Using Data-Driven Insights to Tackle Affordable Housing and Homelessness

October 05, 2018 by Kyle Hall

Using Data-Driven Insights to Tackle Affordable Housing and Homelessness

Michelle Grimwood-Read/Flickr

Cities are expanding across the United States, and for many urban centers, this population boom is accompanied by a shortage of affordable housing and an increase in homelessness. Both issues can be challenging — and expensive — for cities to navigate.

During the Governing Summit on Financial Leadership in New York City, I spoke with two people deeply familiar with these frequently twinned issues: Tene Tate-Dickson, Senior Analyst at Los Angeles County's Office of the Chief Executive, and Yale Fox, the CEO of Rentlogic, a New York City-based start-up built on the NYC Open Data portal that grades apartment buildings across the city.

Tate-Dickson and Fox shared how the private and public sector are using data to understand the scale of these issues and to develop affordable housing and homelessness initiatives.

A New Perspective on Data

Agencies wrangle internal data to assess and respond to critical social issues around homelessness and housing.

The private sector can help.

Many agencies collect data on residential buildings in New York City, on issues from pest control to building structure. Rentlogic effectively pulls all of this information, available on the city's open data portal, together into one place, which can reveal overarching trends.

"We go through the data [on the NYC Open Data Portal] and look for whatever trends we can find," says Fox.

The company also reaches out to open data representatives and elected officials for useful data.

"We've been around for a couple of years now, so we have people in the public sector coming to us now, saying, 'What can we do to help make things better?'" says Fox, who notes that one-third of site users are in the public sector.

When you combine all the housing-related datasets, there are about 1,500 variables RentLogic looks at.

"Each is a clue that's part of a bigger picture in one building," Yale says. "When you look at a portfolio, you can start to make logical conclusions based on behavior and on hundreds of thousands of data points."

While the company empowers New York City renters with more information on the safety of their apartments and the responsiveness of their landlords, it also plays a role in stamping out homelessness at its root.

One key insight showed a high proportion of people, up to 80 percent, who were evicted by landlords ended up in shelters within six months.

Now, Yale is asking how Rentlogic can help the public sector retain and grow affordable housing throughout New York City and prevent unfair evictions that result in homelessness.

The Value of Public-Private Collaboration

Housing only solves the issue if agencies can stop the influx of people falling into homelessness in the first place.

Tene Tate-Dickson, in LA County, said they were "behind the curve" on prevention efforts because they didn't have data on who was entering homelessness. Now, the county can analyze the data, reallocate revenue, and invest in more permanent and long-term solutions.

She is eager to gain insight from the private sector in addressing homelessness.

Tate-Dickson oversees LA County's Measure H budget, which is a voter-approved initiative on homelessness across the county. It goes to seven county departments, each with their own data portal.

As the county plans the budget for upcoming years, she collaborates with stakeholders beyond the county, including partnering agencies, nonprofits and faith-based organizations that are involved in the homeless services delivery system.

"If we're not collaborating from a government perspective, how can we serve our clients best?" says Tate-Dickson.

The county is partnering with the University of California-Los Angeles and other academic institutions to understand what strategies are effective at preventing homelessness and to best analyze available data for program and resource allocation planning.

Analysis revealed that just five percent of the users of county social and health department services were the heaviest users of county services and responsible for a large portion of those departments' budgets. For years, she says, this information was obscured because the data and financial information wasn't integrated, and departments didn't share information.

"What we saw, to our shame, is that we had a bunch of information silos," says Tate-Dickson.

Health services can provide better treatment to a client in the emergency room with insight into the patient's previous interactions with the Department of Mental Health. By sharing data, the county can make better decisions on coordination of care and potentially cut costs, she says.

"When you're planning a housing and homelessness budget, you can't do it without collaboration from all sectors because it's a problem that touches everyone," says Tate-Dickson. "This is a human problem — we're not just talking about financials here. We're talking about lives."

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