Screenshot of the housing insights tool. Image by the author.

Preserving the stock of affordable housing that already exists in Washington, DC is one of the most efficient ways of addressing the affordable housing crisis.

This was one of the central findings of the Housing Preservation Strike Force’s November 2016 final report: preservation is less expensive than building new units, and it ensures that current residents are not pushed out of the city when government subsidies expire.

Right now affordable housing advocates and the District’s government put a lot of time and money into preserving these units–through refinancing, tenant organizing, and other incentives–to make sure they remain affordable.

However, leaders often find that the data with the potential to help them understand where and when to focus efforts is hard to find, incomplete, disorganized, and overwhelming to process.

For instance, a housing advocate may use the DC Preservation Network’s Preservation Catalog to find buildings with upcoming subsidy end dates, but would need to navigate to other public datasets from the U.S. Census or the District government in order to understand neighborhood trends, market pressures, or demographics that are important in understanding how at risk an affordable housing development might be.

In short, a significant impediment to proactive efforts to preserving affordable housing is a data problem. Housing Insights was created to help solve this problem.

Civic tech and open data to the rescue!

Last fall a group of volunteers from Code for DC–a group of civic hackers working together to solve local problems–began work on a new digital tool that would pull disparate data sources together and create an easy-to-use, visual interface.

This Housing Insights project was initiated by our local partners NeighborhoodInfo DC at the Urban Institute, the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development (CNHED), and the DC Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), with support from the national Civic Tech and Data Collaborative.

Over the course of the past year, more than one hundred people have volunteered their time and skills to making this tool a reality. This work included everything from conducting interviews with potential users to compiling and organizing data into a unified database architecture.

The majority of the volunteers came to the project without a background in the complex issues involved in the preservation of affordable housing, but were deeply committed to using their skills to addressing social problems in the community where they live. And now, after nearly a year of work, the final product is ready.

The Housing Insights digital mapping tool was officially launched at an event on October 5 at the Urban Institute. Neal Humphrey, the Housing Insights project director, demonstrated how the platform can be used to visualized the District’s current subsidized housing stock.

Neal Humphrey, Housing Insights project coordinator, demo-ing the tool at the Urban Institute. Image by the author.

The information can also be filtered by a number of variables, such as subsidy type, size of development, end of subsidy date, and recent federal housing conditions inspection reports (REAC scores) and Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) notices. The tool also incorporates other publicly accessible data like building permit info from the District, the distance of housing units to mass transit, as well as demographic info from the Census Bureau.

For those interested in specific affordable housing developments, you can easily jump to building-specific pages that provide all the data available about that development. All the information is automatically updated every week and it is easily exportable.

While the site has been custom-designed with the District in mind, the tool was built entirely using open source software, which means that other cities are free to copy the platform in order to put it to use in their region.

Putting data into practice

All the stakeholders agree that a more proactive approach to preserving affordable housing is needed in order to maintain the District’s affordable housing stock. This tool will allow them to do just that. Polly Donaldson, the Director of DHCD said that this tool will be used by her office to “track, target, and prioritize” preservation efforts. DHCD is in the process of hiring a new Preservation Officer who will be tasked with spearheading these efforts.

For affordable housing advocates, this tool will facilitate their work by providing them with the data they need in an accessible format. It also aggregates information for them so that they can engage in more informed conversations with District officials and private developers.

The ability to quickly identify the affordable housing units most at-risk will save precious time and resources.

Next steps: give us feedback and get involved!

The Housing Insights tool, like many civic tech efforts, is a work in progress. Over the coming months, the development team and partners will be looking for feedback on how to improve the tool. Suggestions may include what other types of data should be prioritized for inclusion, or ideas about how to make the interface more user-friendly.

Since the Housing Insights tool has been developed by a community of volunteers, we are looking for more people to join in these efforts! If you are interested, please send us an email.

Can a new affordable housing data visualization tool single-handedly solve affordable housing preservation efforts? Of course not. But it does have the potential to jumpstart a more informed discussion among housing advocates, policymakers, the media, and even the public at large: definitely an important step in the right direction.

Thomas Hernandez is a government communications product owner at Granicus and enjoys all things civic tech. He is a graduate of Georgetown's Communications Culture and Technology program, where he focused on UX, product design, and the intersections of politics and technology.

Daniel O'Maley is a DC transplant originally from the Midwest. As a technology and media policy researcher he has been a long-time enthusiast of civic tech initiatives. He lives in Columbia Heights with his husband, an urban planner, and they enjoy exploring cities together.