Looking for rental assistance?

Renters and landlords can find out what emergency rental assistance covers, how it works, and who’s eligible on the interagency housing portal hosted by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

Guidelines for ERA program online applications

It's critically important that tenants and landlords are able to get through the ERA application process quickly and without undue burden. Online applications must be designed thoughtfully and intentionally to collect the information you need from the applicant.

To help accomplish these goals, Treasury has prepared these guidelines for creating and improving ERA applications to be easy-to-use by ERA applicants. These best practices were created in conjunction with the U.S. Digital Service to help grantees of the Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) programs with developing ERA applications 1.

These application practices are for ERA grantees and their contractors building ERA applications.

Guidelines for successful iteration on your ERA application

  1. Design with and for your audience
  2. Reduce the cognitive load on applicants
  3. Give users control, freedom, and autonomy
  4. Create visibility and transparency of the process
  5. Reduce friction and barriers

1. Design with and for your audience

The most successful systems and services are shaped and informed by the needs of those who use them. Assumptions about others’ experience are often wrong, inflicted with personal bias, or overlook details critical to making your program effective. The best way to understand your applicants’ perspective is to engage with them directly through applicant research and co-design sessions, which enable you to gain insights, assess usability, and get feedback on areas to improve.

  • Co-design your application with tenants and landlords to understand their needs and challenges.
  • Alleviate accessibility and barriers to access, such as lack of access or familiarity with technology by providing phone help, in-person navigators, PDF versions of the application, as well as versions of the application and instructions in different languages.
  • Use plain language at an 8th grade reading level to reach a broad public.
  • When adapting a commercial off-the-shelf product, adjust the standard language so that the applicant can identify themselves and their role in the interface.
  • Usability test with applicants to discover pitfalls and make improvements.

Practices to make this happen

Use plain language that’s easy for applicants to understand

Plain language is easy to understand and accessible to a diverse group of applicants. Plain language diagnostic tools such as: HemingwayApp, Read-able.com, or Microsoft Word can help identify areas for improvement.

  • Use the same language as your applicants and use simple and common words. Avoid formal, academic, or complex words and jargon.
  • Use acronyms and abbreviations only after writing them out in full on the first occurrence.
  • Use a tone that is authoritative and direct, yet friendly and helpful.
  • Use active voice. Check your content with the Zombie Test.
  • Use inclusive language. Avoid referring to demographics like age or gender.
  • Write for action. Make it clear when action is needed. Lead with active verbs.
Provide human interaction and support to applicants

Make sure your online application provides a way for ERA applicants to get a helping hand to complete the application process if they need it. This service should be made available to applicants either over the phone or, if possible, in person. In addition, getting feedback from the individuals providing this support is another way to identify friction points in your application that can be improved.

Iterate on your applications and usability test them with landlords and tenants

Test the questions you are asking of applicants in your applications by putting them in front of applicants and determine if they understand what is being asked of them. When needed, iterate on question phrasing to make it easier for applicants to understand. Using plain language here is critical, but equally critical is getting feedback from actual applicants.

2. Reduce the cognitive load on applicants

The cognitive load imposed by a user interface is the amount of mental resources that an applicant has to use to operate the system. There is already a cognitive burden to poverty and/or experiences of crisis, so the application should not add to that already significant cognitive load.

  • Minimize the cognitive load by identifying tasks that the system can perform and remove those responsibilities from the applicant. Perform eligibility checks, such as AMI qualification on the backend.
  • Only ask applicants for information that is required by the ERA statutes and Treasury’s guidance to provide them assistance.
  • If you find an element of your application requires a great deal of explanatory text to tell the applicant how to use the interface or how to enter information, then that is a good indicator that this element of your application needs to be redesigned.

Practices to make this happen

Structure your forms the way you would hold a conversation

Think of your form as a conversation. In a conversation with an applicant, you would likely not start by asking the most sensitive, private information first. You’d usually ask them easy questions first, like their name and address. You’d likely ask them easy questions first, like their name and address. You’d also likely group questions about a topic together, such as questions about household income. Structure your form in the same way. This case study on structuring complex health care questions for healthcare.gov goes into greater detail on how to do this.

One thing per page

Another way to reduce cognitive load is to stick to the One thing per page principle and design pattern. The Government Digital Service (GDS) in the UK has written about their use of this pattern and has found that it not only helps applicants understand what you’re asking them to do, it also helps your application save an applicant's answers automatically as they go, capture analytics about each question, and handle branching questions.

Hide complexity from an applicant until or unless they must take action

Many programs are customizing their digital ERA applications to only reveal certain questions based on information provided by the applicant in order “to lower the chances that applicants will feel overwhelmed by what they encounter.” By revealing only the essentials, applications can help applicants manage the complexity of the application process. This design pattern is known as progressive disclosure and is a way to hide complexity. For example, it would be appropriate to first ask an applicant if they want assistance for utilities and have them confirm that they do before asking them for which utilities and for how many months of arrears. This principle works well when combined with the “One thing per page” pattern mentioned above.

