All across the world, the pandemic has surfaced feelings of isolation, fear, and helplessness. This is especially true for the millions of Americans facing economic whiplash from reduced working hours and widespread job loss. Among those Americans, some of the hardest hit were low-to-moderate income renters who quickly were faced with the unfair reality of their rental obligations remaining decisively intact, even as their jobs disappeared. Even more devastating, many that lost their jobs fell into the group of Americans who were already under great economic strain living paycheck-to-paycheck before the pandemic hit.
Amidst this devastation, there is hope. Many organizations are calling on their partners, both government and community-based, to provide relief in the form of on-the-ground & urgent service delivery (like providing food baskets for families in need), emotional & wellness support (such as counseling and focused case management services), and monetary provisions in the form of utility vouchers, rental support, and other financial assistance programs.
If you are one such organization who is either in the process of or is looking toward creating a similar assistance program, we want to share our lessons learned with you in hopes that they help you piggyback off what we did right and be more vigilant where we experienced setbacks. We generalized our lessons learned, so that they would be useful in various domains, but specific examples in this post are from the effort that our partners, SC Thrive and SC State Housing & Finance Development Authority, put forth in implementing a COVID-19 Rental Assistance Program for the State of South Carolina. Alright, here we go!
SC State Housing & Finance Development Authority (hereafter referred to as SC Housing) is an organization in South Carolina committed to the principle that all South Carolinians deserve stable and affordable housing without absolutely stretching their pockets. The agency has been working with the State for 49 years and continues to provide financial housing assistance to residents.
In their work, SC Housing assists primarily low-to-moderate income homeowners and renters. The assistance is served in the form of federal funds, bond programs, tax credits, trust funds, and more. Amidst COVID-19, SC Housing recognized they had the capability to help renters directly by partnering with SC Thrive (SCT) and having $5 million to help those whose rent was impacted by the pandemic.
SC Housing had the funding while SCT provided the resources for distribution. SCT had plenty of experience with helping state residents get the resources they needed, and their online application platform and customer support team were familiar with sizable application volumes.
This was crucial to processing a rental relief program. SC Housing did not have a platform to deliver the funding and knew SCT’s online technology platform would be able to handle the volume of applications they were expecting.
Your organization can’t do it all (nor should they). It’s likely that an organization near you has exactly what you need, and it’s always better to leverage the power of collaboration than to reinvent the wheel. A simple phone call or email could open the doors to an effective partnership and a successful assistance program.
The partnership was there, but SC Housing and SCT needed to develop a support system to withstand the immediate flow of applications, client communications, and data. Again, SC Housing looked to SCT for their experience in this area.
SCT already has a few supports in place because of their history with government benefits. A devoted customer support team offers service via phones and email, while an integrated online platform stores and processes incoming client data.
One of the most valuable ways to support your end clients is to provide them with a communication channel directly to support. A call center will offer hands-on service to clients who might struggle with doing things online or just need general help. While phone support is personal and provides real-time solutions to clients, it can also be incredibly time consuming for staff.
On top of phone support, SCT utilizes email communication with clients. Doing this allows an organization to assign ticketing links to individual clients and follow up on outcomes. Resolving issues and requests via email ultimately saves time for staff, but it can lack immediacy and personal touch.
It’s important to note organizations that stretch too thin to support new programs inevitably end up failing or delivering half of what they set out to deliver. Underserving clients in all forms of support is far worse than serving well in a few. SCT was careful to keep this in mind during launch.
An efficient line of communication with clients is only part of the equation. If data collection is not done entirely via phone and support staff, there is need for an online platform. This platform should allow for client login, be easily accessible, safely store client data, and offer form completion for applications. SCT utilizes the platform Thrive Hub, powered by Good Grid. This centralization of client data allows SCT to quickly access individual information during processing.
Along the lines of client data collection is the issue of safety. Data encryption stands as an integral part of any assistance program. Applications often feature sensitive personal details, and encrypted file storage safeguards against potential data leaks. Thrive Hub, via Good Grid, securely houses all application data.
