San Francisco

San Francisco simplifies the hunt for affordable housing

San Francisco has moved the application and lottery process for affordable housing to an online portal as part of the city’s ongoing effort to digitize services.

The Database of Affordable Housing Listings, Information, and Applications (DAHLIA) system centralizes information and processes that were previously dispersed across multiple nonprofits, city departments and leasing agents. It gives applicants a one-stop shop to look for housing options along with a streamlined application and a quicker lottery process.

After interviewing people looking for affordable housing, "it quickly became clear that we needed to put all the affordable housing listings in the same place" Ashley Meyers, the product manager on the city's digital services team, told GCN.

Applications and listings are organized in a Salesforce database that communicates with the website through application programming interfaces. Reporting and data export features allow for faster data analysis. Previously, analysis required pulling information from several sources.

“In the long run it makes it easier to collect data and make decisions,” said Meyers, who joined the city in 2015 after working as a development and engagement manager at Code for America.

Applicants can still apply for housing on paper, but Meyers said 85 percent of applications are being filled out online since implementation of the new system. Information from paper applications is manually entered onto Salesforce.

Housing decisions are made by lottery. The city invested in a third-party tool that generates and assigns random numbers to applicants.

"You can, in 10 minutes, apply from your smartphone to a listing that you want. It pops up and tells you what your lottery number is and sends you an email with it," Barry Roeder, a Mayor’s Office of Housing employee working with the DAHLIA initiative, told the San Francisco Examiner.  "Within minutes of the completion of a public lottery, enter that number in DAHLIA again and it shows you exactly what your rank was in the lottery.”

“This is part of a broader move with the city to digitize services,” said Chief Digital Services Officer Carrie Bishop. Past efforts include a business portal and a place for city residents to register as an Airbnb hosts.

Many factors go into deciding what will be digitized next, Bishop said. The city evaluates the number of people a service can help, the impact it can have on users and the potential to save time and money for the city.

“We’re just beginning on this journey,” she said about the city’s modernization efforts.

About the Author

Matt Leonard is a reporter/producer at GCN.

Before joining GCN, Leonard worked as a local reporter for The Smithfield Times in southeastern Virginia. In his time there he wrote about town council meetings, local crime and what to do if a beaver dam floods your back yard. Over the last few years, he has spent time at The Commonwealth Times, The Denver Post and WTVR-CBS 6. He is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, where he received the faculty award for print and online journalism.

Leonard can be contacted at or follow him on Twitter @Matt_Lnrd.

Click here for previous articles by Leonard.

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