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Making it Easier for Low-income Renters to Apply for Housing Benefits

Case Study

Seattle Department of Construction & Inspections

Modern apartment building with tree in foreground
Woman filling out a form at a table.
Application form.

The Problem

Over 50% of Seattle’s population consists of renters affected by recent record-high rent increases. The Seattle City Council passed a new ordinance, the Economic Displacement Relocation Assistance (EDRA) Program, designed to provide financial assistance to low-income renters to help them relocate to affordable housing. The agency in charge of rental housing regulations for safe housing, Seattle’s Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI), was called upon by the City to design a new digital and paper benefit application to support renters in receiving the help they needed.

With the task at hand, SDCI and our team worked to lower access barriers to this new program by focusing on equity, accessibility, and ease of use. Collaboratively, we provided expert Human-Centered Design (HCD) services to design a usable, useful, and accessible application process.

Application process diagram.

The EDRA application process.

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The Solution

With tight deadlines and complex legislation, it was vital that our team create a working solution for both Seattle’s renters and for SDCI staff, who needed to receive clean applications that they could process efficiently.

A series of interviews and focus groups with low-income renters and community advocates that support the most vulnerable populations (undocumented, non-English speaking, etc.) led to a deep understanding of their diverse experiences, needs, and barriers when accessing support.

That wasn’t too bad. That was very easy. Arguably one of the easiest things I’ve ever had to do.

We engaged in a series of collaborative design sessions with the SDCI team, creating prototypes of our application materials that low-income renters gave feedback on. With each round of usability testing, we gained confidence that our content and designs were headed for success – simple and effective. In one of our final UX sessions, a participant said, “That wasn’t too bad. That was very easy. Arguably one of the easiest things I’ve ever had to do.”

SDCI successfully launched the new benefit application. The iterative process empowered the team to move quickly by co-generating creative solutions and aligning on key decisions using data.

Two pages of the SDCI form

New EDRA paper application based on UX research.

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The Impact

By using the HCD approach, SDCI heard diverse, often less represented voices during the design process. This provided a wealth of unexpected insights that helped team members deeply empathize with the low-income renters and led to more compassionate and equitable designs.

As the applications rolled in, SDCI found that staff received fewer phone calls for help navigating the process and more accurate, complete applications. This meant they could spend more of their limited time processing applications instead of helping confused renters or following up on missing materials. Applicants also now receive their eligibility decisions sooner, and therefore their money, faster.