Using Human-centered Design to Reimagine the Social Service Ecosystem of Houston

Why Human-centered Design

Human-centered design is a way of thinking that places the people being served—rather than any other stakeholders—at the center of the program design and implementation. At Connective, we center the voices of those who are directly impacted by the outcomes of our programs. And this is the approach we took when undertaking this research

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Why We Embarked on This Research

Social services need a radical transformation. And we believe that such transformation will come from centering our efforts on the seeker’s experience.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we saw that needs and issues faced by people constantly evolved. To advocate for the right resources, we grounded ourselves in understanding what people were experiencing. Thus, from August 2020 through June 2021, we embarked on monthly design research sprints. Each month, we picked a topic to explore and dove in. And this research and the insights we have gained from it are products of that work.

Summary of Insights

Here are all of our insights in one place

Small landlords and large landlords have a different perception of market demand for rental units. Small landlords with single-family units seem most stressed, even compared to small landlords with multifamily units. On the other, large landlords were much more confident about the strong demand for properties.

Across the board, landlords were aligned on two types of concessions: flexibility in timing of payments and eliminating late fees. And we saw that these concessions weren’t contractual; e.g., if there was a flexible payment plan, it was communicated verbally.

Some people feel like they are stuck in the middle: They are unable to get jobs that align with their skills and education because of job market competitiveness.

Accessing social services, whether government-funded or through a privately run organization, can be an obstacle course. Seekers spend hours of their limited time trying to figure out the system. For many, it means hours and hours of effort on top of already working round the clock to make ends meet. This hurdle means that often the most needy are least able to take advantage of the social services ecosystem. Difficulty in accessing unemployment benefits was called out multiple times during this sprint.

We saw that small landlords play a crucial role in keeping people housed, in preventing homelessness. There is an opportunity to leverage these folks to continue to preserve affordable housing. How do we make their lives easier?

If 60 percent or more of their tenants were paying rent, the small landlords we spoke to were able to cover expenses as they arose. However, they were worried about large bills, such as property taxes and high- ticket item repairs.

Small landlords are experiencing a mental and emotional health crisis as well. Short-term cash flow restriction isn’t just a financial issue, but a health issue as well. Their tenants are behind on rent. Property expenses are piling up. Many have had to dip into savings or contemplate selling off their property— a.k.a., “retirement funds”—during these uncertain times. This causes high levels of ongoing stress on them and their families.

Strengthening the landlord and tenant relationship is more crucial now. Tenants who don’t communicate with landlords and don’t have an open relationship with their landlords are at risk of eviction or stricter consequences. If the landlord believes that the tenants aren’t trying their best to get a stable source of income to be able to pay rent, landlords are more likely to think about evicting them.

Small landlords are feeling squeezed. And if it pushes them to the point of selling their properties, this can lead to a collective public crisis. For the tenants, foreclosures or distress selling (and even soft exits) can lead to disruptive dislocation. For the neighborhood, this can result in reduced property values.

Work closely with the community you’re designing for and other folks who serve that community. This will allow you to design features that you wouldn't otherwise have thought of. Our extended team included Spanish speakers. We solicited feedback from relevant service providers and interviewed several Spanish-speaking folks on their experience using our tool. Even during COVID, we were able to schedule Zoom calls with seekers and have them talk us through their experience using the tool.

Technology tools built for non-English speakers will always have two audiences: the seeker and those who may be helping them access the tool. Because of distrust and lack of tech savviness, a large portion of this community won’t access your tool without support. Build for BOTH seekers AND service providers, family members, and community navigators who help seekers fill out the application.

Some populations may have less social capital in our community, such as newcomers. Use your tool to help them build relationships and network. Identify other parties indirectly involved in or impacted by your tool. Ask: Who does the seeker need to interact with to access your service? Who else is directly involved? How can you build trust between the seeker and that party?

Homeownership is a relationship-centric identity. As such, resiliency work must also focus on relationships and trust-building. Instead of hyper efficiency, this work requires care and patience.

Resilience requires reimagining life, painting a new vision for your and your family’s future. To help people see or mitigate their flood risk will require behavioral change through building trust and supporting them in their journey of reimagining their futures.

It is challenging for a homeowner to understand how their flood risk is changing over time. Some people were informed that their house location had low flood risk when they moved in, and that has stuck with them. They were surprised to learn that their home was now located in a higher-risk area. Changing flood risk brings apprehension that moving anywhere else will also bring the same challenges.

“When I moved in, I was told I was not in a flood zone. But now I am. How could I trust moving into another “low-risk” area?”

