Follow Four Rules When Maintaining an Electronic Waiting List

HUD defines a waiting list as a formal record of applicants for housing assistance or assisted housing units that identifies the applicant’s name, date and time of application, selection preferences claimed, income category, and the need for an accessible unit. The waiting list may be kept in either a bound journal or a computer program [HUD Handbook 4350.3, Glossary]. If your site is considering using an electronic waiting list maintained through a computer, you must follow some special HUD rules for electronic waiting lists [Handbook 4350.3, par. 4-18].

HUD defines a waiting list as a formal record of applicants for housing assistance or assisted housing units that identifies the applicant’s name, date and time of application, selection preferences claimed, income category, and the need for an accessible unit. The waiting list may be kept in either a bound journal or a computer program [HUD Handbook 4350.3, Glossary]. If your site is considering using an electronic waiting list maintained through a computer, you must follow some special HUD rules for electronic waiting lists [Handbook 4350.3, par. 4-18]. These rules cover such items as tracking when applicants are added to the list and the use of electronic safeguards. If you don’t follow these rules, you could face discrimination claims and get into trouble with HUD.

We’ll tell you how to set up an electronic waiting list and what you must do to comply with HUD rules on maintaining electronic waiting lists. We’ll also give you some tips on what you can do to keep your list secure.

Setting Up List

If you’re thinking about using an electronic list for the first time, you must consider the following two issues:

1. How to maintain list. You can maintain your electronic waiting list a number of ways, including using a spreadsheet program or software specially designed for this purpose. If you opt for special waiting list software, here are some recommended features to help comply with HUD rules and be more efficient:

  • Tracking history. This feature tracks changes made to the waiting list. Depending on the software, it might record information like who made a change to the waiting list, and when, and why the change was made.
  • Handbook rules embedded in system. This feature normally alerts the user when a change is being made to the waiting list that doesn’t appear to conform to HUD rules. Some software will prompt the user to provide an explanation for the change. Other software will require supervisory approval before accepting the change.
  • Applicant information on electronic waiting list. The applicant information that appears on the list differs from software to software. This information should match HUD’s requirements.
  • List filtering. This feature allows waiting lists to be sorted by various categories including unit size, applicant age, and income categories. This can help you tailor your marketing efforts to various applicant populations.
  • Integration. This feature allows applicant information to be keyed into the system only once. So, for example, information entered at the application stage can be used at the move-in stage.
  • Reports. You want software that allows you to generate a number of different types of reports (for instance, comparing information like pre-certified applicants and yearly turnovers). This can help you to better manage your site.
  • Usability. The software should be as user-friendly as possible. You want all site members, even those who aren’t comfortable with technology, to be able to use it effectively.
  • User control. This feature allows you to limit password access to selected staff users. It also allows you to control what functions (adding, deleting, or editing applications) users can perform.

2. How to convert manual list to electronic list. To avoid trouble with HUD, you must carefully and correctly transcribe the information on your manual list to the electronic list. In particular, you need to be sure that no applicant names are lost or misspelled and the list’s order isn’t changed. Because a manual list can be complicated and lengthy, once the information has been transcribed to an electronic list, you should have a “fresh pair of eyes” review and compare the two lists for mistakes. Keep a copy of the manual list for at least 36 months after the conversion as evidence that it was transcribed correctly.

Complying with HUD Rules

The HUD Handbook has rules that apply only to electronic waiting lists and rules that apply to both electronic and manual lists. If you’re maintaining an electronic waiting list, here’s what HUD says you must do.

Rule #1: Include required information. HUD says your waiting list, whether electronic or manual, must include:

  • Name of head of household;
  • Date and time application submitted;
  • Applicant’s preference status;
  • Applicant’s annual income level for income targeting purposes (for example, extremely low income, very low income, and low income);
  • Whether the applicant needs an accessible unit, including the need for accessible features;
  • Preference status; and
  • Unit size applicant needs [Handbook 4350.3, par. 4-16(D)(3)].

HUD recommends that you not include applicants’ race/ethnicity, gender, or family size on waiting lists because that information doesn’t affect applicant selection and could result in discrimination [HUD Handbook 4350.3, par. 4-16(D)(4)].

Many electronic waiting list software programs are formatted to include the information HUD wants on the list. If your electronic list doesn’t include the information HUD wants, ask your software administrator or information technology specialist if it can be modified. The Handbook provides a sample waiting list format with Figure 4-5 in HUD Handbook 4350.3. Also, consider including applicants’ telephone numbers, addresses, and dates of contact with you on your electronic waiting list. Having this information makes updating the list and contacting applicants easier.

