All Chicago Making Homelessness History (AC) is a nonprofit agency in Chicago addressing homelessness. In 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic began, All Chicago received federal funding from the CARES Act to launch an expanded rapid re-housing program to house 1,750 families within 18 months, with an emphasis on getting at least 1,000 families housed during the first 9 months. AC named this new program its Expedited Housing Initiative (EHI).
As part of EHI, AC needed to quickly expand its landlord outreach and engagement activities in order to identify affordable housing units, and therefore created a new service team called Chicago Rents. The EHI program is a three-party collaboration among All Chicago, local landlords, and other Chicago-based partner agencies. The Chicago Rents team works with local landlords to identify, inspect, and vet vacant units.
The Chicago Rents team also coordinates “Accelerated Moving Events,” or AMEs, which are shelter and encampment outreach events to quickly help clients select units. Once a client is housed, the All Chicago rapid rehousing and finance teams then guarantee and issue payments of market rate rent to program landlords. Lastly, partner agencies provide case management and move-in services to ensure clients have a path towards housing security.
Launching a new program is often a difficult endeavor, but doing so in the midst of the pandemic has resulted in additional challenges. Changing program requirements and the inability to meet in their office are just a few hurdles All Chicago has dealt with. In the midst of this project, AC has needed to retool their processes in service of hitting an ambitious deadline. They have also transitioned from a shared spreadsheet approach to managing and evaluating their program within Salesforce, all while transitioning to a work-from-home setup. Despite these complexities, All Chicago’s tenacity, staff sharpness, and general willingness to embrace the challenges set this implementation on the right path from day one.
As we do with all of our clients, Bigger Boat started with a discovery phase to gain a shared understanding of All Chicago’s challenges and goals. After discovery, we developed solutions for AC in three areas of pain:
- Landlord and Unit Identification. The success of the Chicago Rents program depends on the willing participation of landlords and the identification of vacant units, so it’s critical to track all aspects of the interaction carefully.
- Efficient Payment Processing. All Chicago’s internal process for sending payments to landlords, utilities, and other vendors must be scalable as the program grows.
- Partner Agency Collaboration. Case managers at partner agencies manage the day-to-day interactions with clients and therefore must have an efficient way to submit payment requests in a timely manner to All Chicago.
Landlord and Unit Identification
The AC team builds rapport with a given landlord, then qualifies them and vets their units for the program. This process also involves supervising property inspections and preparing the landlord’s units for potential clients, all while working remotely! The entire process needs to happen as quickly as possible, as there is high and ongoing client demand. Chicago Rents holds frequent accelerated moving events to place clients into these newly approved units.
Bigger Boat designed and built a Salesforce architecture with landlord and unit records at the core of the system. To make this happen, Bigger Boat worked with Chicago Rents staff to map out the pain points in their workflow and used Salesforce features like Quick Actions, validation rules, and Lightning record pages to ensure efficiency. Chicago Rents staff now use this easy-to-navigate structure to track information about the various units, including location, rent amount, and apartment features like number of bedrooms and accessibility information.
With all unit information now in Salesforce, Chicago Rents is able to manage the progress of unit inspections from within Salesforce. Bigger Boat built out the ability for All Chicago to track communication with landlords, virtual inspection dates, inspection outcomes, and required property improvements right alongside their existing unit information. As part of their funding requirements, All Chicago was required to ensure rental amounts were in line with local averages, a calculation referred to as “rent reasonableness.” Bigger Boat built this workflow within the unit record, which allowed All Chicago staff to manage this process as well. These improvements led to quicker turnaround times and ultimately more units available for housing clients.
One highlight of this structure: Once a unit is vetted, it is virtually shown to clients, eventually resulting in a lease. Salesforce tracks the pertinent lease information to show how landlords and clients are connected. This provides the essential information to make an on-time payment to the right person.
Efficient Payment Processing
Some nonprofits dream of a grand unified architecture where Salesforce will house all of their data and all of their processes, be they programmatic, financial, or otherwise. Typically, this is not the best strategy, as Salesforce does not offer advanced accounting functionality needed by most finance departments. That said, there are times when it makes sense for certain portions of the payment workflow to live alongside your programmatic data. The Chicago Rents payment approval process is one of those times, as insight into that workflow is key to managing the overall relationship with the landlord and client.
The payment process begins once a client is placed in an approved unit. Case managers at local partner agencies then take the lead in providing day-to-day case management to the clients to help keep them housed. All Chicago’s role transitions into something like a bank: paying monthly rent, move-in fees, and security deposits to landlords and other vendors. Each of these payments has documentation requirements, approval processes, and internal payment workflows that would have faced significant hurdles at scale if they had continued with shared spreadsheets.
By tracking the internal approval process of payment requests from within Salesforce, all staff can easily see the status of a payment, which vendor (landlord or utility) is being paid, and the full history of payments to that vendor. This visibility allows a Chicago Rents staff member to have a 360-degree view of AC’s interaction with the particular vendor, a useful perspective if that vendor calls in with questions about outstanding payments.
