The Research

From August 2020 through June 2021, Connective embarked on monthly design research sprints related to COVID-19. This research is the product of that work.

Tenants Renting During COVID-19

In our August 2020 sprint, we talked to tenants to better understand their experience of renting during COVID.

Summer of 2020 was a highly unpredictable time—there was no end in sight for the pandemic. The economy was slipping further and further. We worried about an eviction crisis looming— landlords kicking out tenants in the middle of a pandemic that required us to socially distance ourselves and stay at home. We wanted to see what tenants were dealing with: What did they plan to do to stay housed? What did they plan to do if they were evicted? What were their landlords saying and doing? Were these even the right questions for us to be asking? Perhaps having a plan is not realistic in any way in the midst of great uncertainty.

We met with:?

They spoke about:

“If evicted, my best option is to move to Florida to move in with my mom.”

How might we incorporate tenant education on rights and protections as part of the renting experience?

Anxious Folks - This is an important persona to consider as people’s mental health contributes enormously to how they’ll approach this situation. They may put things off and come off as avoidant due to anxiety. They feel extreme nervousness when thinking about strapped resources or about negotiating with the landlord.

Non-English Speaking Immigrants - For the most part, they were able to provide for themselves and their families before the pandemic, sometimes even without having work permits. However, during COVID-19, they can’t make ends meet, including paying rent on time. However, we saw that undocumented folks and immigrants who don’t speak English saw poorer treatment by landlords compared to tenants who spoke English. These individuals felt like their dignity had been stripped in asking for repeated help. These people are frequently shamed, harassed, and taken advantage of by their landlords. This includes, but is not limited to, threats to evict and change the locks, even during the eviction moratorium; large late fees, even during moratorium; their cars being towed as a form of fine; landlords not maintaining livable housing.

Single Parents - These people are doing it all—and expected to do it—all by themselves: working, trying to find work, negotiating with the landlord, making plan for staying housed, taking care of children, buying food, making food, keeping track of bills, paying bills, negotiating with utility companies, and negotiating with Internet and cable companies.

Houston Transplants - Houston is a city full of transplants. Their moms, brothers, aunts don’t always live in the same neighborhood or city. Their networks are dispersed around the U.S. or globally. Who do these folks look for when they need help moving? Who do they look to when they are sick and need to buy groceries? Whose house can they move into while keeping their job in Houston if their nuclear and/or extended families don’t live here?

First Time Seekers - A big chunk of folks needing help during COVID-19 are first- timers in the social services space. They don’t know where to go, who to ask, what to ask for. They may also be unwilling to ask for help as they never envisioned themselves in such a dire situation. They may feel at a disadvantage when programs are on a first-come, first-served basis, or when filling out applications requires pre-existing knowledge of the social services sector.

Gig Workers and Freelancers - These are your barbers, hairdressers, jewelry sellers, ride share drivers. While they are self-employed, they aren’t usually your traditional small businesses. During COVID-19, they have suffered a big dip in their income, and unpredictability has skyrocketed for them. They are kept out of assistance programs structurally and by design. These folks are usually not covered by unemployment (apart from some pandemic assistance, which has come to an end) and have to take care of their own healthcare, insurance, and taxes. Paycheck protection and other programs aren’t set up to give preference to freelancers who may not have all the paperwork ready to go.

Day to Day Survivors - Most folks we talked to fit this bill. They are treading water, trying to survive, month to month. Because of their circumstances, they are often in a survival mode, in a scarcity mindset. They don’t have a stream of income to think beyond today or this week. And they can easily be subjected to a chain of bad events: One bad event can trigger other bad events, and so on. For example, unexpected childcare (very common, given schools were closed) -can lead to being late to work and being distracted at work. This can lead to getting fired or not getting more hourly work for a part-time gig. This can lead to a getting behind on rent, which leads to a large late fee. And so on.

"I don’t want to ask because I know they have bills to pay too. They are a small business, struggling. They have a mortgage to pay off too."

"I know I’m fine for August. Right now, I don’t know about September. I will ask for help only when I absolutely know I am unable to do it myself."

"I don’t want to encroach on resources, because I know others are more strapped than I am. Please help them first."

I applied for rental assistance through two online programs and wasn’t selected for either. I called a few community organizations and was told that they were either out of money or that I don’t qualify since I don’t have an eviction notice yet.

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.

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.”

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

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.

"I have anxiety. My anxiety has been at heightened levels throughout this whole [pandemic]. Just thinking about it sets my anxiety into gear."

"I have videos of the problem of rats in my apartment. I showed it to my landlords and they laughed at me. We are discriminated against because we speak Spanish and they say really nasty things to us. Even when they speak Spanish, they won’t speak Spanish. Because they know that they can treat us this way."

"I used to work in a senior home and lost my job in the beginning of the pandemic. I have a five-year-old daughter who has a chronic respiratory disease. My daughter is everything I have. I can't imagine leaving her alone to find a job, or bringing the virus to her and knowing that I can get her sick. We are getting by right on donations, and whatever little I make selling UV lamps and dieting pills on Whatsapp."

"I am an independent hair stylist. Before COVID, I used to be able to save for rainy days. Now, I can’t even make ends meet. Today [August 2020], my business is not even at 20% of pre-COVID sales."

