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Bill Rohe and Michael Webb

Scholars Bill Rohe, left, and Michael Webb won a Harvey award for their affordable housing app. (photo by Johnny Andrews)

UNC scholars will develop an app to help low-income families find affordable homes in  better neighborhoods.

Bill Rohe has 35 years of experience researching affordable housing; Michael Webb has worked with community organizations and led evaluations for more than 10 years. They have now teamed up with local housing leaders to develop a new tool to help people find homes in better neighborhoods.

The tool is a web app called the Housing Opportunity Finder, which was chosen for a UNC-Chapel Hill C. Felix Harvey Award to Advance Institutional Priorities. The award supports the application of humanities and/or social sciences research to real-world challenges outside the University.

Developed to assist low-income families, including those who qualify for the federal government’s Housing Choice Voucher program, the Housing Opportunity Finder will compile affordable listings in North Carolina’s Durham and Orange counties. It will then prioritize listings that are located in “high-opportunity” neighborhoods, defined as having low crime, good schools, job opportunities and other attributes that support human development.

Nationwide, 2.2 million families with vouchers struggle to find affordable housing, especially in high-opportunity neighborhoods. In Durham County, the average voucher-qualified family spends 120 days searching for housing, and nearly a third of the vouchers expire before the families can find a home. Plus, only 5% of voucher families live in high-opportunity areas, while 18% of all affordable units are in those areas.

The idea for the app started when Webb, senior research associate at the College of Arts & Sciences’ Center for Urban and Regional Studies (CURS), first met Janet Xiao, co-director of the Community Empowerment Fund.

“Janet was interested in understanding where opportunity neighborhoods were in Durham County so she could steer people exiting homelessness into the best neighborhoods available,” Webb said. He created a map of high-opportunity neighborhoods for Xiao that turned out to be not so helpful. “It basically showed where rich people live in the county — and there’s not a lot of affordable housing in those neighborhoods,” Webb explained.

After more discussion, Webb and Xiao teamed up with Bill Rohe, professor of city and regional planning and former director of CURS, to come up with a better solution to Xiao’s problem. “We put together the idea of having focus groups made up from different types of low-income residents — single mothers, the elderly, veterans, people exiting the homeless system — to ask them what they want in a neighborhood,” said Rohe.

“We can customize opportunity metrics for different groups,” Webb added. “If you’re a single mom with kids, you probably really care about the schools. If you’re an elderly person, you might want to live closer to a hospital or clinic. If you’re a veteran, you might want to be near a veteran’s service center.”

Housing Opportunity Finder app
A screenshot of the prototype Housing Opportunity Finder.

The feedback from the focus groups will be matched with local and national data to make customized maps of high-opportunity areas.

The map will then be paired with affordable listings on, a service provided by Socialserve and the North Carolina Housing Finance Agency. The Housing Opportunity Finder will allow users to customize their definition of opportunity and identify the type of housing they want. It will then prioritize listings using those criteria.

The app is expected to launch next summer.

“We’re really hoping to leverage the Harvey Award funding to develop the best possible product,” Rohe said. “Sheryl Waddell and Judith Cone of Innovate Carolina have been great, especially in helping us think through the entrepreneurial side of the project. Hopefully, after our release of the web app, it can be replicated by other communities across the country.”


By Andy Berner

Published in the Fall 2019 issue | Tar Heels Up Close

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