As the number of people looking for affordable housing on the Internet surges, few affordable housing owners are taking advantage of the marketing and leasing opportunities this presents. Potential tenants of low-income housing tax credit projects can now check availability, check their credit, and reserve a unit without coming into the office. Eventually, owners want to also make it possible for these tenants to sign leases online, just like customers for market-rate units can do.

“A misconception exists that lowerincome people don’t use the Internet or don’t have access to computers,” said Karen Kossow, vice president of marketing for Kettler Management. “There are so many good deals on computers now. You can get the Internet for as low as $14 or $15 a month.”

Kettler is a developer of residential and mixed-use communities in metropolitan Washington, D.C. Its affordable housing portfolio consists of 7,000 units in 28 communities. The company uses an online leasing software product called VaultWare for its entire portfolio, except for a few market-rate properties. VaultWare is compatible with property management systems, resident screening providers, and Internet listing services (ILS). Kettler has incorporated VaultWare into apartment listings of its 28 tax credit projects on ILS, as well as on its company Web site. Fifteen of those projects are also listed in print guides, while the remaining apartments are listed on the Internet only.

With this technology, individuals can see whether an apartment is available, how many bedrooms and bathrooms it has, how large the unit is, and what the rent is. The monthly rent is automatically updated. If they like what they see, a click of the mouse places a hold on the unit. Then they fill out a brief electronic form. The leasing team gets the form and lets the inquirers know by e-mail that they have 24 hours to complete the application process.

“This also is a great follow-up tool,” said Kossow. “If John Doe has come to our apartment community and before he leaves, he says, ‘I’m not ready to put in the application, because I have two other properties to look at,’ then we can say, ‘Great, when you get home tonight, after you’ve looked at those communities, and you’ve decided that you want to live at ours, you can go online and reserve this apartment and start the process, so that you don’t miss out on it.’”

What about the income qualifications for these tenants? That’s a problem easily solved with an income calculator that pops up before individuals can check their credit online (which can be done for a $9.95 fee). They enter their income and get an instant response letting them know if they qualify for an income-targeted unit.

Most of Kettler’s customers on the affordable side choose to complete their credit screening online. This step saves the leasing professional about an hour’s worth of paperwork, said Kossow.

“We are getting people who otherwise would not have applied in our offices, because they are embarrassed they don’t think they’re credit-qualified,” said Kossow. “In our office, we know this. But in their minds, it’s more anonymous [online].”

If customers reserve a unit and complete credit screening online, Kettler waives their application fees.

The firm closes on 20 percent of the reservations on its tax-credit units, compared with 60 percent for Kettler’s market- rate units. Still, 20 percent is “a good number,” said Kossow. “We’ve still saved all that time and so has the customer.”

She is working with VaultWare to get its application online at the ILS. Currently, the online application only is available at the firm’s Web site.

The only thing these customers can’t do in the process is sign a lease online. LeasingDesk recently has made this capability possible on the market-rate side with its eSignature capability. After signing a lease with an electronic signature, the customer simply reports to the leasing office to pick up the keys.

Atlanta-based Ambling Management Cos. is interested in bringing this technology to the affordable realm. It’s testing the feature on a few of its student housing properties this fall, while it asks various state housing agencies for approval, said Mack Casey, system implementation director for Ambling.

“The electronic signature may not be utilized a lot in the affordable world, but owners and managers would have that option,” said Casey. “It could save them a lot of time and resources. Then [owners] truly could cater to everyone.”