"I just got a job for $200/ week. I try to survive. One week I pay one bill, next week I pay another."

"I don’t have a plan. I can only think about today. Does my family have enough food for today? Yes? OK, good. Move on to the next issue."

Landlords Leasing During COVID-19

In our September 2020 sprint, we talked to landlords to better understand their experience of leasing during COVID.

In the face of the uncertainty and tensions of the pandemic, talking to tenants was only one side of the coin. The other side was talking to landlords. To design impactful policy and programs, we needed to know the plight of landlords too—how were they dealing with tenants? How were they keeping up with their income and expenses in the face of dwindling rent payments? What type of landlord needed support and what type of landlord was getting by? What were their most pressing needs and limitations?

We met with:?

They spoke about:

How might we build stronger partnerships between landlords and our social service ecosystem in support of cost-burdened renters?

Large Landlord - These are fee-operated property managers. These are your larger, corporate, multi- unit property managers.

These landlords are more likely to be “all business.” They work with tenants but would evict them if they feel it’s necessary and would rather have an empty unit than a non-paying unit.

Small Landlord - These are owner-operated property landlords. These are your smaller, independent, mom-and-pop, multi-or single- family unit owners, with 2-74 properties that they more or less manage themselves.

Owner-operated property landlords are more likely to be flexible with rent payments for selfish or empathetic reasons.

"Tenants don’t understand that landlords operate with very thin margins. If a tenant is 1-2 months behind, you won’t make anything for the year. Media portrays landlords as the bad guys, but it’s difficult for them, as well, given the way their loans and expenses are set up."

"HOA violations are frustrating, especially when tenants owe rent."

"I encourage them to keep communication open with me so I can relay the situation back to corporate."

"They have to communicate. We don’t know what their situation is unless they tell us. If they want assistance, they need to be in contact with their landlord."

"If they tell you what’s going on and are doing the best they can to take care of property you feel like you can trust them.. Landlords are compassionate, too."

"I appreciate it when a tenant contacts me instead of me having to chase my money. Sometimes it’s really personal, and I don’t want to ask about job search and family finances, so it’s nice when the tenant offers up that information."

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.

"Evictions are troublesome, but if they’re not following the basic rules of the agreement, sometimes you have to bite the bullet."

"I can’t imagine evicting my tenants. One of them is very ill. And they’ve been our tenants for years. I have been dipping into my savings to pay mortgage on that property. Absolute worst case scenario: We might have to evict them, but I want to avoid that as long as possible."

"I won’t forgive rent, because I know many of them have jobs and money, but they don’t want to pay. I’m more willing to work with someone who’s behind for the first time. But if someone shows me that they’re trying, I’ll continue to work with them."

"I have 6 families who are struggling. I call them and they feel embarrassed because they don’t have the money. I, in my mind, have forgiven some of their past rent."

"We are waiving late fees on rent right now."

"I am not charging any late fees on rent."

"I’m willing to work with tenants, even if it’s at a loss. But mortgage is real! I ask them to pay whatever they have until they pay off what they owe."

"I allow tenants to pay whatever they can. If they are behind, I ask them to pay $100 extra every month until they catch up. I know they’re struggling because of covid. Most tenants are immigrants who are scared to ask for help."

"No. We don’t take them. It’s our corporate policy."

"I’m very open to folks on vouchers. However, if they are previously evicted, I’m not sure. That’s a red flag."

"If they were not communicative and not being honest, I would evict. But eviction can cost a lot of money and legal stuff can be a barrier. Taking them to court to evict? Maybe. Taking them to court for behind on rent? Not worth it."

"It’s a hassle. I would much rather talk to them and ask them to leave. I would most likely not pursue eviction unless they are damaging my property."

"Insurance, mortgage and property tax are real. I’m willing to work with tenants even if it’s at a loss. But my expenses are real and I’m worried if I will be able to pay the note on my properties."

"I have to keep all my tenants in mind and be fair. I would rather have an empty unit than a non-paying unit."

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.

"There are expenses associated with moving people out and in. I would rather have people in units without rent for two months. Turnover is risky. At least with the current tenant, you know their behavior, unless they’re obviously bad. In that case, you’d rather have it vacant. You’re losing the rent in any case. Just cleaning the unit will cost money."

"Renting homes is more difficult now. Rents are being lowered, but very few are showing interest in available properties. There is a huge reduction in traffic at open houses due to people being nervous about catching the virus. The market is down and people are not looking to rent."

"I’m not worried about the demand right now. I am at 95% occupancy. We are showing properties. And even if we don’t, we can make up the $ from our other properties around Houston and Texas."

"Vacancy is my enemy right now. Typically we do not have a lot of vacancies. Our tenants stay. But not right now."

Mothers Rethinking Work During COVID-19

In our October 2020 sprint, we talked to mothers rethinking their career and personal priorities as a result of COVID.

During the summer of 2021, we read many reports and heard discussions on the labor shortage in the market. We saw photos of restaurant doors with hiring signs and heard owners of laundromats complaining about not having enough workers. Many blamed the unemployment checks and COVID relief funds for encouraging people to stay at home.

