Making Information Technology Work for Public HousingBy Ronald Roach
Dr. Michael P. Johnson Jr., a professor of management science and urban affairs at the H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management at Carnegie Mellon University, wants to bring management science tools and the latest information technology applications to public housing programs. Unlike police departments, public transportation agencies, and other service branches of state and local governments, public housing authorities have largely missed the information and management science revolutions that have transformed businesses and the public sector over the past two decades.
“Public housing authorities have not been motivated to apply information technology and decision planning models to improve the quality of their services,” Johnson says.
As a U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Urban Scholar in 2001, Johnson got funding to develop a software and Internet-based program called Housing eCounselor for the Pittsburgh housing authority, landlords, and families that participate in HUD’s Section 8 program. Under the federally funded Section 8 program, landlords are compensated to provide rental housing for low-income families. Although the low-income families are required to pay a portion of the rent, landlords receive the bulk of the rent, at market competitive rates, through the Section 8 program.
Housing eCounselor is intended to be an Internet resource that public housing officials, Section 8 residents and landlords can use to simplify the search for suitable rental housing, according to Johnson. The system Johnson has developed so far to meet HUD grant requirements does not yet have the full capabilities that he has envisioned for Housing eCounselor.
“It will take another year of development to get the Web site fully operational,” he says.
Ideally, in coordination with a fully robust Housing eCounselor Web site, a housing counselor working with a client could find available rental housing that is Section 8 friendly. Neither Internet-based nor software systems currently exist that match Section 8 clients with prospective landlords, Johnson says.
Johnson’s technical background gives him the expertise to apply mathematical modeling and management science in a rigorous way to public service operations. A graduate of the dual degree engineering program offered by Morehouse College in association with the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Johnson earned undergraduate degrees in mathematics and French, and a master’s degree in electrical engineering. Johnson later earned a master’s degree in operations research from the University of California at Berkeley, and a doctorate in operations research at Northwestern University.
As a graduate student, Johnson grew intrigued with the idea of using management science and operations research to improve public services. After learning about a court-ordered, Section 8-type program that was being tried in the Chicago area during the early 1990s, Johnson decided to devote himself to bringing management science and operations research to public housing.
The idea for Housing eCounselor resulted from decision planning model development he had done for public housing agencies to help them make efficient uses of their resources. Instead of applying decision models enabling an entire public housing department to do better planning, Johnson focused on the perspective of how individual users of public housing programs could have improved services, leading him to conceive of Housing eCounselor.
The Web address of the Pittsburgh Housing eCounselor is <www.housing-ecounselor.org>.
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