To address this payment processing workflow, Bigger Boat employed the Outbound Funds Module, a community-created product originally developed as part of the Salesforce.org Open Source Commons program. Outbound Funds provides an extensible architecture to manage payment requests (called Funding Requests in Outbound Funds).
Building upon the Outbound Funds base, we created a new custom object (Recurring Funding Requests) that enabled the forecasting of future payments. The Recurring Funding Requests object bulk creates Funding Request records when a new lease is signed. This functionality was achieved with a Flow that automatically assigns current requests to the right status and person, while scheduling future payments for the appropriate date. This design enables Chicago Rents staff and leadership to see the entirety of a landlord’s payment activity: past, current, and future requests.
Partner Agency Collaboration
Despite building an efficient internal workflow for approving and processing payments, some payments to vendors were still being issued late. During a mini mid-project discovery on this issue, we found that properly submitted payment requests were processed quickly and on time. However, many of the initial payment requests, which were initiated by the case managers at the partner agencies, were often not submitted on time or with all required information. Some came in via email, others were uploaded to a share folder, and others still were never submitted.
All Chicago already had information in Salesforce about what payments were due and when. If Salesforce could help remind case managers that they need to submit a request in a timely manner and provide a streamlined method for doing so, the issue of past due payments would be addressed.
With our focus on the initiation of the payment process, we devised an advanced FormAssembly workflow solution using the Prefill Connector (which allows you to retrieve data from Salesforce and display a prefilled form). The experience starts with a landing page for each case manager. Filters on the Prefill Connector allow a case manager to isolate those future payment requests that need action from them immediately. By using a FormAssembly solution, All Chicago’s admins do not have to manage additional user logins from partner agencies or the associated maintenance going forward. Training for the partners is also minimal.
How it looks: When a case manager selects a specific actionable request from their start page, a second form prompts them to update information and upload supporting documentation. Upon submission, the request is routed to their supervisor’s landing page, who can then approve or deny the request. Once everything is approved, the corresponding funding request in Salesforce is updated with the appropriate form-based information and is shuttled into the right part of the internal approval workflow. This update process to collaborate with partner agencies and case managers has helped to reduce past-due payments.
Steve Gaydos, Chief Financial and Operations Officer at All Chicago, described his team’s experience with the project and how it enabled their work: “The Expedited Housing Initiative was a critical response to a public health crisis as shelters could not operate at full capacity. The Chicago community needed to find a permanent housing solution for as many households as possible. Finding 1,750 affordable units in a short period of time and then administering the lease payments and case management for these units was a monumental undertaking, and we could not have achieved this goal without the dedication and ingenuity of the All Chicago team, the Salesforce platform, and the fabulous thought partnership and project planning with Bigger Boat.
“The Bigger Boat team immediately coached us on finding an internal Salesforce administration person and then successfully mentored the new admin throughout the design and build process. The design process was thorough and efficient and the build process was meticulously planned and tested. The system was built in rapid cycles and we had an effective landlord engagement and unit inventory system within a few months. Over time, we systematically refined the inventory system and added the payment processing system.
“The Bigger Boat team was outstanding at all levels: project planning, communications, programming, documentation and implementation. Our teams really bonded and thoroughly enjoyed working together. They did an excellent job of balancing the trade-offs of implementation speed, quality, and cost. Most importantly, the All Chicago internal Salesforce team is able to effectively administer and refine the system as we move forward.”
With their new system up and running, All Chicago surpassed their original goal of housing 1,000 households within nine months and is well on their way to meeting the total goal of 1,750 households. They also use Salesforce to manage unit information for 1,100 Emergency Housing Vouchers as part of a US Department of Housing and Urban Development program.
During the project, we coached All Chicago’s admins to own their new Salesforce system. Their two in-house Salesforce admins now have a robust process for future improvements and additions. Additionally, they’ve built and deployed multiple enhancements to their Salesforce system and are full-fledged members of the project build team.
Their admin-created dashboard is worth a separate shout-out: with the experience gained from their Bigger Boat project, they built this dashboard, which helps AC leadership assess and manage the Chicago Rents program from a high level.
Note about the architecture
All Chicago’s implementation was not built off the core of the Nonprofit Success Pack (NPSP) as they did not have a strong need for tracking households, donations, or other similar structures at this time. Furthermore, robust client data already lived in a separate Homelessness Management Information System (HMIS), which was shared amongst Chicagoland partner agencies. As a result, we made the architectural decision to design their Salesforce system around landlords, units, and the Outbound Funds Module, while storing only the most minimal of client data in Salesforce. This decision provided a clear shared understanding for whether something should live in Salesforce versus HMIS and ultimately led to a minimum valuable product (MVP) that was launched quickly.