We wanted to dig deeper and understand how people were rethinking work in the face of the pandemic. We tried to understand why people were unemployed: What were they looking for in a job? What barriers were they facing in finding those jobs? How have their perspectives on careers and working changed during the pandemic?

We met with:?

They spoke about:

How might we build a more flexible and empathetic workplace in which working mothers have equal opportunity to achieve their potential?

Transportation is an important piece of the puzzle in Houston.

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.

"I stopped working in May 2020. And haven’t worked since. But that was mainly due to not having a car—if I can’t rely on transportation or have a car, how can I get to my job?"

"I need to keep my car. How will I drive a ride share and get by if I don’t have a car?"

"Traffic in Houston means 30 minutes of unpaid time. And it takes money to get from point A to point B. Gas and mileage. And that’s my time and money."

"I don’t know how anyone lives through driving with ride-share full-time. It is a struggle to make ends meet. When I started driving Uber 5 years ago, it was a side gig. Back then, they paid you 80 cents a mile. Now, it’s my full-time gig, and it’s only 60 cents a mile."

"My kids have had to cut down their activities because basketball and football require money for participation and jerseys—we can’t afford that. The kind of food we eat is different. We do what we can. Are we eating? Yes. Are we eating right? No!"

"I don’t want anything below $15 an hour, because I need to sustain my family. I want a full-time job. But even if I get 40 hours a week, I will still [have to] do side gigs for extra cash."

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.

"I want a job at a help desk or in customer service. And I see that people are hiring. I’ve applied and have been told that I need proper certification. So I need to get that. What’s holding me back from getting certification? Time! I need money to pay bills, rent, and feed my kids, so I need to work as much as I can. Sometimes I think I can study at night. But when I come back, usually around 9pm, I am dead tired, I am aching. I eat some food, I get my medicine, and I am out. And then the next day starts. If I take a day off, it will affect my income."

"Having to sort through unemployment has been a full-time job. I had an issue with my unemployment benefits and contacting the Texas Workforce Commission has been an ordeal. They transfer you, you wait three hours, and then the call drops, and you wait another three hours. Or they can’t help you out and ask you to call again later. I spent at least 24 hours just holding, waiting, over the course of last week. At one point, I went nine weeks without payment, and I didn’t know what to do. It’s stressful."

"I can’t even afford to save. I want to. I try to. A few weeks ago, in a storm, my car was flooded. The little savings I had, I had to use it to fix the car. If not my car, it would’ve been my phone or my kids’ computer. I can’t even talk about savings."

Cassandra, a co-parent, quit her part-time job at a dollar store because of the poor work environment. Doing so means she gave up the extra income to spend on “nice things” for her family—her husband continues to work to earn for the family. However, single parents April and Tonia focus on putting in as many hours as possible to meet their basic needs and necessities.

"I need to be paid more today, not tomorrow. I’d much rather work for someone who will pay me more today than someone who offers career growth. My daughter is almost 11 years old—and I want to fulfill her wishes and dreams today, not delay it for the future"

"If a company tells me that there is a potential for growth, for promotion, I don’t know if I can trust them. They can let you go whenever the next crisis hits and you’re back to square zero. I don’t want to be disappointed."

"I can’t count how many interviews I have done and applications I have filled out. Be it a multi-billion dollar companies to corner stores. It’s ridiculous."

"I have applied for over 200 jobs in 15 months. It’s getting frustrating. You put in an application, you don’t get a call back. Sometimes they let you know. Sometimes I interview, but nothing has worked yet."

"Before the pandemic, I used to drive for a ride share company. Now, I don’t. When the pandemic hit, there were no riders. Lyft didn’t take care of me and other gig workers like me. And when things started opening back up, all they did was send us messages to be as careful as we could while driving."

"I’ve learned that material things are material things. I saw people die and never touch their retirement--they never got to touch the money they put aside. One of my uncles had an aneurysm. He had good money, but he had a stroke, and he was unable to use it. This pandemic isn’t going to get better. It may fade away, but it’s not going away. If you can do something while you can do it, why not enjoy life?"

"I am on disability—I have high anxiety and a debilitating mental illness. Right now, I can’t work and go through the stress many jobs put you through. But I’ve learned through all of this that no job is worth the stress they put you through—we don’t need to suck it up."

"I was working as a cashier at Dollar Tree. And I’m the type of person who wants to make sure everything is done right. So I started cleaning the store and organizing shelves so our customers would have a better experience. The regional manager came for a review, was very impressed and gave a pat on my manager’s back. That’s all fine, but when I asked them to increase my hours so I can get paid for organizing, they refused."

"I don’t trust many companies to look out for their employees. During my job search, I see that they are looking to underpay when they can. They are looking for younger people who they can exploit and give very low wages to. It’s been a shocker."

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.

"I have started to manipulate my resume. I don’t want to look overqualified. I don’t want to be looked at as the head coach for a top performing cheerleading business. You want me to organize your office? I’ll do that.

"I’ve noticed that you quickly become overqualified. I was looking for anything secretarial or doing clerical duties. But it seems like they want to hire younger kids or first-timers so they can train them. Also, some of these positions only pay $13-14 and hour, which is insane. I have children to feed and bills to pay. I find it pretty disturbing that companies get away with this. Sure, it’s awesome for folks right out of college, but not for someone in my shoes."

