HUD opens high-tech storefront

Department of Housing and Urban Development officials this month opened the first of several high-tech "storefront" offices that the public can use to explore housing options and issues.

The new office, a former drug store located a few blocks from Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., includes an outdoor

multimedia kiosk and a few countertop computers. The public can use the computers to find such housing information as how to get mortgages, what types of loans are available or how to file housing-discrimination claims. Visitors to the HUD storefront office also can use the computers to view maps that include demographic and housing data for their neighborhoods or check maps of where public housing is available.

"You have to come out of the office tower if you're going to make a difference," HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo told a crowd gathered this month for the opening of the HUD office, called HUD Next Door.

The office is designed less like a traditional federal office and more like a studio, with colorful D.C.-area maps etched on glass walls and natural wood. The office is at the street level on a busy corner, and its outdoor kiosk will provide housing information 24 hours a day.

"[The kiosk] is to get them in the door, and it's also to make HUD available 24 hours a day, seven days a week," said HUD Webmaster Candi Harrison.

Once inside, visitors can use the computers to find information via a simple, World Wide Web browser-like interface. "People who don't have PCs at home or in their offices can walk in and take advantage of the technology," said Phyllis Preston, manager for HUD's intranet.

The inaugural HUD Next Door represents the first of about 10 new storefront offices that agency officials hope to open in the next four years. HUD is considering opening offices in Albuquerque, N.M.; Grand Rapids, Mich.; Buffalo, N.Y.; and Baltimore.

HUD's new model for customer service includes more technology than kiosks and PCs for public perusal. The HUD Next Door concept means agency staffers, called "community builders," will carry laptops they can use to share information with community residents other than visitors to the storefront office.

Community builders at the Washington office will use 17 Toshiba America Information Systems Inc. laptops with MMX technology. The laptops, which run at 166 MHz, have hard drives capable of holding almost 2G of data, including mapping software and slide presentations that HUD workers can use when discussing housing issues with municipal leaders, developers or community organizations.

HUD workers can dock the laptops to workstations that include a monitor and a full-size keyboard. "It's just making it as simple and easy as possible for community builders to have the information at their fingertips to do their job," Preston said.

Peter Dreier, former Boston housing director and current professor of politics and public policy at Occidental College in Los Angeles, said the new HUD approach makes sense, given the agency's decentralized structure. "Most housing programs are not run out of Washington," he said. "This [storefront concept] seems like a good fit in terms of what HUD's operations are like."

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