Guidelines for Online HAF Applications
For homeowners in distress, it is important the Homeowner Assistance Fund (HAF) application process is accessible and can be completed without undue burden. To help accomplish these goals, Treasury has prepared suggestions for creating and improving the HAF application to make it easy for eligible homeowners to use it. These best practices were created in conjunction with the U.S. Digital Service to help HAF participants make their HAF applications more accessible.
Suggestions for HAF application development
- Design With and For the Audience
- Create Visibility and Transparency of the Process Through Communication
- Ensure Applications are Easy to Understand and Complete
- Reduce Friction and Barriers
- Protect Applicant Data in Application Design
1. DESIGN WITH AND FOR THE AUDIENCE
The most successful systems and services are shaped and informed by the needs of those who use them. Assumptions about others’ experience can be wrong, inflicted with personal bias, or overlook details critical to making a program effective. Placing the homeowner at the center of the application design process can set the HAF program up for efficiency and success.
Strategies for Designing for your Audience
- Co-design the application with homeowners to understand their needs and challenges.
- Review the application questions and the usability of the website with real applicants to determine if it is usable and clear.
- Adjust the standard language of a commercial platform used for the online application so that it provides a more personalized experience to the applicant. For example, the application interface can show the applicant’s name and the instructions can refer to the applicant by name rather than a username.
- Avoid collecting or storing information about the applicant beyond what is required by Treasury for HAF reporting purposes. For example, offer identity verification methods other than a social security number.
- Create a system to identify and address barriers to applications, including lack of familiarity or access to technology. Program staff can help by providing technical guidance over the phone, through in-person navigators, and PDF versions of the application in multiple languages.
- Ask the personnel providing support for applicants and applicants themselves to identify friction points and ways to improve the application.
- Adjust the application based on feedback from the applicant and support personnel.
- Capture analytics about each application question to identify trends in applicant challenges and gain a greater understanding of ongoing trends in the housing market.
- Use plain language at an 8th grade reading level that’s easy for applicants to understand and is accessible to a diverse group of applicants. Avoid formal, academic, or complex words and jargon.
- Use acronyms and abbreviations only after writing them out in full the first time they’re used.
- Use a tone that is authoritative and direct, yet friendly and helpful.
- Use inclusive language. Avoid referring to demographics like age or gender.
- Lead with active verbs and make it clear when action is needed.
2. CREATE VISIBILITY AND TRANSPARENCY OF THE PROCESS THROUGH COMMUNICATION
HAF programs should rely upon visibility, transparency, and communication in making households aware of HAF assistance and in the application process. Consistent and accessible communication with applicants and the community is essential to the success of the HAF program.
Strategies for Visibility and Transparency of the Process Through Communication
- Provide automatic reminders and follow-up activities for applicants.
- 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 receive information on the status of their application and, if the application is satisfactory, when and how the funds will be applied to their account.
- Ensure applicants can access information regarding the next steps and the current status of their HAF application until the household’s account receives funding. Provide multiple update sources for applicants which can include: a weekly email with reminders and status updates; an on-demand online portal; or support personnel available by phone as well as text messaging.
- Explain any limits the program has set on the amount of assistance it is able to provide to each applicant so households have a clear understanding of the maximum amount that they might receive.
- Communicate with homeowners when payments have gone out to the servicers, utilities, taxing authorities, etc. Explain why their account received the awarded amount.
- If a household’s application is not approved, provide an explanation and useful next steps including links to other sources of funding. If applicable, let applicants know if they are able to reapply and if any preventable mistakes were made in their first application.
- HAF participants should continue to provide transparency of the application process to applicants and community partners who are assisting applicants.
- Follow the practices in HAF's Guidelines for Program Websites and set expectations so applicants know what information they will need to prepare to apply.
- If the window to receive applications is opening or closing, communicate exactly when that will be. If the HAF program has closed for applications, direct applicants to other programs they may be eligible for in the interim.
- Engage community-based organizations to support outreach to targeted populations who would be eligible for assistance.
3. ENSURE APPLICATIONS ARE EASY TO UNDERSTAND AND COMPLETE
Consider the applicant’s real-time situation when designing a website or application platform. People experiencing financial instability and/or other crises are often juggling complex challenges when applying for assistance. To help targeted populations access assistance, ensure applications are easy to understand and easy to complete in a timely manner. Inclusive applications should reflect a variety of situations that allows applicants to easily identify how their lived experience fits within the program’s eligibility requirements and offerings.