"They say they want qualified work but when you show your credentials, they are scared."

The Desperate Striver - "I went from a 40-hour job paying $22/hr with a $15-30,000 year-end bonus to having my vehicle repossessed and almost being kicked out of my apartment. Right now, I drive Uber so I need my vehicle to make the little money I do. And now a big part of my income goes to car payment."

The Newly Corporate-Skeptic - "One thing I have learned is that my tomorrow is not promised. I used to be the top person in my company, climbing the ladder, before COVID-19. I was a few positions away from being part-owner. I won thousands of competitions. And then, bam, overnight, the industry vanished and I learned that the American dream to work, work, work is a lie. And I must live my life and protect my life instead."

The Overqualified - "I’m stuck in the middle. I can’t get into the industry I went to graduate school for because I don’t have experience. I can’t get back into the industry I left because I am overqualified for those positions. The hiring manager at my old job as a customer service agent told me that I am a “flight risk.” He said that most companies won’t hire me because they know-based on my degrees-that I would ultimately try to get a job that’s more in line with my interests and qualifications."

Small Landlords Leasing During COVID-19

In our November 2020 sprint, we talked to small landlords leasing during COVID.

In August 2020, we interviewed landlords of various scales: from property managers with properties around Texas to landlords with two properties; from landlords who relied on their properties as their primary source of income to those looking to build wealth. When reflecting on those interviews, we realized that “small landlords” had their own unique needs and issues. They were more likely to feel unsupported by general government programming for landlords while also more likely to work with their tenants to ensure they stayed housed. We wondered how this group of landlords were handling COVID-19 and the CDC eviction moratorium put in place on September 1, 2021.

We met with:?

They spoke about:

How might we help landlords find creative ways to improve cash flow so that they can be more flexible with their tenants?

"I can financially float some things for now with my savings or by taking out credit cards, but, look, if this is going on until February or March, we are going to be in some real problems."

"My property taxes are $70k this year. Usually, I take out a line of credit [for this] and then pay off my line of credit through the rent. If my tenants are behind, how will I pay my debt? Do I need to sell a property to get that amount of money to pay off my debt?"

"One building in Mason Park, Magnolia, post-Harvey-appraised at $135K, it went up to $270k in one year. That was the first time I had to raise the rents. I protested, and they lowered it by 24 percent. On Montrose, it is outrageous. Those property taxes tripled over the last 10 years. How can I keep rent low or keep people housed who are behind on rent when I have such a big debt to the City?"

"It is a risk, but if we were able to evict for non-payment, there wouldn’t be that additional wear and tear because they cannot be evicted. There is no incentive for payment."

"Come the end of the moratorium, if they are six months behind, give me 1k and don’t worry about it anymore. You do your best."

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.

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 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.

"My maintenance and repairs across my 74 units cost me over $150K a year. It’s a lot, and I cover it with rent. During COVID, I am only performing the necessities. And I try to not do things on the weekend, as repairs cost more on weekends. I only do repairs on weekends if it’s an emergency."

"Legally, I don’t have to do repairs if someone is not paying rent. But morally, that isn’t right. Plus, it makes business sense to do repairs: Am I going to get people to stay if I don't do repairs? Are people going to try to pay off their rent if I don’t do repairs? No!"

"We have mortgages that have to be paid, and I am not getting any rent. There is no eviction or prospects of new tenants...but we still have a mortgage to pay. Plus there are other expenses; at the end of the day. There is wear and tear on the property. And property taxes have to be paid. There is no relief as a landlord."

"Insurance payments are getting higher and higher every year."

"One of my properties in the East End... I know developers are coming in and driving up prices, and they provide upgrades and all. I can’t keep up."

"The objective for the rent was to cover operating costs and property taxes so we did not have to use our savings."

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.

"We take a human approach and build a very strong relationship with our tenants. That’s our strategy. During COVID, we dropped off pizzas to them and backpacks for the kids. We are investing more to have food delivered to them. This ensures that they take that extra shift, pay their bills, keep up the properties, and even pay their rent on time."

"Before COVID, I was running a 30 percent margin. Now, I’m somewhere in the teens. Right away, I asked my lender for lower interest rates. But that will only save me a couple of thousands. Insurance, water, taxes, maintenance still come in. And given that my margins are shrinking, I’m focusing on increasing my revenue. I installed vending machines and washing machines in my apartment complexes as new sources of revenue."

"This was our primary source of income, along with social security. But we were running through money too fast, so my husband returned to his job. And we are still running through money. We are now going through our IRA savings now. Our hope was that the rent from the properties would cover operating costs and property taxes so we did not have to use our savings, but that hasn’t been the case..."

"I’m 66 years old. The inspection officer told me to do $50k in upgrades. Doing the upgrades means talking to construction people, getting stuff fixed... during COVID-19. It’s stressful— emotionally, physically, mentally. And I fear for my safety because of COVID-19 and interacting with people."

"I have thought about selling my property already, but I don’t know. I don’t want to deal with the hassle of keeping up with tenants. It is more hassle than it is worth. It doesn’t feel like there is a lot of support. I will probably lose my investment."

