval (RFTA) submission process.
The conversion from a manual to an automated process helped KCHA streamline its workflow, and allowed the agency to provide better customer service for both landlords and residents.