Journal of Housing & Community Development
Featured Story

Bridging the Digital Divide in Seattle

August 5, 2021
by Libby Miller

The Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) won a 2020 Award of Excellence for Administrative Innovation for launching a comprehensive Digital Initiative to increase the ease and efficiency of engaging with the agency and help close the digital divide for its low-income tenants. Nominated from among the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials Award of Merit winners each year, the Awards of Excellence winners are chosen by national juries and honored at the annual National Conference and Exhibition in November. They represent the very best in innovative programs in assisted housing and community development. 

SHA was in search of new ways of communicating and conducting business electronically in order to implement operational efficiencies and savings, reduce the burden on clients of engaging by mail and in-person office visits, and improve the timeliness of information and interaction. To better understand the digital needs of residents, voucher holders, and community partners, SHA conducted a survey using both digital and print outreach methods. The results helped shape the strategies developed as part of the Digital Initiative. 

One challenge SHA faced was the lack of digital contact information the agency had on file, which made it difficult to develop a cohesive strategy for communication with residents. Because there was no systematic way to collect and update the information, SHA could not effectively use email or texting to reach tenants and applicants. 

SHA addressed this and other challenges by forming a cross-departmental digital communications group to develop strategies, provide broad oversight to digital initiatives and get the most out of proposed technologies as they are developed over the foreseeable future. The digital communications group established three subgroups to focus on data collection, digital equity and emergency communications.  

To improve communication electronically, they launched a tenant data collection outreach initiative n late 2018. All households with a valid email address on file were contacted by email and asked to confirm their email address and mobile phone number. The outreach was a success, with SHA receiving a 45% increase in the number of emails they had on file for their residents. Now, SHA has about 84% percent of residents’ emails and phone numbers on file.  

To address the challenge of adding new ways of communicating electronically and sharing important news in a timely manner, SHA converted The Voice, a monthly printed newspaper for residents to a twice-monthly digital newsletter for both residents and Housing Choice Voucher program participants. The first digital issue of The Voice launched in January 2019. The e-newsletter enables interactivity not possible in print, such as easy-to-use direct links to a host of resources, and tenants can easily translate the content into dozens of languages, enlarge text, forward content to others and engage with the editor. The Voice is exceeding email newsletter industry averages with open rates of more than 30% and click-through rates of more than 20%. Distribution continues to grow as tenant email addresses are continuously added to the database.  

Other digital initiatives SHA launched include:  

  • A text pilot program to help drive tenant awareness and participation in kindergarten enrollment events, employment orientations and scholarship applications.  
  • A partnership with the City of Seattle and other agencies to install Wi-Fi for community access 
  • Worked closely with the City’s Department of Information Technology and its Education & Outreach Coordinator to help increase access to technology training and free or low-cost equipment and services for people with limited incomes.  
  • Through collaboration with local partners was awarded $25,168 in 2018 and $28,000 in 2019 to fund a resident-led mobile computer lab with laptops, Wi-Fi hot spots and multi-lingual classes. SHA contributes grant-writing assistance, classroom space, technical assistance and outreach for this initiative. 

While SHA recognized not everyone is online and continues to maintain alternatives to digital communication, the Digital Initiative is touching almost all of the agency’s programs, and digital strategies are becoming embedded in daily practices and operations, including building maintenance and construction.  

With the introduction of more information and forms online, texting and other tools, tenants can now conduct business with SHA faster and at whatever time is most convenient for them, avoiding time off work or time-consuming trips to SHA’s offices. This is particularly important for people with disabilities. Digital communications are more effective, improve operations, support better customer service and provide cost savings. In addition, by helping to close the digital divide that leaves people with low incomes even further behind in life, SHA helps increase opportunities for civic and cultural participation, employment, lifelong learning, and access to essential services.    

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