"I’m doing a lot to learn about being a landlord and changing how I am with my tenants on the fly. I’m relatively new to this, not a seasoned landlord. I have amended my tenants’ lease: If you can make this payment by such and such a date, we will forgo late fees. I signed up for mentor sessions with SCORE, a nonprofit real estate group. I asked them for advice."

"My properties already have a lot of repair needs. And I was hoping we could cover such expenses and even property taxes with the rent we receive. But my tenants are behind on rent. And I have to make the repairs soon to give my tenants a livable space. I don’t know what I’m going to do."

The Strategist - I’ve been doing this for the past 15 years. I started doing this with a friend to strategically build wealth, and then, one property after another, here I am. This isn’t my primary source of income but more like my retirement plan.

The Drained - We’ve been investing in properties for a long time now. We used to have six properties with 33 units. We got to a point where all our job income and weekend time were going in sustaining our properties. We were exhausted and financially drained. We sold them off and only kept two houses. Now I think it was a bad decision.

The Novice - "I became a landlord when I moved into a new place. It was serendipity. I bought another property right before the COVID. Bad timing. I’m not looking at this as a source of income right now—more like a future return on investment. Let’s see how this goes!"

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?

"My family has been here in Houston for over 100 years. My grandparents started with a boarding house in what is now EaDo. They rented it to immigrants. And I’m continuing that by providing affordable housing for low-income communities, primarily immigrants. It’s basic housing, but I try to provide the best services I can."

"I have been through a lot growing up as a Black man, raised by a single mother in Third Ward. I got into real estate to be able to give folks options for quality affordable housing. Really, my goal is to give people long-term homes."

"I am continuing the legacy of my grandmother. My grandfather owned 9-15 properties around the Third Ward area."

"I am trying to maintain optimism. I have put so much into real estate; this is my retirement. This is my 401(k). But I am not the average landlord."

Designing Technology for Non-English Speakers

In our December 2020 sprint, we designed and tested an online tool to help non-English speakers.

When we interviewed tenants for our previous design sprints, we saw that the Spanish-speaking tenants had a particularly unique experience—they were more likely to share mistreatment by their landlords. They were thus more likely to need help with measures such as preventing evictions. In light of the CDC eviction moratorium, we wondered how to design a simple tool to allow monolingual Spanish-speaking tenants to learn more about and take advantage of the moratorium. While we didn't set out to launch a tool, we developed a prototype and tested it out with multiple Spanish-speaking tenants.

We prototyped our tool and tested it with:

8 Spanish speakers.

Our goal was to:

Learn about their behavior to build Spanish-first tools.

We learned about:

Give people options to view their information before they submit. We received feedback that folks wanted to have the option to download the declaration form on their own or use our tool, and that they wanted to view the electronically signed form before they emailed it to their landlord or printed it. Providing such options boosts their trust in the technology.

Be mindful of other stakeholders and relationships. In our tool, we purposefully added a cover letter for the eviction declaration form from the tenant to the landlord with cordial language to help tenants build trust with their landlords.

Consider video! Consider a quick 1-3 minute “How to use this site” video to explain how to navigate the site and privacy terms to help promote better understanding and trust.

Overcommunicate about how the tool works. We communicated the goals and process of our tool upfront, as well as right before the user was using the tool.

Define your specific audience. For our tool, our audience was: “the non- English speaking, Spanish- speaking community in Greater Houston Area who may not have access to and experience with technology like smartphones, laptops, and printers.”

Be intentional with your visual design. We used purple and yellow colors along with illustrations of Latinx people filling out the form.

Make your tool Houston- first. For our tool, we included Texas-specific rules on
the homepage, local court rules in the FAQ, and local organizations in the resources page.

Prioritize information on privacy and immigration status. On our landing page, we clearly stated that seekers were eligible regardless of their immigration status.

Reduce clicks! Our tool’s purpose was to help people see if they were eligible for protections under a certain law. Thus, the “check if you are eligible” button was placed front and center on the landing page.

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?

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.

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.

Homeowners in 100-Year Floodplain or Floodway

In our January 2021 sprint, we spoke to homeowners in the 100 year floodplain or floodway.

During the early months of COVID-19, Connective was involved in several programs and conversations focusing on rental assistance for tenants and landlords; relief programs for small and medium-sized businesses; and general assistance for individuals in need. However, we didn’t see any formal programs focused on homeowners. We wondered what homeowners were doing, thinking, and feeling during COVID-19. How were they reimagining the role of homeownership through the pandemic? And how does that change in light of natural disasters in Houston? How did they think about long-term decisions, such as staying in a home or buying a new one?

We talked to:

11 homeowners, in English and Spanish, who had lived in their homes for 5-30 yrs, and were either elderly, living with young children or living with people with disabilities.

They spoke about:

"My son has trouble when it rains. He sits on the commode because he's scared. Or he’ll watch TV all night until the rain stops."

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

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.

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.

"A nonprofit owns the land? I don’t know how that would work, so I don’t know if I would accept that. I would need additional information."

"No, I wouldn’t consider moving too far from where we are. It would be too far from my husband’s job, and we would have to start all over again with the children’s school and other things. It’s too many changes."