This is also a technique to only collect the information you need to make a determination. If you are able to order your questions in a way that, based on the applicant’s answers, avoids additional questions for some applicants it may also reduce information that has to be reviewed and thus speed up processing time.

You can further reduce complexity by only surfacing information that’s pertinent to the applicant and hiding information that’s for internal use or pertains to application processing. Showing an AMI table and asking the applicant to determine whether or not their income and household size meets the eligibility requirements puts the onus on the applicant to find the appropriate range. Instead, asking the applicant for their address or county and household size gives the system the information it needs to return the relevant information to help the applicant.

Use examples and lists instead of requiring blocks of text

An effective way to reduce cognitive load is to use recognition over recall. This can be accomplished by providing examples in easily scanned lists of the type of information you are looking for instead of requiring that the applicant enter narratives.

  • Use examples rather than require a long narrative for each document category.
  • Offer a checklist for applicants to indicate how their income was affected due to or during the pandemic. Offer an “other” list item and allow applicants to provide a single line of text to describe a cause not listed.
  • Use a simple checkbox or button that when clicked provides the necessary agreement from the applicant for self-attestation.

3. Give users control, freedom, and autonomy

When an applicant feels like they are driving the application process, they are more likely to submit an accurate and complete application. Conversely, when a system forces them down an unexpected path or requires them to upload a document they don’t have in order to proceed, applicants may become discouraged and drop off. This can result in incomplete and duplicate applications and cause qualified applicants to miss out on assistance.

  • Applicants can move forward even if a portion of the application is incomplete. They should have a way to save their information and come back to complete the portion.
  • Applicants are able to correct mistakes or backtrack on choices made in their application (as well as undo/redo).
  • Design your application so applicants don’t have to complete the entire process in one sitting.

Practices to make this happen

Let applicants know upfront what type of documentation they can provide

As noted in our Guidelines for program websites, provide this information before the application begins and make the information specific to the appropriate audience. This means preparing content for both tenants and landlords. In addition, this section should cover why the documentation is necessary, which documentation is required and which are alternative forms, and what will be done with the information.

  • Tell potential applicants which documents will be requested and why in an easily scannable list.
  • Tell potential applicants that self-attestation, without using that jargon, is available. (e.g., Applicants can verify that the information they provided is accurate without having to provide additional documentation if documentation is not available)
  • Don’t require more documentation than is actually required to process the application.
Allow applicants to progress and self-attest if they cannot provide documentation

At the stage when applicants are asked to provide documents to establish COVID hardship, housing instability, income, or rental obligation, applicants should also be informed that they may self-attest and move forward in the application if they do not have those documents.

Allow applicants to save and return to their applications at a later point to add or correct information

Applicants should not be expected to complete an ERA application in one sitting. Given the documentation requirements, many applicants may need to collect documents and return to upload them at a later time.

Many programs close the application to the applicant for processing. Staff then have to email or call applicants to ask them to provide missing documentation. While this interaction may at times be necessary, the application shouldn’t be closed to the applicant in case they are able to get help in uploading the necessary document(s). By permitting the applicant to initially provide this information for themselves, this can cut down on the processing time. Alternatively, an email address that can be used to submit documentation should be given to the applicant at the conclusion of the application if they fail to provide all requested documents.

4. Create visibility and transparency of the process

Operational transparency of the ERA application and application processing can fundamentally reshape the ways tenants and landlords understand, perceive, and engage with the grantees and community-based organizations that serve them.

  • People want to know what they are getting into before they start. Communicate that to set expectations and maximize successful completion.
  • Allow applicants to check on the status of their application and show who needs to complete any outstanding steps.
  • Grantees should be cognizant of when and how applicants and community partners who are assisting applicants need further transparency into the process. There are multiple users of the system so they should be able to access different kinds of relevant information and progress updates to be effective at their roles in order to help expedite the processing of applications.
  • When people see the work going on behind the scenes, they value the service more, will go to the website again in the future, and will trust grantees and community-based organizations more.

Practices to make this happen

Set expectations and requirements before, during, and after application

Before applicants begin the application, ERA grantees should communicate the purpose of the application and how long it will take to complete the application. There should also be a clear explanation of the types of information applicants will be asked to provide in the application. Within the application, required information should be clearly explained. After applicants submit their application, you should specify estimated processing times and follow up activities or reminders for the applicants.

