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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Harvey Award funds web app to help families find affordable housing

Need to find affordable housing? William Rohe and Michael Webb from the Center for Urban and Regional Studies invented an app for that.

Low-income citizens nationwide face a challenge to find affordable housing that fits their needs in safe neighborhoods. This is true even for those with Section 8 vouchers, the federal Housing and Urban Development program that subsidizes rent for qualified low-income tenants.

William Rohe and Michael Webb from the Center for Urban and Regional Studiesplan to bridge the gap by creating a web app for use in two North Carolina counties.

Called the Housing Opportunity Finder, the app will act as a resource for more than 3,000 low-income families from Durham and Orange counties by compiling affordable, safe housing listings in “opportunity neighborhoods.”

Users will be able to filter the app’s listings to match their needs, whether it be a single mom looking for a low-crime area with a strong school system or an 85-year-old retired veteran hoping to be near a VA clinic.

“We’re hoping that this is really almost like a matchmaking service,” Webb said.

The innovation earned Rohe and Webb one of the two 2019 C. Felix Harvey Awards to Advance Institutional Priorities, which provides $75,000 to fund Carolina faculty projects that address community challenges and embody the University’s core values of community service, teamwork and integrity. (See the other winners’ story on this page.)

In a letter to the selection committee, Ryan Fehrman —executive director of Families Moving Forward, a Durham nonprofit that works to find stable housing for homeless families — said the app “would serve as a powerful tool that directly addresses many of the challenges faced by clients as they seek to find housing using a subsidy. Many clients desire to filter housing options according to their household’s priorities, and to see affordable properties with updated information about availability.”

Rohe and Webb will begin compiling information over the summer from focus groups to determine which neighborhoods are considered favorable in Durham and Orange counties. They aim to release the app in March 2020.

Along with customizing listings, the app will alleviate timing pressure. Once someone receives a housing choice voucher, they have 90 days to find housing. However, Webb said, it often takes longer — typically 120 days, for instance, for people using a Section 8 voucher in Durham County.

“A third of the Section 8 housing vouchers that the Durham Housing Authority issues expire before the family can find housing, so we’re hoping to get those numbers down,” Webb said.

Within the Carolina community, Webb and Rohe have collaborated with colleagues in the Center for Urban and Regional Studies and Innovate Carolina. Other collaborators include the Durham Housing Authority, the Community Empowerment Fund, the Unlocking Doors Initiative and the Housing Results Team from Durham’s Homeless Services Advisory Committee.

“We’re excited to begin,” Webb said. “And we’ve got a lot of really good interest from different groups across North Carolina about — if it is a successful project — bringing it into their communities.”

The late C. Felix Harvey served as the chairman of Harvey Enterprises & Affiliates and founded the Little Bank Inc. Harvey graduated from Carolina in 1943 and has since donated $2 million to fund the C. Felix Harvey Award to Advance Institutional Priorities.