Policymakers and program designers should be careful not to overgeneralize about people’s priorities and attachment to community identity. While some families may have place-based attachment, others may not. There is no way to know unless you ask.

Some folks were wary of “people coming in from New York and paying pennies on the dollar,” and assumed community land trust and other nonprofit buyout programs were related to those private efforts.

Future programming (e.g., housing counseling) should be informed by trauma responses. We saw chronic and complex trauma—trauma from multiple events and compounding of different types of trauma from repeated disasters and injustices

People have a lack of trust in government and nonprofit programs due to previous experiences. Transparency builds trust and allows program organizers to drive the narrative of the program.

Seekers may deprioritize data privacy and protection when they need immediate financial support. As such, there is an opportunity to have data and privacy advocates on all program teams—those who will champion data rights even when the seeker may deprioritize it.

In any program and application design, show the fine print, clearly, in layman’s terms. People need this to build trust that has been eroded by traditional, institutional ways of working. People have their guard up and have an eye out for such details that will disqualify them. For each program, clearly share:

  • What are the expectations of the applicant?
  • What are the hidden fees?
  • What’s the turnaround time?
  • What will likely disqualify you even if you meet all the criteria?
  • What happens when the program is dissolved?
  • In what scenarios will the payment need to be returned? (Note: the question isn’t, “Will I need to return the payment?”)

When designing services, keep intersectionality in mind. One way you can do so is through designing for multidimensional personas such as the Non-English Speaking Immigrant who is also a Day to Day Survivor and a First Time Seeker. Or the Houston Transplant who is also a Gig Worker and a Single Parent.

Going through a disaster is traumatic. Disaster recovery programs can add to this trauma.

In general, most people don’t know what type of social services to seek or how to access them. The social service that people mentioned the most was food pantries. Social services that we were surprised people didn’t mention at all included financial planning and housing counseling. Frustration with pro bono legal aid services was mentioned by a few people, who described them as a “wall” with so much bureaucracy that “it was better not to climb the wall and just move on.”

During disasters, you’ll see that people may hold onto old norms. We saw that many tenants were operating in pre-COVID mentality. “I shouldn’t ask for help unless it’s absolutely necessary,” or “landlords won’t make concessions.” We know that tenants who asked for help under these dire circumstances typically received the help they needed. People who didn’t ask for help were less likely to get it. A part of disaster recovery work might be supporting people in changing their mindsets—to learn when, where, and who to ask for help.

Usually, people knew two other families in the neighborhood. Most people knew and sought help from their immediate neighbor. However, these relationships aren’t strong enough or a high enough priority to keep people where they are.

If you ask people what they are struggling with the most, they say food and similar household expenses. When asked what they would use money for first, they said mortgage and utilities. There is a disconnect! How might we work with debt collectors, mortgage lenders, and utilities providers to relieve families of the immediate burden of avoiding losing their housing so they can focus on other necessities such as food and healthcare?

We are seeing a significant rise in the group that has never experienced trouble paying their expenses, utilities, mortgage or property taxes. Many find themselves in a dire situation, experiencing trouble paying bills every month or so! This group is seeking social services for the first time. How might we design social services to support people who are not used to navigating the system?

There is no singular narrative. We tried to see if there was any relation with number of storms weathered and the impact of COVID-19 on households. The results were all over the place. While we can’t make conclusive statements about the impact of multiple storms and people’s struggles during COVID, we know that people were hit hard, and that impacts their ability to recover from the next disaster.

On an average, each household we surveyed has experienced 2.2 storms. And many dip into their savings, liquidate assets, or take out loans to recover from a disaster.

On average, 50% of people spent over $10k in repairs from Hurricane Harvey. 60% reported dipping into their savings, and 60% reported borrowing money from either family or lending institutions.

91% of those impacted by Tropical Storm Imelda incurred $10k or less in damages. 54% of them dipped into their savings, and 51% reported borrowing money from either family or lending institutions.

Overall, more than 3 out 4 of all people we surveyed are having trouble paying their monthly mortgage and almost 9 out 10 are having trouble with daily expenses. Perhaps if it weren’t for spending money on other storms, they might not be experiencing such drastic difficulties or having to dip into savings or take out a loan during COVID-19.

Hiring processes and other company policies have also caused a mindset shift in employee-employer relationships. Some people no longer trust companies or the corporate culture to look out for them.

Transportation is an important piece of the puzzle in Houston.

Reducing barriers to entry is one of the most significant ways that social service providers can ensure resources are distributed equitably and quickly. Consider how your organization can lead in removing roadblocks in processes and tools that delay assistance for those that need it the most

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