Rule #2: Explain any changes made. HUD says that you must explain any change you make to your electronic or manual waiting lists [Handbook 4350.3, par. 4-18(A)]. This includes why applicants were selected, withdrawn, rejected, or had their family status changed. Your electronic waiting list should include an area where you can enter comments, including the reasons for changes. Many electronic waiting list software programs include a field for this.

For example, say you remove an applicant’s name because you rented a unit to him. In the comments section next to the applicant’s name, you would write that the applicant was offered a unit, the date this happened, and other pertinent details relating to the move-in.

Rule #3: Document changes for HUD audit. HUD requires that your waiting list be easy to audit, whether the list is electronic or manual [HUD Handbook 4350.3, par. 4-18(B)]. This means that HUD or a contract administrator must be able to easily find any applicant on the list, quickly determine whether you rented a unit to the applicant at the correct time, and trace all actions on the application.

For this to happen, you must document all changes to the list, especially the time and date applicants are added to and removed from the list. The handbook suggests three possible ways to do this if your list is electronic. It’s not clear that any one way is sufficient to maintain a clear audit trail, so try to do as many as possible. They are:

  • Use a “data backup function” that records the time and date that changes are made to the list [HUD Handbook 4350.3, par. 4-18(E)(1)(a)];
  • Print a record of the appearance of the waiting list as often as necessary (at least monthly) to show each applicant’s placement on and selection from the list [HUD Handbook 4350.3, par. 4-18(E)(1)(b)]. This means you should print a copy of the list each time an applicant is added to or selected from the list. The printout should include the time and date of printing. File the printout in the applicant file and in the central waiting list selection file. If you haven’t added to or selected from the list that month (or in some shorter period), print a copy of the list anyway and also file it in the central waiting list selection file; and
  • Re-sort and print the list after making changes in an applicant’s status. Whenever status changes occur, such as changes in family composition and unit size, the change should be recorded with an explanation, and the re-sorted list should be printed [Handbook 4350.3, 4-18(E)(1)(c)].

In addition to these three methods for documenting changes, HUD sets out a special documentation rule that applies when applicants are removed from electronic waiting lists. You must either periodically print out your electronic waiting lists or preserve backup copies of the list before and after an applicant is removed from the list [Handbook 4350.3, par. 4-20(B)]. This special rule seems intended to allow HUD or a contract administrator to identify applicants who were removed from an electronic list by comparing the list to printouts or saved copies. Otherwise, HUD or a contract administrator could have problems locating such applicants because some electronic waiting lists automatically delete rejected applicants.

If you print out your list monthly as a way to document changes to your list, including removals, file a copy of the monthly rejection letters with the printouts. These letters also will show an auditor who was removed from the list.

Rule #4: Implement safeguards. HUD says that to the extent possible, you should incorporate safeguards into your electronic waiting lists. Presumably, these safeguards are to prevent someone either on or outside your staff from manipulating the list (for example, to prevent a staff member or someone else hacking into the system from moving an applicant’s name to the top of the list). HUD suggests that you limit password access to those staff members who maintain the waiting list.

In addition, HUD says that ideally, it would prefer a “system” that records the time and date each change is made to the list and identifies the staff member making the change [Handbook 4350.3, par. 4-18(E)(2)]. HUD seems to be referring to automatic tracking, a feature available in some of the electronic waiting list software, and also recommended by HUD to assure that changes to the list are adequately documented.

Taking Other Safeguards

You also should take other safeguards to assure that an electronic waiting list you’re using isn’t destroyed in a site disaster or manipulated by staff or outsiders. Although the following safeguards aren’t required by HUD, taking them may save you time, money, and headaches.

Safeguard #1: Store hard copy in secure location. When you maintain information electronically, you run the risk that the data will be lost because of a computer malfunction, theft, fire, or other disaster. If this happens, you’ll have to do a tremendous amount of work to reconstruct the data. To reduce this risk, print out the electronic list periodically and store it in a secure location. Also, in case of an onsite disaster, you might want to back up the list periodically and store backups both on and off site. Sites that modify their list every day should back them up daily.

Safeguard #2: Take steps to avoid list manipulation by staff. Even if you follow HUD’s rules and implement safeguards so that only a limited number of your staff have access to the list, you still run the risk that an unscrupulous staff member will manipulate it. For example, a staff member could move his friend or relative to the top of the list. An action like this could create compliance problems with HUD and leave you vulnerable to a fair housing lawsuit.

To help prevent this, print out your electronic list periodically and compare it with the previous printout of the list to check that any changes were appropriate. How often you do this depends on how often your list is changed. If it’s changed infrequently, you could print out and compare the lists every few months. But if it changes more often, you might want to print out and compare the lists at least once a month. And let your site staff know that the list is being printed and reviewed. This should be an incentive for them to follow the rules.