In 2016, Exygy partnered with the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development to create DAHLIA - the City’s first digital affordable housing portal. DAHLIA replaced a confusing and lengthy paper-based process, enabling applicants to complete an online application in less than 20 minutes. Today, DAHLIA includes two portals: one specifically tailored for leasing agents, and one designed to meet the needs of applicants. Together, they create a seamless experience that helps place San Francisco residents in safe, affordable housing.
Since its launch, DAHLIA has nearly 4 million site visitors, and places 100+ households into affordable housing units every month. DAHLIA’s success demonstrated that our approach to easing this element of the housing crisis could be applied elsewhere. We set a goal: to scale DAHLIA’s functionality beyond San Francisco - to other cities, regions, and states - as an open-source product. Open-source code is critical to our mission and our expansion, as it allows the platform to be adapted to meet unique needs of new communities.
As we began imagining what it would take to scale the affordable housing portal beyond San Francisco, we realized the need to retool the product so that it could be more easily replicated. We developed a similar database product using an open source codebase, named ‘Bloom’ - representing the many affordable housing platforms that could grow within its architecture. With Bloom’s name quickly catching on, we moved into scaling, which primarily fell into these categories:
Building Partnerships: We formed strong relationships with key players in regional politics. These partners were trusted in the affordable housing community, helping us join conversations with new jurisdictions, and building credibility for the potential of Bloom’s impact.
DAHLIA as a building block: As the second iteration of this affordable housing product, Bloom benefited from everything we learned in creating DAHLIA—and our past experiences helped us avoid potential future missteps. Each element that led to shifting 97% of applications to our original online portal could be used to shape future versions of it. Additionally, our analytics told us where users were getting stuck—and how we could improve their experiences.
Mindful customization: As we looked to scale Bloom in other places—like San Jose, San Mateo County, and Alameda County—we recognized that these very different communities would require personalized products. We also had to consider different languages, policies, structures, and preference rules for housing.
Thinking regionally: Even as we tailored platforms to cities, we stayed cognizant that our technical choices should work in a regional system that could centralize technology support. To whatever extent different parts of the region wanted to work together, we wanted to give them a federated platform that could make it happen.
Engineering expertise: Creating open-source products for government entities requires strong technical leadership. Our team must translate human stories into a robust technology system, taking into account all of the complexities that our users embody. Moreover, they’ve got to ensure the products can adapt as they grow—for example, building modular platforms that work for a wide variety of jurisdictions, but can also be integrated into a regional system on the horizon. Within those considerations, our engineers also facilitate the following:
Guiding and training clients toward a successful handoff and product longevity.
Ensuring accessibility for people with visual impairments or other barriers to usage.
Creating a system with two distinct interfaces—one for applicants and one for property managers—that serve very different users, but must work together.
Evolving the product over time to keep up with the best available development tools and approaches, enabling ongoing development in order to accommodate policy changes and new user needs—which also means significant investments in the underlying technology to keep engineers productive and features flowing.
Today, we have active projects throughout San Mateo County, Alameda County, and San Jose. There’s also increasing momentum for activity at the regional scale. As we continue to grow, we’ve seen Bloom represent a success story on several levels:
It transforms a sticky pain point for California’s citizens — applying for and accessing affordable housing — into something that’s easily integrated into their day-to-day lives.
It moved 97% of affordable housing applications online, when no such option existed before, saving close to half a million applicants countless hours in completing paper forms and standing in line.
Digital applications provide trackable data, including a completion rate of nearly 50%, since its creation, allowing applicants and processors to identify and validate information faster with the expectation of less human errors.
After handoff, our clients successfully manage their platforms themselves; we may provide engineering support if needed, but our clients feel a sense of ownership over their products and see themselves as co-creators—because they are.
We’re currently in dialogue with major cities across the state, as well as state-level housing agencies, seeking out expansion options across California.
Looking forward, we expect to expand Bloom to reach more than 3 million people in the Bay Area — and, as always, we’ll use what we learn to continue changing essential everyday systems for the better.