To Jennifer Gilbert, the contrast was stark: the digital divide between finding market-rate versus affordable rental housing kept getting bigger. While market-rate renters could rely upon platforms like Zillow and Apartments.com, even accessing videos of prospective apartments, Massachusetts had no centralized search tool for affordable housing.
“The ease with which you can search for market-rate housing is unbelievable,” said Gilbert. “There was a huge and horrible difference between that and affordable housing. The system wasn’t transparent, creating more inequality. Like with many things, a group needed to step forward and say: ‘time to solve this.’”
Gilbert, Founder and Executive Director of Housing Navigator Massachusetts, Inc. (HNMI), began her career working at a Philadelphia homeless shelter in the 1980’s. She went on to spend 15 years directing complex affordable housing and other real estate transactions, then served as Executive Director of the Kuehn Foundation from 2015-2021. For Gilbert, the injustice of this digital divide was profoundly aggravating. There was consensus among the Massachusetts affordable housing community that this was a problem, but she wanted to find a practical solution.
In 2018, Gilbert, along with Citizens Housing and Planning Association CEO Rachel Heller and Massachusetts Housing Investment Corporation CEO Joe Flatley, convened a working committee that included numerous affordable housing leaders in the state, many of whom ultimately became HNMI Board members. Early on, they learned from HousingLink, a nonprofit established in 1997 that provides the online portal for affordable housing openings throughout Minnesota. One takeaway was the importance of a mandate: HousingLink staff advised that it would be difficult to keep a database of openings updated unless housing owners were required to submit information about openings at their properties.
Housing Navigator gained further momentum when the Kuehn Foundation stepped up with an initial contribution of $500,000. An MOU was also signed with Massachusetts Housing Partnership, Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency, and the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development whereby the agencies agreed to require owners seeking funds to participate in Housing Navigator. By fall of 2019, HNMI was formed as a new nonprofit.
Over the next couple of years, Gilbert built out a team of five, which she proudly described as “people with high technical skills and a deep commitment to social justice.” With 80% of full-time staff female and 80% people of color, the Housing Navigator team is also much more diverse than the tech industry at large.
The team conducted extensive user interviews to identify what people wanted in a listing and created a data standard to outline the minimum information needed to post a listing. Tufts Healthcare Foundation provided funding to research how to make the platform more usable for older adults. Establishing the initial database required a lot of reaching out to affordable housing owners, but owners have now started updating their own listings.
Eight months after launching, over 50,000 users have visited the site, which features 2,300+ properties across the state – over 200,000 housing opportunities. Minnesota is the only other state to have implemented a comparable search tool. Participation in Housing Navigator is required in the Massachusetts Qualified Allocation Plan (QAP) for Low-Income Housing Tax Credits.
Moving forward, Gilbert and the Housing Navigator team have their sights set on compiling information about the types of housing renters are searching for, which will allow them to provide feedback about what types of affordable housing and amenities renters want.
“The public is telling us what they want,” Gilbert pointed out. “We hope to add that to the conversation around how to use the very precious resources we have for affordable housing to as much as possible serve the public.”
Having the ability to locate affordable housing options is vital for communities, and the Housing Navigator platform is an example of what can be achieved from collaboration, community support and innovation.
Ginny Keesler is a Senior Finance Project Manager at The Community Builders (TCB), managing the financial structuring, financial modeling, and negotiation of equity & loan documents for a portfolio of affordable housing development projects located in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois, and Pennsylvania. She originally started at TCB in 2015, after graduating with a Master in Urban Planning from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Over the past seven years, Ginny’s work has spanned a wide variety of financing structures, from occupied rehabs with complex tax-exempt bond structuring, to mixed-income, new construction projects utilizing master lease structures to mitigate market risk.
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