Online housing locator helps fire victims relocate

Originally posted Oct. 26 at 3:53 p.m. and updated Oct. 30 at 1:46 p.m.

UPDATED'Californians displaced by destructive wildfires can find new quarters faster with the help of an online housing locater built by the Housing and Urban Development Department following the Hurricane Katrina disaster.

The National Housing Locator (NHL) is a searchable online clearinghouse of rental housing nationwide, HUD said. The locator combines vacant sales and rental housing data from federal housing resources, as well as three widely used commercial apartment data services. Currently, there are more than 15,000 housing units available in Southern California, Nevada and Arizona areas, HUD said.

HUD field office staffers are working at housing assistance points at some of the shelters where displaced residents are camped out. The department's disaster recovery teams will be fielded in selected shelters to help fire evacuees find available rental accommodations much more quickly via the online service.

The data service consolidates housing information from several sources, including SocialServ.Com, Apartments.Com, HomeSales.Gov, Rentlinx.Com and other Web sites, a HUD statement said.

Citizant, the vendor that created the housing locator, added that other companies urged HUD to finance a $10 million to $15 million project to build a comparable system.

Citizant, by contrast, used a Web 2.0 approach and rapid application development to provide the first NHL system for less than $1 million, the company said. The product was extensible and scalable from the time of its first release, the company said.

The company has a HUD contract for NHL that runs for one year, with an option year. The pact comprises several work orders, Citizant said.

'The initial development and deployment was within 45 days for the first release,' Citizant said in an e-mail. 'We started developing NHL in December 2006 and launched the first release before the end of January 2007.'

The online service helps HUD staff and local housing officials find available housing by area, price and number of bedrooms.

The clearinghouse also specifies whether landlords accept pets or housing vouchers. It includes data about accessibility features for elderly or disabled residents or others with special housing requirements.

In most cases, the system provides photos and landlord contact information, HUD said. The locator has virtual tours of some of the housing it describes.

The department has gradually upgraded the locator since its launch in January. The online service gained a geospatial-search capability in March, and a June upgrade provided case management and customer service modules to track and manage housing aid and other emergency assistance, such as the Agriculture Department's Food Stamp program.

This month Citizant rolled out an additional release that included all planned features, the company said. 'The most important enhancement [in the October release] is the addition of Web-service capabilities, which allow other agencies to share the housing information that is available via NHL, and then embed the NHL data into their applications and portals.'

The NHL designers worked closely with the Homeland Security Department's Federal Emergency Management Agency so NHL would allow other agencies to share housing information and embed the data into their applications and portals, the company said.

Mary Mosquera contributed to this story.

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