San Antonio goes to the cloud to speed up housing payments

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The city's housing authority adopted Adobe EchoSign, a software-as-a-service e-signing application that cut the time to process housing assistance contracts by 98 percent.

The San Antonio Housing Authority is using a cloud-based, electronic signature service that lets the agency and participating landlords electronically sign and transmit documents, dramatically reducing the time it takes to process housing assistance payment contracts.

The service, Adobe EchoSign, has cut the turnaround time for processing contracts and providing payment to property owners and landlords participating in the Housing Choice Voucher Program from 90 days to a matter of hours.

Previously, SAHA staff had to print out contracts and supporting materials, stuff the envelopes, pay for mailing and then wait for the landlords to receive the materials, sign them and send them back for additional processing, said Deborah Aleman, SAHA's director of assisted housing.

Three years ago, SAHA conducted a complete analysis of the process cycle times for the voucher program, including how long it took to get back signed contracts from landlords. The Housing Choice Voucher Program, better known as Section 8, is the federal government's major program for assisting very low-income families, the elderly and the disabled to afford decent, safe and sanitary housing in the private market.

Housing vouchers are issued to qualified tenants by public housing agencies, which receive federal funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Once a property owner accepts the voucher and agrees to the conditions of the program, the tenant brings the voucher back to SAHA, which sends out the necessary documents to the landlords.

Typical turnaround time was 30 days, but in some worse cases it could take 60 to 90 days.  Funding cuts put more constraints on the agency to deliver efficient services to customers, but with more limited resources.  As a result, SAHA began exploring innovative solutions to reduce the turnaround time for Housing Assistance Program (HAP) contracts.

“My staff was tasked with identifying opportunities to improve our customer services delivery through technology,” a challenging job since technology is constantly changing, Aleman said.

In March 2012, SAHA signed on with Adobe EchoSign Enterprise for a 60-user subscription to Adobe's electronic signature services. After two months of preliminary testing and procedural development, a pilot program was launched in which a select group of SAHA's housing specialists tested the new system and procedures, and provided their feedback to management. In August housing specialists were trained to use the system, which was then mandated a month later.

Adobe EchoSign is a cloud-based, software-as-a-service application that does not require an organization to modify its IT infrastructure. Organizations that subscribe to the service simply login to EchoSign.com and can immediately start using the service, said Mangesh Bhandarkar, director of product management for Adobe EchoSign. 

EchoSign provides menu options that let a range of users and organizations use the service, from an individual, independent proprietor to large enterprises.  A wizard interface walks an administrator through configuration steps in about five minutes and allows them to build and customize templates with their own organization’s look and feel. 

“When the landlords come onto the service to sign, the branding shows that they are dealing with SAHA not Adobe,” Bhandarkar said.

Once the agency uploads the documents into EchoSign, an email is sent out to the landlords, who then click on a link that lets them access their documents.  The document is loaded in the recipient's Web browser so no downloads or installations are needed. Landlords can  review and sign instantly online with a mouse or stylus, by typing their name, or by fax. The service also supports a variety of document formats including HTML, Microsoft Office, Excel, PDF and other image formats.

From a technology perspective, there was little the agency had to do besides buy the current version of Adobe Acrobat.  Landlords and SAHA internal staff  had to develop a comfort level signing documents electronically, Aleman said. 

On average, SAHA now receives contracts back from the landlords in 16 hours – and in some cases, within minutes, Aleman said, adding that the participating landlords are happy also that they get paid sooner. SAHA managers can monitor the status of the contract to determine if it is with the landlord or held up by staff members.  Plus, every action taken during the signature process is recorded and reported through a detailed audit trail, Aleman said. 

The service also provides complete document confidentiality and secure storage in the cloud using email and password authentication. Documents are encrypted with full Advanced Encryption Standard 256-bit Secure Sockets Layer security and customer account data is encrypted with RSA keys. Contracts are converted to a secure PDF format prior to transmission to eliminate last-minute unapproved revisions, Bhandarkar said.

The move toward e-signatures aligns with the agency’s overall goal to move to a paperless environment, Aleman said. The goal in fiscal year 2014 is to get 100 percent landlord participation in the voucher e-signature service.  Aleman would also like to bring tenants into the service.  SAHA has 13,000 families enrolled in the voucher program and has set up self-service kiosks with computers in the agency’s lobby. Those tenants that don’t have computer access could also use computers in public libraries, she said.

Public housing agencies from other municipalities have contacted SAHA to learn more about the agency’s move to e-signatures, Aleman said.  State and local agencies across the country are looking for ways to do more with fewer resources, but at the same time maintain quality of services. The trick is to work smarter not harder.

 “If we can do that with technology, then we need to get all over it,” Aleman said.

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