< / housing crisis > : Code for Asheville harnesses technology to help renters, homebuyers

Members of Code for Asheville, a local Code for America brigade, are taking steps to help alleviate one of the city’s biggest problems: the affordable housing crisis.

In an age when you can deposit a paycheck, order a pizza and instantly connect video-to-video with a friend in Seattle in under five minutes — all while walking the dog — it’s not far-fetched to think technology could be the next step in solving real-life community issues.

Members of Code for Asheville, a local Code for America brigade, are taking steps to help alleviate one of the city’s biggest problems: the affordable housing crisis. For the third straight year, brigade members will be taking part in Code for America’s National Day of Civic Hacking, “aka Hack for Change,” Co-Captain Patrick Conant explains. On Saturday, June 6, the local group will sponsor Open Housing Asheville, a team effort that will work to build an online portal to answer questions about affordable housing (see box, “Gearing Up”).

“As we started to plan this year’s event,” notes Conant, “I was moved by all of the coverage of the affordable housing crisis in Asheville and decided to explore whether there were some tech-based solutions we could offer.”

Core team member Jesse Michel says, “I think what inspired me for this whole thing is, I have a friend who recently had to move into public housing with his mom. Basically, I helped him move, helped him get his paperwork worked out. We just ran through the motions with him and realized what a difficult experience it is for some people — not only to afford housing but to know what the proper steps are for finding and qualifying for it.”

Lasting benefits

The Open Housing portal aims to support buyers, sellers and renters by:

  • making it easier for people to find housing based on their income and needs;
  • assisting those without a computer or smartphone in finding affordable housing;
  • helping prospective homebuyers calculate the potential costs (and savings) of owning instead of renting;
  • giving residents a better understanding of how much they can afford to spend per month on housing, and what budget adjustments might be needed;
  • helping qualified residents find public housing and navigate the proper channels for government benefits;
  • enabling developers and commercial homeowners to gauge how affordable their prices are;
  • steering developers toward areas where affordable housing might most benefit the community.

“Real estate is hard to navigate for some people,” Michel says. “I think what we’re most excited about is having an opportunity to break down the barriers of access and help people understand what opportunities they have available to them, whether you’re trying to budget to buy a house or just get better clarity on the paperwork that you’re signing.”

Open Housing, though, will differ from past years’ projects in at least one key respect.

“Hackathon-style events typically consist of multiple teams, each working on a separate idea in a competitive format,” Conant explains. “However, a long-standing problem is that projects built in a single day by a team of volunteers don’t continue to evolve after the event.

“When you’re trying to help solve critical problems in the community, we felt that we needed a different model,” he continues. “Although we absolutely want to see original ideas, we plan to tie all the projects together in a single website to provide a living resource for the community.”

What might be more effective this year, adds Michel, is “creating a unified housing portal that people will be contributing ‘mini-apps’ or components to — all under the same project umbrella.” Rather than competing, he says, these teams will focus on the “bigger goal: establishing a community resource” that will last into the foreseeable future.

These events, though, aren’t open solely to techies, and participation is free.

“We need volunteers with a wide range of skill sets — even bringing a different perspective can help us solve a problem,” Conant explains. “Whether you can write code, organize the community, collect data or help share the story of the event, we need your help to build Open Housing in Asheville.”

Collaborative efforts

Also new this year is a partnership with GeekOut, a local arts-and-technology festival held the first weekend of June in UNC Asheville’s Wilma M. Sherrill Center.

“We’re really excited to pursue this event with a collaborative partner,” says Conant. “We’ll be able to expose our efforts to a wider community and build support for civic technology and open data.”

And because many municipal employees participate in Code for Asheville — including co-captain Scott Barnwell, the city’s business and public technology manager — it’s not too far-fetched to think attendees might have a chance to swap ideas with a local politician.

“I do expect officials from the city and county to come,” says Conant. “I reached out to Councilman Gordon Smith when we first decided to explore an affordable housing theme, and he provided me with some great ideas and resources that have helped to shape the event. We also typically draw several local government employees to our event — after all, they’re the ones collecting much of this local data in the first place.”

Getting folks to spend their Saturday inside working on a civic technology project, notes Conant, “takes a lot of effort. For this event, however, I’m noticing people from many different backgrounds reaching out and offering to help. The affordable housing crisis affects everyone in Asheville.”

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About Hayley Benton
Current freelance journalist and artist. Former culture/entertainment reporter at the Asheville Citizen-Times and former news reporter at Mountain Xpress. Also a coffee drinker, bad photographer, teller of stupid jokes and maker-upper of words. I can be reached at hayleyebenton [at] gmail.com. Follow me @HayleyTweeet

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