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The COVID-19 pandemic has made many things harder, including the quest of millions of American families and individuals for affordable, stable housing. 

People in need of housing already face tremendous stress, and the health risks, coupled with economic uncertainty and rising unemployment, only exacerbate that. Meanwhile, public housing authorities (PHAs) have seen demand rise at the same time that lockdowns and social distancing have forced them to adopt new ways of working, including many quickly adapting to a teleworking model. This also affected the technology supply chain, including hardware, software, infrastructure and security. 

From an operational perspective, the pandemic has revealed some of the challenges that PHAs face. Reliance on in-person interactions and paper-based processes made it difficult for some PHAs to rapidly shift to remote work and effectively support the needs of participants and landlords.

Rising to the challenge

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) stepped in, providing $400 billion to help communities and PHAs respond to the crisis. While many PHAs had documented disaster response plans, most envisioned natural disasters as the likely trigger. Few, if any, had anticipated the impact of a global pandemic on their operations and interactions with the communities they serve. 
Commendably, PHAs around the country have also risen to the challenge. They have rallied their communities around the growing need for affordable housing, introducing creative measures such as temporary motel room stays for those with immediate housing needs and outreach messaging to the communities they serve. 

Our conversations with PHAs across the country show that those that have invested in digitizing operations performed better during the crisis. These early adopters pivoted to new realities with agility, and continue to focus on technology investments. Those that lagged behind with technology took immediate triage actions, such as investing in laptops and web-based collaboration tools. Now, they must move forward and analyze how they can become truly digital organizations. 

Fortunately, CARES Act funding can help agencies streamline and digitize key aspects of their operations, such as the move to paperless records. Other IT priorities, such as mass notification systems for communicating with community members (e.g., CGI Notify®), are also eligible for funding under the Act. While teleworking is a temporary solution for most PHAs, the benefits of digital transformation extend far beyond the return to the office. Investing in technology and evolving their operations to a more digital paradigm can directly impact the communities PHAs serve. 

For example, many PHAs have adopted web-based applications for training sessions and applicant briefings. Some are using video conferencing technologies, while others have created recorded, reusable video briefings and online forms. In addition to maintaining safety from communicable illness, it also spares families from traveling to the PHA office, saving them time and money. 

The approaches and others serve as an initial step for many PHAs to become more digital organizations. Considering the variety of processes and interactions with participants and landlords, additional opportunities exist to communicate and exchange data with stakeholders in more digital formats. For example, by applying modern technologies, PHAs can enable participants to submit information electronically. 

Through effective user experience design, PHAs can create easy-to-complete forms and enforce submission of all required documentation, reducing the need to follow up with constituents. Even people with minimal computer experience can complete online forms without the need for training, if the forms are designed well.

Staying strong as we continue to move forward

Unfortunately, the pandemic continues to expand almost a year after it first arose, and its effects on our economy increase daily. Public housing authorities can expect an ever-growing need for affordable housing support. Moving forward, continued investment in digital transformation can make a significant difference in a PHA’s capabilities and, more importantly, its resilience and ability to adapt to changing circumstances. 

To read more of CGI’s recommendations for public housing authorities as they rebound and reinvent from the pandemic, download our white paper: The Impact of COVID-19 on Public Housing Authorities: Reinventing as Digital Organizations to Meet the Challenges Ahead.

About this author

Amy Waxman CGI Federal

Amy Waxman

Director, Consulting Services

Amy Waxman is the Director of Consulting Services specializing in the affordable housing industry. Prior to joining CGl in 2018, Amy held various executive level positions with a large public housing authority, where she worked for 23 years. Given her on-the-ground experience as a housing ...

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