Portland puts housing search online

After two years in development, Portland, Ore., has launched a searchable electronic clearinghouse of affordable and special needs housing opportunities for its middle- to low-income population.

Andy Miller, housing program coordinator with Portland's housing and community development bureau, said the Web site (www.housingconnections.org) is essential because of the high cost of housing in the region.

"Portland has been identified as the second-least-affordable community in the country," second to San Francisco, he said. Committee reports and audits have shown that the housing system was "overly fragmented, which meant people didn't have a clue [as] to where to go to look for housing or services," he added.

The site, launched April 19, already lists 10,000 affordable units, and Miller said he expects that figure would triple. Without any marketing, it registered 1,000 searches during its first week. An aggressive marketing campaign is planned, including placing ads in newspapers and on public transportation vehicles, via posters in major agencies, and to landlords through their trade publications.

The site enables landlords to securely log in and update in real time the units they have for rent in the four counties around Portland. Users can search the site using a variety of parameters, such as cost, unit size, location, accessibility for people with disabilities, and the date a unit becomes available.

Originally geared toward 150 nonprofit groups — which previously had to thumb through "dog-eared, very dated paper lists" in helping people find affordable housing — Miller said the public now can use the site directly.

Internet use among low-income people "has skyrocketed" in the past two years, he said. Part of the project's $1.2 million budget will be used to help set up computer workstations throughout the area to offer Internet access or to help housing agencies buy computers and Web access.

In 2000, the city received a three-year, $480,000 grant from the Commerce Department's Technology Opportunities Program (www.ntia.doc.gov/otiahome/top/index.html), a competitive federal initiative designed to promote technology. The city itself put up about $700,000 and is donating server space, among other things.

Miller said public/private cooperation as well as a close working relationship between the city's housing department and its geographic information systems division helped propel the project.

Within the next year, Miller said the city hopes to build functionality on the site, including an online "housing problem solver" application where members of the public can complete a self-assessment to find out what services they need and where they can get them. Eventually, the site will enable users to complete online housing applications and enable agencies to refer people to one another.

Although similar sites exist, Miller said he believed Portland's will be more advanced and added that several cities have already inquired about developing one like it. He said the city may even consider becoming an application service provider for other cities.

"The idea of delivering a community service that's used by low-income people and delivering that using an e-government solution is fairly new from what we've seen," he said. "The proof will be in the pudding, but we have nothing but high hopes for what we're doing."


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