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Philly wants to tackle its housing crisis with the PHL Participatory Design Lab

The city wants to make its interactions with the public better

The PHL Participatory Design Lab aims to make the public’s interaction with the city a better experience.
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Like many cities throughout the U.S., Philly is in the middle of a housing crisis. Affordable housing is dwindling. It has the highest percentage of people living in deep poverty out of the biggest major U.S. cities. And many people who do own homes can’t afford to pay their bills.

A new initiative called the PHL Participatory Design Lab hopes to change that—or at least improve the public’s experience with city services that can help them. It’ll start by zeroing in on two city departments: The Office of Homeless Services (OHS) and the Department of Revenue.

“The work we’ll be doing over the next 13 months is an opportunity to improve service delivery and redesign with the community—not for,” said Mayor Jim Kenney.

The design lab is the city’s latest effort to improve the experiences of its residents when interacting with the city’s services. It’s the brainchild of the Mayor’s Office of Policy, Legislation, and Intergovernmental Affairs and the Office of Open Data and Digital Transformation. Last June, the city won a $338,000 grant from the Knight Foundation to bring the design lab to life.

“The idea resonated with the Knight Foundation because I think it’s something that can be replicated through Philadelphia, but across our Knight Cities, as well,” said Patrick J. Morgan, Philadelphia’s program director for the Knight Foundation. “I think another thing that resonated was putting residents and government at the same table. [...] An informed citizenry puts them in the best position to make their own decisions.”

While the design lab team acknowledged that the OHS and Department of Revenue are pretty different, they both deal with the city’s housing crisis in their own ways. “Initially, we were going to choose one,” said Anjali Chainani, director of Policy in the Mayor’s Office of Policy, Legislation, and Intergovernmental Affairs. “But we saw revenue and homeless services being linked through the housing crisis spectrum.”

The design lab team includes two new fellows, service designer Devika Menon and social scientist Nathaniel Olin. Over the next 13 months, they’ll research how to employ social science and service design methods to improve the public’s interaction with the city. The focus will be on face-to-face, human interactions versus online services, says Liana Dragoman, deputy director of the Office of Open Data and Digital Transformation (ODDT).

For the OHS, one major goal is to redesign the experience of its intake system, which aims to provide emergency housing for people in need of shelter. Liz Hersch, director of the OHS, calls it the ground zero for people in a housing crisis.

“We have a very old intake system,” says Hersch. “It’s an intake system that was designed as a kind of shoot for people to go directly into shelter. And we have learned that that’s not the best way to help people.”

What OHS has learned is that there are all kinds of reasons why people end up at their front door. Some simply need to pay back rent or an old PECO bill, for instance. Says Hersch, “What we want to be able to do is have a system transformation that enables us to meet every individual where they are, assess what they need, and address their needs more comprehensively.”

Meanwhile, the Department of Revenue wants to use the design lab to further improve its Owner-Occupied Payment Agreement system. This program helps homeowners make small monthly payments of at least $25 on property taxes that are past due.

Already, the department’s current efforts to make their service more approachable to residents have seen results: In the past four years, the total delinquent taxes owed to the city fell 31 percent.

Revenue Commissioner Frank Breslin said, “We’re really excited about this program. We had a taste of it and this is going to give us a chance to dive in. We’re confident this is going to change the lives of Philadelphia homeowners.”

Over the next 13 months, the design lab team will be meeting with Philly residents, neighborhood stakeholders, and the OHS and Department of Revenue staff to figure out what improvements need to be made to make their services better for folks who need them.

Then, the team will begin testing and rolling out the services within the two departments. Ultimately, the hope is that the evidence-based, low-cost interventions can then be applied to other city departments and services.