How does it all tie together? In the case of SCT’s rental assistance program, clients are able to create login credentials via a web link on the organization’s home page. An application is filled out completely online (with phone support available if needed). SC Thrive staff then use the same platform to access the applications and review the qualifications for each client.
One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to conducting assistance programs. If your organization is considering leading one, it’s necessary to examine the lines of support that work best for you and your partner(s).
Brand new assistance programs don’t often spring up overnight, but when they do, it’s important to start small and fail fast.
Because South Carolina’s renters needed funds to cover the next month’s rent, SCT and SC Housing wanted to push the program as quickly as possible. COVID-19’s effects on the state’s workforce were still visible (as they are today).
The influx of applications within the first few days was swift. The high volume of visitors actually caused SCT’s site to briefly go down. Although a positive sign, the heavy traffic could not be estimated beforehand. SCT acted quickly to accommodate the traffic and reactivate the site within a few minutes.
Not all assistance projects require an immediate start though, and your organization can save valuable time by piloting a program before a full release. This could be for a city, a county, or a few counties. Pilots allow organizations to catch hiccups on a smaller scale. Anything that can be caught early on will make the process easier in the long run.
It’s important to note that not all variables are clear right out the gate. The key is to start smaller, learn quickly from any bumps in the road, and pick right back up where you left off.
An assistance program is not valuable unless your end clients know about it, so it’s absolutely critical to drive awareness in a variety of ways.
The most obvious (but sometimes overlooked) tactic is to update your website. The homepage for SCT very clearly showcases the new rental assistance program. On their partner’s website, schousing.com, the program is listed as the second scrolling headline.
For excellent marketing and PR, try to look toward partner organizations. SCT contacted many of their current partners for help with spreading the word. These can be existing relationships or totally new organizations. You can look first toward groups in the same field of work. Are you promoting an employment program? Reach out to your state’s Workforce Department, GED centers, universities, or Goodwills.
You could also get creative by setting up pre-recorded, online info sessions to make sure all your partners are on the same page. It takes a multitude of dedicated partners with an aligned vision to truly promote a program, especially to an entire state.
Social media is also a huge avenue for program promotion. Social platforms offer an immense amount of exposure, and SCT took advantage of that. They made sure to post periodically across different social accounts, reminding followers of what they offer. It’s certainly an inexpensive way to get the word out quickly.
SCT also contacted local news stations and newspapers throughout the state for coverage that they couldn’t get through social accounts or word of mouth. News outlets in general have a broader reach for certain populations compared to online promotions, so it’s wise to look into if your assistance program requires that sort of public awareness.
Throughout your program’s operation, it’s imperative to monitor the results you get back. Assessing results allows you to gauge your impact, which is especially useful if it’s a program you need to report back to the community on or hope to scale.
You can start answering the questions that matter. How many people did you serve? How much of the available resources did you utilize? What was the measurable, economic impact of the program? Did you meet the goals your organization set for the program?
These questions lead to valuable insights regarding program efficiency. If you can report on the numbers and community/economic impacts of your program, the results will direct your decision making on future programs during periods of recovery, pandemic, economic strain, or any other situation. And these results aren’t just for you – they are shareable with your partners and community.
Since opening the assistance program a few weeks ago, 4,513 people and counting have created accounts through Thrive Hub. (Take a moment to think about how much paper that would be.) Through Good Grid, Thrive Hub has been able to consolidate and streamline the application process. This has saved a considerable amount of time, energy, and resources for all parties involved.
On top of application numbers, SCT and SC Housing will begin to see the full extent of the program through other reportable measures like accepted applications, client demographics, geographical trends across counties, and much more.
We at Good Grid have been privileged to participate in this impactful project. While the program is still underway and the pandemic’s impression is still noticeable, we’re eager to see how SC Thrive and SC Housing’s COVID-19 Rental Assistance Program affects the lives of so many South Carolinians.
Good Grid believes in connecting those in need with the services that can help them. If you think we can help you achieve that, please feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or 501-687-2346.