Rent Relief Technology Makes an Impact
“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
– Nelson Mandela
When provided the opportunity to distribute nearly $300 million in federal rental assistance to Alaskans impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Alaska Housing Finance Corporation met the challenge head-on. Alaska Housing determined that technology would be the differentiator offering the most efficient avenue for success.
There was a critical need to distribute assistance quickly, but no single technological tool was built for such a massive undertaking. Alaska Housing took an innovative approach by wiring together existing tools and programs to create one game-changing product.
Ultimately, more than $262 million has been distributed through the Alaska Housing Rent Relief program, benefiting nearly 66,500 Alaskans.
With renters all over the state struggling, there wasn’t time to develop a custom-built product, which traditionally includes layers of managers and software developers. Alaska Housing needed to quickly create a modernized digital solution, powered by existing expertise and available technology.
Alaska Housing’s Planning Department team evaluated the specific needs required to deliver volumes of messaging in different formats and to securely distribute the federal funds.
Secure Data Collection
First and foremost was the need to securely collect data. Then the team needed to have the ability to analyze that information, determine eligibility, collect and report it to U.S. Treasury in accordance with their guidelines, and communicate efficiently with applicants.
They took advantage of cutting-edge technologies to rapidly deploy interfaces and platforms. Requiring minimal or no lines of code, the multi-step application forms that would have taken weeks to build from scratch were developed in one day.
No-code and low-code applications provided flexibility and agility. The combination created an efficient way to quickly launch the program and process Rent Relief payments to those most vulnerable to housing insecurities during the COVID-19 pandemic. The sophisticated system used established, reputable platforms to ensure that data remained secure.
This approach differentiated Alaska from other states that were finding little success altering out-of-the-box products. The unique technology solution positioned Alaska as one of the top states distributing Emergency Rental Assistance funds as noted by the Wall Street Journal.
In October 2022, Alaska Housing was recognized for its Rent Relief work at the National Council of State Housing Agencies’ Annual Awards for Program Excellence. Alaska Housing earned the top distinction in two categories: Management Innovation in Internal Operations and Special Achievement for its COVID-19 response.
Having to manually audit and analyze Rent Relief applications was a roadblock that could have significantly slowed the review process. A decision was made to automate the system and create an online application process that would greatly increase delivery speed. A collection of existing and proven secure products were merged to safely distribute hundreds of millions of dollars in Alaska Housing Rent Relief. Working together, the tools:
- Provided a base for the different apps to flow seamlessly, work collaboratively and talk to each other — stitching the technologies together.
- Built various forms including a critical online pre-registration eligibility checker, as well as registration, secure documentation submittals, and payment processing.
- Provided a single interface for connecting data and workflows precisely tailored to the project’s needs.
- Allowed for personalized customer engagement, sending large volumes of critical messaging to thousands of applicants with a 99% delivery rate.
The ease of the program reduced the potential for fraud and made sophisticated hacking difficult. To further reduce the opportunity for fraud, the system required a valid photo ID, used unique email identifiers, monitored for duplicate addresses, included a closed application period, and established a flagging system in a call center dedicated to Rent Relief.
Coupled with security, the overarching goal was to simplify the process with easy steps for applicants, robust digital communications, and a review system that automatically triggered aspects of the decision-making process. The digital platform build began in February 2021 and was fully functional and accepting applications within 30 days.
The streamlined application eliminated the need for hands-on review of initial applications – an efficiency that significantly reduced evaluation times.
An online pre-registration eligibility tracker quickly identified if an applicant qualified for Alaska Housing Rent Relief. Those who were eligible were automatically registered into the system and integrated into a series of digital-based communications and applicant verifications.
Alaska Housing’s Rent Relief portal saw more than 30,000 applications through the system by the first week of March 2021. Alaska Housing generated a partnership that included 14 statewide housing authorities representing 148 tribal entities, the Municipality of Anchorage, and five nonprofit agencies. Alaska Housing’s Rent Relief portal served as a single entry point for applications statewide, minimizing potential confusion and redundancies.
The flexible system allowed the analysis of data in real time and the ability to adapt quickly to the needs of Alaskans as circumstances arose. More than 27,000 verifications were completed in only three weeks. Within the first two months of operation, more than $10 million had been allocated. By June 2021, $60 million in aid had been distributed to 13,000 Alaskan households.
A wealth of data was generated and used to guide the program securely and efficiently. Raw data was processed into a format that could be analyzed to generate insights that provided direction to the team. They could also track success and highlight inefficiencies easily when they emerged.
Applicants making less than 30% of the Area Median Income represented approximately 50% of the applicants served, and 81% were at or below 50% AMI. Roughly 25% of applicant households identified as Alaska Native or American Indian. An appeals process was created to ensure every Alaskan was heard and treated with dignity.
As of June 2022, AHFC distributed $262 million to 26,225 Alaskan households covering rent and utility payments that stretch as far back as March 2020. Nearly 10% of Alaska’s population received aid from Alaska Housing Rent Relief.
Editor's Note: This blog was updated on Nov. 5, 2022 to provide a broader overview of how different digital products worked together to develop the online application system.
We recognize that some Alaskans may be in need of safe, quality, affordable housing. If you are facing homelessness or are in need of resources, we encourage you to contact Alaska 2-1-1. This free, confidential resource can help you to locate assistance in your home community. Dial 2-1-1 or 1-800-478-2221 or visit alaska211.org.