One interviewee’s biggest concern about moving to a smaller place is her son’s needs. Her son is visually impaired. She said that they have four rooms; two of them are dedicated to her son’s shop, where he does small print shop works. Since her son is visually impaired, he needs to be in a familiar environment to navigate easily. He also needs space for his tools. Her son is 18 years of age but physically small and fragile. Part of her concern is to provide a safe place and shelter her child from any injuries. She also added, “I cannot drive long distances, and my son is disabled and has all of his resources near our home.”

"I’ve invested my savings in repairing the foundation so I don’t want to save more and then invest in lifting my whole house."

"I wish I had lifted my house instead of redoing the foundation. But now I don’t have the money to lift my house"

"We have not made any plans as of yet [if another disaster happens]. Our neighborhood had never flooded before, so people were saying that the flooding was caused by the removal of trees and homes that were being built. My neighbor sold her home, and my other neighbor repaired his home and then sold it."

"My roof needs to be repaired. I got an A/C installed with a 25.9 percent interest loan. I don’t have more money. Last week [during the winter storm], I lost power all week and I lost everything in my refrigerator."

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?”

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.

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.

"I get a lot of joy from having a house. I am able to continue my mom’s tradition of bringing my family together, gathering them at my house on weekends and holidays."

"Buying a home is not just for wealth. It’s about being able to pass something to your loved ones. My mom used to have a small piece of property somewhere else. She felt so guilty that she had to sell it. She told us that that could’ve been our (her daughters') piece of land."

"I have always wanted to own a home. Owning my home is one of my proudest accomplishments. And it’s a good investment. I can see where my money is going instead of putting my money in someone else’s pocket. And house values increase over time."

Betty and Deb are sisters in their fifties, now living in Fort Bend County and Baytown respectively. The childhood home where they grew up was in Baytown. Flooding is nothing new to them.

Maya has been a homeowner for six years. Her place got hit by Hurricane Harvey on the second anniversary of buying that house. Maya didn’t buy flood insurance until after Harvey, because she believed flood damages were covered by her homeowners insurance. Now she has flood insurance, and it’s one of her top-priority expenses. She wants to raise her foundation, but she can’t afford to. She has been considering moving. But affordability is preventing her from moving. She is also worried about starting over, turning a house into a home all over again.

Jose is an immigrant from Mexico in his late forties who has been in the US for 15 years. His father and grandfather never owned a home, so he always focused on buying one. And he finally did it six years ago. He lives in that house with his wife, their young daughter, and his father. Unfortunately, the house is in a 100-year floodplain. He poured most of his savings in repairing the house after Harvey. Since Harvey, he has changed the foundation and has bought flood insurance. While he loves his current house, he is open to moving. He needs to find the right place for his whole family. He needs separate rooms for his daughter (and future kids), his dad, and himself and his wife. He wants to be near his job, ideally in a good school district. And he also wants the neighborhood to be welcoming to his dad, who only speaks Spanish.

Ms. Sheryl is in her late sixties and has lived in her house for 27 years. She raised her family in this house and saw it as a way of passing on a legacy. She has worked hard to give her kids what she couldn’t have. She has suffered through multiple storms and hurricanes and sees it as a part of life. Despite suffering severely through Harvey, she hopes that it won’t happen again with such severity.

Ms. Sandra is in her eighties, a grandmother of four. She has lived in her home for over 35 years and has poured her sweat, memories, and equity in her home. When she dies, she is going to leave her house as her legacy for her sons. She is really proud of that.

Homeowners Surviving Multiple Natural Disasters

In our February 2021 sprint, we spoke to homeowners surviving multiple disasters.

Given the lack of formal disaster recovery programs focused on homeowners during COVID-19, we continued our research on this group. This time we wanted to understand the compounding impact of natural disasters on homeowners. Over the past 20 years, our city has experienced at least 12 storms—from floods and tropical storms to hurricanes. What is the correlation between the number of storms a homeowner weathered and one's financial situation during COVID-19? How does the number of disasters faced change a homeowner’s ability to bounce back from a future disaster?

We surveyed:

95 homeowners all over the Greater Houston Area who had been impacted by multiple disasters. On average, each respondent was impacted by 2.12 storms since 2000. 41% had paid off their home and 59% were still paying off their mortgage.

We learned about:

How might we support and sustain asset-building in low-income and BIPOC communities to prevent a generation's worth of assets from being drained over the course of several natural disasters?

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.

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.

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.

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?

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?

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.

58% of first-time seekers are now having trouble paying or are worried about paying their property taxes due to COVID-19.

60% have never had trouble their property taxes before COVID-19.

80% of first-time seekers are now having trouble paying their mortgage most or some months due to COVID-19.

70% have never had trouble paying their mortgage before COVID-19.

77% of first-time seekers are now having trouble paying utility bills most or some months due to COVID-19.

60% have never had trouble paying their utility bills before COVID-19.

82% of first-time seekers are now having trouble paying household expenses most or some months due to COVID-19.

50% have never had trouble paying their household expenses (not including utilities).

64% are having trouble paying for property taxes.

77% are having trouble paying their mortgage.

39% are experiencing this most months.

82% are having trouble paying household utilities.

34% are experiencing this most months.

