Local governments have always faced inefficiencies when it comes to administering federal and state funds to the low and moderate income households that need it.
Now, in the face of COVID-19, more people are seeking out these programs. Meanwhile city and county administrators are navigating how to manage the demand — while working from home.
Some local governments were already set up with digital processes. Most weren’t. But housing and economic assistance aren’t services that can sit on hold while governments figure things out. When a crisis like the pandemic hits, administering these programs quickly and accurately is more critical than ever.
Enter Neighborly Software. The Atlanta-based company digitizes housing, economic, and community development administration. It makes it easier to process, track, and report on programs without paper or manual handoffs. And it covers the process end-to-end, so that all stakeholders — not just those in the local government — can manage their pieces online. As Govlaunch works to build the global wiki for local government innovation, we’re highlighting a series of Disruptive technologies — innovative companies who aspire to bring local governments cutting-edge products, which have the potential to fundamentally change the way local governments operate and innovate. We chatted with Jason Rusnak, president and co-founder of Neighborly Software about how their product can make it easier to manage and implement housing and economic development programs.
Built for (and with) local governments
Neighborly Software was a bit of an accident.
Despite having worked around local governments for much of his career, Rusnak, with his co-founder Chris Behm, initially set out to disrupt employer benefits. The pair had worked together at ADP and left to develop a product that helped companies attract and retain talent by covering part of their housing payments. One client, the City of Savannah, started using the software, and saw an opportunity. Says Rusnak:
“They asked if we’d be interested in building out our solution to be much more of a public sector housing and community development software.”
Employer assisted housing was a fraction of the work managed by Savannah’s Housing and Community Development Department. The bigger need, they explained, was automating and managing the city’s work tied to HUD and the federal government: providing down payments, doing rehab work, building affordable housing, and more. If Rusnak’s software could streamline these processes and make it easier to track compliance, that’d make life a lot easier across the department. So Rusnak and Behm pivoted:
“The rest was history, so to speak. We signed Savannah and then quickly after that signed three or four other jurisdictions that needed it. And the software has been growing and expanding ever since.”
Now, 115 local and state government clients later, Neighborly Software is dedicated to eliminating manual and paper processes for housing and community development departments, making things easier for the governments, and ultimately facilitating support for low and moderate income households.
How it works
The Neighborly Software platform supports over 18 different housing, economic and community development programs, from micro-enterprise business grants and loans to emergency home repairs and community land trusts.
Most governments get started with three or four programs, then expand from there. It takes about four to six weeks to get these programs up and running; the Neighborly Software team conducts a strategy workshop with the local government, then configures and launches the platform. Once a client is set up, new workflows and programs can be launched quickly, says Rusnak:
“We have templates that come out of the box. We can get them up and running in 24 to 48 hours.”
When it’s live, everything related to a program is accessible via the software. Online portals are available for any stakeholders involved. For example, a housing rehab program includes a contractor portal, where contractors can log in and see what work needs to be done, submit bids, and do draw requests all in the system. On the city’s side, admins can log in and manage cases or pull reporting.
The price is determined by the number of city or county staffers using the tool. Anyone else using the tool — contractors, developers, nonprofits and the likes — don’t cost anything. The pricing is tiered; an average local government with five users may cost around $12,000 for the year. Larger cities are sometimes closer to $50,000.
“Software” may be in the name, but Neighborly Software isn’t just a technology company. The company is staffed with a roster of industry veterans, some with 15-20 years working in lower and moderate income housing programs. Neighborly Software’s service, says Rusnak, is more of a consulting approach:
“It’s not just asking cities how they do things and making the software fit. It’s more around, what are the best practices, what are the things they want and how can we help them achieve that.”
An efficiency trifecta
Local governments can benefit from Neighborly Software in three major ways:
By digitizing these programs and eliminating the reliance on paper, there’s far less manual work involved in the administration of local government housing programs. No more searching through filing cabinets for a document. No more tracking loans on Excel spreadsheets.
Less manual work also makes it easier to track and report on government programs — and reduces the risk of error. HUD or internal audits can be completed quickly, based on data already in the system.
With less time sucked up by administrative and manual work, administrators are freed up to do more strategic work and community outreach. Says Rusnak:
“Instead of waiting for a paper application to come in, we’re seeing people go out to career fairs and community events with a tablet and take in applications. There’s a lot more marketing and PR work.”
For government employees who may have been apprehensive to change, the opportunity to focus on the community rather than paper tasks has been welcome, says Rusnak:
“Once they see that their job might change a little and become more efficient, and they might be doing some different things, I think people get excited about it.”
The future of housing development is digital
As COVID-19 has forced local governments to move more programs online, demand for Neighborly Software has skyrocketed. Rusnak says:
“We are unbelievably busy because of all the micro enterprise business programs that people want to launch. They also want to launch rent and mortgage assistance.”
In Ft. Myers, there were over 4,000 applicants within the first six hours of the launch of the rent and mortgage assistance program on Neighborly Software.
In Atlanta, the Community Development operations department was using Neighborly Software when the virus hit. The Economic Development department suddenly needed to streamline its in-house business loan portfolios, so Rusnak and his team configured the loan module and launched it in under a week. Nathan Regan, SVP of Economic Development at Invest Atlanta notes:
“The Neighborly Software platform allowed us to move all of our loan portfolios online and allowed us to increase our capacity.”
“If the pandemic really comes back with a vengeance in the fall and winter, local governments need to be able to work remotely. They need to be able to process these applications from their homes — doing it by paper and manual forms is not going to work.”
Beyond COVID-19, Neighborly Software is looking at more ways to innovate within the housing sector.
“We’re still going to stick very closely to the housing, economic and community development market that we’re in now. But we do have our eyes on the housing voucher market in the future.”
A lot of the housing voucher technology is twenty to thirty years old, notes Rusnak, making it a prime opportunity for disruption.
Whatever lies ahead, says Rusnak, it’s ultimately all about serving the community:
“We go home at night feeling much better about the work we do, because we know that the money — through our software — is going to make it to a low or moderate income household. It’s going to help them buy or repair a house, improve their economic opportunity and/or live in a safer and more affordable community."