Strategies for Improving Application Clarity and Usability
- Application Structure
- Provide an easy to read and understand list of documents that will be requested from potential applicants prior to opening the application.
- Explain how long the application should take to complete at the beginning and include estimated processing times once the application is submitted, if possible.
- Ask easy questions up front, such as name, address, and contact information, including phone number and email address.
- Identify opportunities to pre-populate information that’s already been captured such as name, address, contact information, etc.
- Segment the application so one page focuses on one topic to help applicants understand what is asked of them. For example, group questions about a topic together, such as questions on household and income.
- Use a simple checkbox or button that, when clicked, provides the necessary agreement from the applicant for self-attestation.
- Provide alternative methods for homeowners to apply to the program which could include using a hard-copy version of the application, either for reviewing the questions that will be asked or for actual submission. Enable partners to disseminate physical copies to potential applicants, to assist with completing applications in person, and to collect the applications to be shared with the HAF program. Allowing homeowners to apply over the phone or in person could also help with technology-access difficulties.
- Application Features
- Guide applicants to eligibility guidelines at the beginning of the application to alleviate concerns or hesitations to applying. For example, providing a checklist of ways a family may have been financially impacted by COVID-19 can help identify potential eligibility and streamline the application process.
- Design the application so applicants don’t have to complete the entire process in one sitting.
- Save an applicant's answers automatically as they go.
- Allow applicants to move forward even if a portion of the application is incomplete.
- Allow applicants to correct mistakes or backtrack on choices made in their application (as well as undo/redo).
- Break the process into steps and indicate where the user is in the process using a step indicator.
- Review application questions that require a lot of text to explain and redesign to simplify the question. Use examples and lists instead.
- Make sure applicants can easily complete the application on their phones.
- 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. When a new application is started that matches the name and address of an existing application, once the applicant’s identity has been verified, provide the applicant a summary of their existing application and ask if they have information to update the existing application.
4. REDUCE FRICTION AND BARRIERS
Application friction and barriers either slow down the process or introduce obstacles that prevent applicants from completing their HAF applications. By proactively providing support and addressing other potential applicant barriers HAF participants increase the likelihood of complete and timely applications for assistance. Remember, homeowners applying for assistance are already in a stressful situation. Barriers to access the help they need only exacerbate this stress and take up time that people in crisis can’t afford.
- Strategies for Streamlining
- Offer a pre-eligibility check within the application processing system, such as a backend AMI qualification, rather than requiring the applicant to review a chart. With this first step, applicants can determine if they are likely to qualify for assistance and if it’s worth investing their time in filling out the rest of the application. In addition, it can also provide households who may be in court proceedings over non-payment the necessary documentation to demonstrate they may qualify for HAF assistance.
- Reveal questions based on information provided by the applicant to lower the chances an applicant becomes overwhelmed. Do not present additional questions and other unnecessary information to the applicant until or unless they must take action with “progressive disclosure”.
- Offer an electronic signature option.
- Indicate when a single document can satisfy multiple eligibility requirements.
- Allow applicants to upload documents within the online application or email documents after their application is submitted.
5. PROTECT APPLICANT DATA IN APPLICATION DESIGN
When designing an application and gathering an applicant's personal information, it is important to provide control and autonomy by protecting that data and asking only for what is required.
HAF participants should establish data privacy and security measures for the information about households collected from utility providers, mortgage servicers and the households themselves.
Pursuant to 2 CFR 200.303(e), HAF participants are required to take reasonable measures to safeguard protected personally identifiable information and other information Treasury or the HAF participants designate as sensitive or the non-Federal entity considers sensitive consistent with applicable Federal, State, local, and tribal laws regarding privacy and responsibility over confidentiality.
Strategies to Protect Applicant Data in Applications and Data Collection
- Avoid the collecting or storing information about the applicant beyond the data required by Treasury for HAF reporting purposes. For example, offer identity verification methods other than a social security number to avoid inconsistency with the Privacy Act.
- Consider including confidentiality protections for data collected about any individuals who are survivors of intimate partner violence, sexual assault, or stalking.
- Explain what will be done with any information provided.
 The program information provided herein is intended solely to illuminate suggestions that HAF participants 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 participant’s program policies or administrative practices have been fully reviewed and found compliant.
 Include acceptable alternatives to documents. Require only documentation that is necessary and required to process the application.
 The U.S. Web Design System has more guidance and a component example.
 For example, 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.