  • Follow the practices in Guidelines for program websites and set expectations so applicants know what information they will need to prepare to apply.
  • If you are opening or closing your application, communicate exactly when that will be. If you’re closed, direct applicants to other programs they may be eligible for in the interim.
  • Set up role expectations of the process and program. Explain how landlords are involved and who has to do what during the application process.
  • Before and during the application, indicate what steps have been completed and which are ahead.
  • Clearly communicate what happens after an applicant submits information, what the next step(s) will be, and how long they should expect to wait to get information on the status of their application and if the application is satisfactory, when and how they will receive the assistance.
  • Let applicants know if they are able to reapply.
  • Communicate when payments have gone out to the tenants.
  • Explain why you are giving the amount of assistance that you awarded.
  • Explain any limits your program has set on the amount of assistance you’re able to provide to each applicant so people have a clear understanding of the maximum amount that they might receive.
Break the process into steps and indicate where the user is in the process using a step indicator

The application process should be divided into clear steps that build towards a complete application. A step indicator updates applicants on their progress through a multi-step process. It’s important to ground applicants in the process by letting them know how many steps are in the process, how many steps they have completed, and which steps they have yet to complete. The U.S. Web Design System has more guidance and a component example.

Prevent duplicate applications and allow applicants a way to check on their application status

For applicants that attempt to reapply, it is important to intercept that attempt to save them time and frustration as well as prevent the processing of duplicate applications. To accomplish this when a new application is started that matches the name and address of an existing application, provide the applicant a summary of their existing application and ask if they have information to update the existing application.

When applicants return to check on their application, show them what's missing from the application, show who has the next step, and if at all possible, give them an estimated time frame for when they might expect payment. Being transparent about where an application is in the process and expected processing times will drive down anxiety for the applicant as well as reduce duplicate applications and contacts to your program for a status update. Emphasize that applying again will not speed up the process. Be sure to make application status information visible on both the tenant and landlord side of your application.

5. Reduce friction and barriers

Application friction and barriers either slow down the process or introduce obstacles that prevent applicants from completing their ERA applications (eg. back and forth with documentation; internet access challenges; etc.) When programs reduce friction and barrier bust for applicants, they increase access to assistance, manage applicants' stressors, and increase the likelihood of applicants’ follow-through and action. People’s coping resources can be depleted under this already stressful situation. Friction and barriers to access the help they need during a crisis only exacerbate this stress and take up time that people in crisis can’t afford.

  • Pre-populate fields with information that’s already been captured.
  • Make sure applicants can easily complete your application on their phone.
  • Allow for document upload in the application and after the fact for those who need more time.
  • Ensure your content is available in the languages commonly spoken in your area. Make sure your language indicators are written in those languages.

Practices to make this happen

Offer a pre-eligibility check

A pre-eligibility check is a screener, or first step that informs applicants whether they are likely to qualify for assistance and can help applicants know whether it’s worth investing their time in filling out the rest of the application. In addition, it can also provide households looking for new housing or those who may be in court proceedings documentation to show to a landlord or court.

The data the applicant provides through the pre-eligibility check should pre-populate their full application so that they do not have to enter the information again. Ideally, it could also help customize or streamline the full application.

Offer document upload

Give applicants the ability to upload documents in the online application.

  • Provide an upload option within the application either as each document is needed or at the end of the process.
  • Allow applicants to upload or email in documents after their application is submitted.
  • Don’t require that applicants do more work to meet your system requirements. Especially avoid tasks that are difficult to address on a mobile phone, such as having to combine documents into a single file.
Indicate when a single document can satisfy multiple eligibility requirements

Documents such as tax returns or income determination letters from unemployment or other government assistance programs can satisfy document requirements for identity, residence, and income. Within the application, clearly indicate which documents can be used to satisfy the multiple documentation requirements. When applicants provide one of these “gold standard documents,” make it clear that they do not need to provide additional documents and do not prompt them to submit further documentation.

Offer the self-attestation option when prompting applicants to provide documentation

The use of self-attestation is strongly encouraged and ensures your program offers access to all who qualify. It may in fact be the most reliable form of evidence for the ERA application categories where documentation is required.

Not all applicants will have the technological skills or access to upload documents. When prompting an applicant to provide documentation, be sure to also offer self-attestation as an option at the same time. Then, applicants who don't possess or aren’t able to upload documents won’t get the impression that the absence of such documents disqualifies them from receiving assistance. Further reduce friction by allowing applicants to check a box to indicate that they provided a self-attestation.

Offer an electronic signature

Make it easy for applicants to sign their ERA application electronically online. Eligible households may encounter barriers in uploading documents. Offering an electronic signature removes this unnecessary obstacle and increases the chances that they are able to submit a completed ERA application online.

 

1 The program information provided herein is intended solely to illuminate “guidelines” that ERA grantees might consider when developing their jurisdiction’s program policies and infrastructure. All such policy development must proceed in accordance with the governing legal authorities and published policy guidance. Nothing herein should be construed as (i) altering these requirements or (ii) confirming that any specific grantee’s program policies or administrative practices have been fully reviewed and found compliant.