87% are having trouble paying for household expenses (other than utilities). 37% are experiencing this most months.

Average household size: 3.5

41% have paid off their home and 59% are still paying off their mortgage.

35% were of Hispanic or Latinx origin

65% were impacted by Hurricane Harvey

78% were impacted by the 2021 winter storm.

On average, each home was impacted by 2.12 storms since 2000.

100% were impacted by COVID-19

95% of homeowners surveyed were located in Harris County (in Houston, Humble, Pasadena, Channelview, Cypress, Katy, Crosby, and Baytown). The rest in Fort Bend, Galveston, Liberty, and Montgomery Counties.

Reactions to Harris County COVID Relief Fund

In our March 2021 sprint, we gathered reactions to the Harris County COVID Relief Fund.

From May through August of 2020, Connective supported distribution of $30 million to roughly 22,000 vulnerable residents facing financial hardship during the pandemic through the Harris County COVID-19 Relief Fund (HCCRF), administered by the Greater Houston Community Foundation. We, alongside our partners, had 75 days to distribute the funds. Though the pressure of the ambitious timeline made every minute precious, Connective knew that getting seeker input on the program strategy and process was crucial to seizing the opportunity presented by this direct assistance fund. The Connective team prioritized holding focus groups with Harris County residents affected by COVID-19. We focused the interviews on program messaging, program communications and website design, and the application process. Invaluable insights came out of that work, which informed the final program design.

Over the course of a week, we got feedback from:

12 people on the HCCRF application, process, and program messaging through focus groups in English, Spanish and Vietnamese.

We heard about:

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.

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.

"I am worried about the Wi-Fi not working or the website crashing. Or if I am on the phone, I am worried about long holds, like calling 211 for food stamps and they ask you to stay on hold for 3 hours. I am worried about something dire coming up for my family during the 8am-8pm window and being unable to fill out the application."

"8am to 8pm feels like this is going to be another powerball lottery or Black Friday-like chaos sales. Those with true needs will be left behind."

"I am worried that because I don’t know what it’s like to seek nonprofit support or how to fill out nonprofit applications and I don’t know many nonprofits, I will be at a disadvantage. Others who have more experience will be easily able to navigate this."

"I know there are other people in more need than me. And I would be perfectly fine if you picked them over me. I understand. But I want to know your process of selecting people to ensure the neediest get help."

"I haven’t been in this situation before. I’m not sure of what nonprofits are out there, so I don’t have a preference about which nonprofit helps me."

"If I’m in need, I don’t care who helps me."

"I don’t believe this is just random. The government will tell you it’s random, and then you realize that somehow it discriminates against just the Black people or the poor people."

"It’s in your interest to be as transparent as you can. In my neighborhood, people fill in the gaps of a story themselves."

"I don’t mind if you keep my information so you can update me about future resources. But if you don’t have or know of any resources, don’t keep me hanging. Just be upfront and take me out of your database."

"What if my application didn’t go through? Will participants get a confirmation number or some notification about their successful submission?"

"I would like to see stats on how those funds are being used. No one knows where the JJ Watt money went, and this could be another one of those instances."

Building Large-scale Rental Assistance Programs

In our April 2021 sprint, we gathered lessons from Building Rental Assistance Programs.

During January 2021, we decided to do a reflection on the BakerRipley Rental Assistance Program (RAP), funded by the City of Houston and Harris County. Connective was a core partner in this program. With no end in sight for the pandemic and the economic crisis, we knew that financial assistance programs like RAP were going to continue. In an effort to ensure efficiency and enhance quality of future programs, we sought to document our successes; learn from our failures; identify barriers to participation; highlight user experiences, delights, and challenges; and mark who we were and weren’t able to serve.

We reflected on:

The program internally and solicited feedback from participants and potential participants.

We conducted:

2 internal roundtable conversations, including team members who were closest to the seekers, e.g., eligibility specialist supervisors.

6 focus groups, in English and in Spanish, with tenants and landlords who participated in the programs as well as landlords who didn't participate in the program.

We categorized our learnings into three categories:

We learned about:

Some renters still reported facing eviction, despite applying for assistance and despite the CDC moratorium. Given that the rent distribution can take months, how do we empower tenants to ensure they aren’t evicted, aren’t charged late fees, or don’t take out unnecessary loans before the assistance comes through?

Develop a variety of communications. Use software to automatically send them out at different stages, from enrollment through payment.

Develop a high-functioning form logic to easily capture eligibility nuances.

Ensure that the website looks trustworthy, modern, and professional. Use clean and consistent branding, formatting, and voice throughout website, marketing, and communications. Consider involving a brand and UX/UI consultant to help create a trustworthy, modern, professional website.

Focus on how the user will experience the website as opposed to what you want to share on the website:

  • Put the "apply" button above the fold of the landing page.
  • Have a clear way to find out if a certain landlord is participating. • Clearly delineate instructions for tenants and landlords.
  • Make sure it is easy to find FAQs and other resources.
  • Provide the ability to submit documents online.

Partnering with CBOs can also get the word out further, enable customized and targeted outreach (such as people with disabilities who may not be able to fill out the application on their own), and lead to better outcomes (for example, direct folks to other programs like Coalition for the Homeless’s eviction diversion program so seekers can receive the help they need)

We recognized early on that some applicants may not have access to Internet to apply for assistance and partnered with United Way’s well-known 211 so that people could apply over the phone.

