Ten years ago, the promise of a paperless office seemed attainable, just beyond the horizon.

While that vision certainly hasn't come to pass, the affordable housing industry continues to take steps toward a future that, at the least, includes less paper.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is hoping to introduce a new version of the Tenant Rental Assistance Certification System (TRACS) in the fourth quarter. TRACS allows owners to send verification and voucher files into the HUD database, updating all the resident and unit information, and creating a bill that ultimately lays out how much money HUD owes.

The latest iteration, TRACS 202D, will include additional fields of information that were mandated by the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008. Most important, the latest iteration will take a step toward a paperless future for HUD vouchers.

“The impact is going to be significant, it will change virtually every compliance screen in [Yardi] Voyager's work flow," says Mark Livanec, vice president of affordable housing sales for Yardi Systems. “But the biggest change is that they're looking to get away from paper vouchers— this new software requires a new electronic vouchering system."

When it is rolled out, TRACS 202D will offer a pilot program, in a sense, for testing out electronic vouchers. The third-party contract administrators, who process the vouchers for HUD, will be free to tell certain sites that paper vouchers are no longer required if they find the electronic submissions sufficient.

Of course, paper vouchers still need to be retained, with signatures, on-site. But with its electronic voucher template, TRACS 202D will be the inflection point, the beginning of the end of having to fax every voucher.

While implementation of 202D is still far off—as of mid-March, the specs hadn't been agreed upon, keeping software development in stasis—other connectivity strides in the affordable housing world are being made.

Automated repayment agreements

Last year, the Enterprise Income Verification (EIV) system—a federal database with resident income information managed by Health and Human Services—was made mandatory for all owners and management agents of HUD-subsidized properties.

In the past, owners had no way of identifying income that residents didn't report. But since the advent of the EIV, a lot of misreported income has been uncovered, and, consequently, many tenants find themselves having to pay back some subsidy to HUD. But that repayment is the owner's responsibility. Owners have to figure out the amount of the repayment, establish a payment plan, collect the money, do a manual adjustment, and then send it back to HUD.

Since this requires extra work for the owner, HUD will give them a percentage— up to 20 percent—of the payment collected. But HUD will only award the cut provided you've kept detailed notes documenting your efforts to collect the income.

“Most of the industry wasn't even bothering, because every time you collect and request your commission, they're going to ask you to back up your claim,” says Gustavo Sapiurka, general manager of affordable housing at RealPage. “The affordable housing industry has really struggled to keep track of these agreements."

Some repayment agreements reach back five years and can total $10,000, meaning the repayment agreement stretches for years into the future. HUD regulations are clear that the repayment agreements can't be so draconian as to get the tenant evicted, so small amounts are collected in installments. But the manual process owners used made tracking and accounting for the funds difficult to validate.

So RealPage recently rolled out an automated repayment service to help owners manage the process. Part of the company's standard application, the service is free for all existing OneSite Affordable customers.

The repayment program automatically calculates a repayment plan schedule, creates an agreement letter, and allows users to save an itemized list of any collection costs for auditing purposes to retain their portion of the repayment. The service also automatically adds the manual adjustment to the housing assistance payment request each time a tenant pays toward the repayment balance. RealPage worked with Edgewood Management as well as Yarco on the design of the product.

“We're taking those manual calculations and paperwork out of the hands of the site managers, and we also created a log where we can document every step, every letter, every attorney fee, anything," says Sapiurka. “Our customers are now starting to claim that percentage. Every little bit of revenue helps."

Digital cash

Sometimes, just processing a rent payment is difficult enough. While Yardi and RealPage offer check scanning and online payments, one of the most commonly used forms of payments in the affordable housing industry is the money order. And until recently, all money orders had to be processed manually or scanned via check scanner.

PropertyBridge recently rolled out a service, Pay by Cash, which allows residents to pay rent by digital money order. The company is owned by MoneyGram International, an electronic funds transfer provider. Renters can pay in digital cash at any MoneyGram agent location throughout the country, including retailers like Walmart and CVS.

Morgan Properties, which manages more than 30,000 units, implemented the service last year, and between April and December, received more than 13,000 MoneyGram payments, or more than $9 million in rent that on-site teams did not have to process manually. Another advantage is improved cash flow: Pay by Cash funds are in the bank the next day as opposed to a few days later, or more, with a physical money order.

“We wanted to make sure that the money processed was quickly received both in the bank and showing on the resident's account ledger,” says Amy Weissberger, operations project manager at Morgan Properties.