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California must untangle snarled process for applying for affordable housing

Source: Cal Matters

We apply for jobs online; buy and sell any item we want online; and even go to school online. To access the limited spots in an affordable housing development, however, one has to fill out paper forms — over and over again. In 21st-century California, a simple, practical, online application for available affordable housing is long overdue. 

Assembly Bill 1961, authored by Assembly members Jesse Gabriel of Van Nuys, Evan Low of Cupertino and Buffy Wicks of Oakland, would create such a database, allowing Californians who qualify the chance to apply online for a lower-cost place to live. 

The bill, which passed the Assembly Housing and Community Development Committee unanimously with bipartisan support in April, was drawn directly from the experiences of people who live in affordable housing, many of whom struggled mightily to get into the apartments where they live now.

Willie Stevens of Oakland, a retiree, remembers taking the bus to unfamiliar neighborhoods, then searching for the application office at each affordable housing development to add his name to a waitlist — a process he repeated 30 or 40 times. Because he was couch-surfing, and his address changed frequently, he had to then call to notify those 30 or 40 offices to keep him on the waitlist at each one. It took him a year to find a place.

An online portal with user profiles for all applicants could have kept Stevens’ information up to date and made the process exponentially easier. 

Californians like Stevens who are couch-surfing, living in their cars, sleeping in shifts because they have so many roommates, or raising kids on a budget, need fast housing solutions. That’s a lot of people: Eighty percent of poor Californians live in households with at least one working adult. But right now, to have a shot at affordable housing, they have to take days off work or school and spend money on transportation to apply in person at each development that might have an open spot. 

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, of the 1.3 million extremely low-income households in California, some 31% are seniors and another 13% are disabled. Disabled and senior Californians, two groups at high risk of homelessness, would benefit enormously from an online system that would enable them to apply from home and fill out a common form just once. In rural parts of California, where low-cost housing is spread out across long distances, an online portal is a no-brainer.

An online application system also broadens affordable housing accessibility for the 44% of California households in which languages other than English is spoken. AB 1961 would open up the universe of affordable housing to people who otherwise would be unlikely to fill out an English-only application form (much less 30 or 40 of them), expanding the opportunity to spend much less on rent at a time when market-rate rent just keeps going up.

AB 1961 requires the Legislature to appropriate funds to the California Department of Housing and Community Development for this purpose. 

A one-stop shop, which AB 1961 would create online, would ease the burden of so many people already struggling to get by. We know we need far more affordable housing in our state, but in the meantime, AB 1961 would make it much easier to apply for what we’ve got.