One participant, working on their immigration status, mentioned that they were hesitant to apply at first due to the public charge rule. They mentioned that they were encouraged to apply because BakerRipley, a nonprofit, was running the program.

We diligently negotiated with funders and government agencies around document requirements. Some documentation required by the city/county created a barrier to applicants completing the process. While some of it may have seemed to be necessary initially, we advocated to reduce the requirements, which was successful in some instances, particularly for applicants who had previously applied for assistance and had been approved. They did not have to re-submit documentation when applying again.

We built in flexibility to move tenants from a fund where they would not receive funding to another so that the tenants would ultimately receive funding.

We served folks in Section 8 housing, who are usually not eligible for such assistance.

We served the undocumented immigrant community. By paying landlords (i.e., businesses) instead of tenants, it created a loophole that allowed us to serve anyone who was a tenant of the landlord, regardless of their immigration status.

Building a Homebuying Decision Making Tool

In our May 2021 sprint, we built a homebuying decision-making tool.

There are a variety of resources on buying a home in the Greater Houston Area, especially for populations who have been historically and structurally kept out of homeownership. Through formal and informal conversations, we noticed that many eligible people didn’t know about these resources or weren’t able to fully utilize them. This means that, despite a desire to own a house, many of these people don’t foresee a path towards homeownership. We hypothesize that our city could use a tool to help people navigate all these resources.

We prototyped a tool that allowed:

First-time homebuyers to navigate the various programs and resources available in our city.

We tested the tool with:

Seven people, who were potential homebuyers or had recently purchased their first home.

We heard about:

How can we build trust with people through this complex, life-altering process? How can we make them feel like “we have their back”? How can we make the process, including the paperwork that comes with homebuying, less overwhelming?

"I was searching for affordable housing. I was trying to work with [name of agency], but it was frustrating. It’s a lot of paperwork. I attended courses with them, and I was volunteering with them to fulfill volunteer hour requirements. It felt like they required the depths of my blood. No amount of information was ever enough. It was a neverending story. I would follow their instructions and give them my information, and then after four months they would ask for additional documents. Please tell me everything I need at one time!"

"When people die, the banks just come in. I saw a random person, apparently a real estate agent, measuring my neighbor’s home. She died a few months ago. I think they will just take her property."

"I don’t want to be stuck in a place where then I’m constantly pouring in money to keep it livable. Real estate agents will try to sell you those types of properties and won’t even tell you.”

I want to ensure I can pass down my home to anyone I want to.

"I want the freedom and security to do what I want to do in my space."

"I want the stability and security for my loved ones and myself that comes with owning a home versus moving and being at your landlord’s mercy when renting."

"I want to have affordable housing and not put my money down the drain."

"I was really worried about all the paperwork of homebuying with the CLT. But the CLT and Land Bank people really helped me, were patient with me, and were on top of their stuff, so the process went really fast."

"I have seen folks get screwed over by banks. They pay off loans and once they can’t, the banks take over your home, your property, your land... not just the unpaid part, but the paid part too.”

"The [agency name]’s programs told me that all I will need to put down is $350 upfront. And I thought wow, great. I thought that was the payment for the entire process. In the end, I ended up paying $2800. They failed to include all the other payments other entities would ask me to pay. It’s a big difference— that’s like multiple months’ rent for me."

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?”)

"I am paying off my bills; I can’t save. And I can’t get a good loan. I need to figure out my finances, and only then I can think about a home. That’s years out! I want to buy one though."

"I want to build wealth and equity."

Building Human-centered Intake Applications

In our June 2021 sprint, we tried to use programs of different social services and brainstormed solutions to the problems we identified.

Going Undercover
Another way of conducting research is by going undercover and playing the role of a social service seeker. We go undercover and try to use programs of different social services. We note where we feel confused, misdirected, or unclear. We put on the personas of non-English speakers, those new to accessing social services, and those who are not technologically savvy. We then brainstormed solutions to fix the issues we identified.

A Red Tape Run-Through of Intake Applications and Processes
We went undercover and tried to use several intake applications for different social services. We navigated websites and call lines as though we ourselves were seeking the service. This allowed us to identify common roadblocks seekers face. We identified gaps in access, prioritized areas for improvement, and got a first- person perspective of the process. This is a red tape run-through.

In performing a “red tape run-through” on intake applications, we saw pain points on:

Often on websites, navigating to the application takes several clicks, which makes it difficult to find, particularly for clients with limited tech literacy.

Voice mailboxes can often feel like a black hole and can increase uncertainty and frustration during times of crisis.

Though 9% of Houston-area residents are undocumented, applications are not clear upfront about whether they are eligible to apply. This often leads undocumented individuals and mixed-status families to assume that they are ineligible.

Visit the websites of the programs you fund and go through the intake process. Note where important information is located and how easy it is to access.

Call through your own phone system or the phone system of programs you fund.

Examine your eligibility criteria and communication of those criteria through the lens of the seeker.

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

Want to participate in a design sprint?

© Copyright 2021 Connective
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