Abrupt change to program for rent and utility assistance was product of technical issues and high community need, social service agencies say
photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World
Though an abrupt change in how Douglas County distributes rent and utility assistance has had some early bumps, social service providers who partner with the agency that facilitates the program say it was a necessary move given the sheer amount of community need.
Douglas County’s Housing Stabilization Collaborative announced in late January that it would be shifting from a first-come, first-served system for distributing that aid to a lottery system, beginning with the monthly distribution for March. But the switch happened a month earlier than planned, due in part to technical issues with the HSC’s website that meant the February application wasn’t available for folks when it was supposed to open at 9 a.m. Feb. 1. The HSC announced that it would be moving to the lottery system the same day, and the first round of recipients under the new system are set to be notified Tuesday.
Gabi Sprague, the county’s human services program manager, told the Journal-World Friday morning that the HSC took steps before last week to make sure the website would be ready to handle that traffic — including working with both county IT staff and the website’s host — and thought it had been enough to prepare sufficiently. It’s not the first time there’s been technical issues on an application day. During another recent distribution, there were website issues that ultimately forced the HSC to try again five days later.
But last week, Sprague couldn’t open the application herself until 9:44 a.m. — nearly an hour after it opened — and concerns set in that there wasn’t a fair way to stay the course with the old system.
“…Because all of the people that would’ve tried to apply at 9 a.m. first-come would not have been given the opportunity to do that,” Sprague said. “I imagine people would’ve had to go to work or take care of their children. A lot of things can happen in 44 minutes that would disallow someone from doing their application.”
In part, the change to the lottery system removes any possibility of a similar technical issue locking folks out of submitting an application again. Instead of the application process taking place in the space of one day, the lottery system will give folks a weekslong window to apply. For March, that window will span from Feb. 15 to March 1, and qualified applications will be randomly selected on March 2.
Douglas County will use the same lottery system that cities like San Francisco are using, in which applicants are assigned a lottery number and the numbers are randomly sorted by running a program on random.org.
Sprague said at no point did anyone who did manage to submit an application before 10 a.m. last Wednesday — or in the time before she announced the immediate switch to the lottery system later in the day — receive any communication guaranteeing assistance. But she did say she understands why some partner agencies might have communicated that to clients based on how the HSC has traditionally communicated with folks who’ve submitted rent and utility assistance applications before.
“Douglas County administration made that decision knowing that it would not satisfy everyone’s needs or desires, but it was a difficult decision that we had to make at that time,” Sprague said.
The early change to the new system, as abrupt as it was, caused frustration for some folks seeking funding. That includes one applicant who reached out to the Journal-World last week after initially thinking he’d been successful in securing aid for this month. At the start of the day Feb. 1, he said he’d managed to submit an application despite the server issues and received communication back that traditionally has been indicative that he’d applied early enough.
Kyle Roggenkamp, the director of family stabilization and development for the Ballard Center, told the Journal-World Monday that there were indeed some messages that applicants would receive after submitting an application under the old system that could make that implication. For example, Roggenkamp said one such message would explicitly tell an applicant if they were too late to receive funding after they’d submitted their application. Social service agencies and their clients generally knew what communication was indicative of who could count on getting funding that month.
“Before, if you got your application in, you would get a confirmation page that it was submitted that you could print out, and basically before if you got it in under the crunch time first-come, first-served model, you could pretty much rest assured that you would be funded,” Roggenkamp said.
Now, the message that program participants get after submitting an application simply confirms that it was received and notes when they’ll receive notice of whether they’ve been selected for funding or not.
The Ballard Center is one of the HSC’s member agencies, and Roggenkamp said the collaborative as a whole found it a tough call to move to the lottery system early.
But technical snags were only part of the reason for that last-minute decision. Sprague told the Journal-World that as of Monday morning, the HSC had received around 380 applications but would be able to select only 65 applicants to distribute that funding to. It was still accepting applications through 5 p.m. Monday. And Roggenkamp’s agency alone spent last Wednesday reaching out to the roughly 200 households who had indicated they wanted to work with the agency on their applications to apologize for the system issue.
“Is (the abrupt change) ideal? No,” Roggenkamp said. “Is it really difficult for the clients that were expecting one system and got another? Yes, it is. It sure is. But I think the core of the message from this is the need was so high that the first-come, first-served system on the website couldn’t handle the traffic. It’s really mind-blowing how many people were trying to access the funds.”
Roggenkamp said he could tell as much last month, which is now the last distribution under the first-come, first-served model. On the first business day of January, he said all of the funding for the month was spoken for in less than 10 minutes.
Another HSC member agency, Family Promise, could see that demand as well. The agency’s executive director, Dana Ortiz, told the Journal-World as much Monday afternoon. Ortiz said Family Promise felt funding was running out far too quickly under the old system, and it needed a change.
Whether the lottery system is the best change remains to be seen, Ortiz said, but it does allow applicants far more time to maneuver.
“That system clearly wasn’t working for the amount of need that was shown in our community,” Ortiz said.