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SocialServe.com plugs in affordable housing

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By Todd Cohen

Nine years ago, Van Gottel woke from a dream, tore a page from a calendar and scribbled an idea to create an online database of affordable housing for caseworkers serving homeless people.

Today, SocialServe.com, the Charlotte-based nonprofit he created from that idea, operates websites for 20 states that contain records on over 360,000 housing units and handle 32,000 searches a day.

SocialServe.com also is self-sustaining, generating enough revenue from contracts with those 20 states to cover its entire annual operating budget of $1.5 million.

“When I was thinking about this in 1998,” Gottel says, “I did not want to rely on grant funding.”

A former corporate marketing manager, Gottel had returned to school at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in the mid-1990s after his older brother committed suicide.

“I was looking for a change anyway, and this was the impetus,” he says.

Having earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and criminal justice at Western Illinois University in 1983, Gottel majored in social work at UNCC.

After receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1996, he commuted to a job in Lexington, N.C., with the youth and family services division of the Davidson County Department of Social Services, working as a case worker with  families who were homeless or inadequately housed, and counseling high-risk youth.

A year later, he went to work for Community Link, a Charlotte nonprofit, working as a case manager with homeless families before being promoted to housing development director, looking for housing for the agency’s clients.

Then he had his dream.

Working out of his basement, he and a software-developer friend created prototypes for an affordable-housing database and website.

His participation at a meeting on affordable housing led to visits with Fannie Mae, which provides financial products and services to support affordable housing, and with community-development officials of the cities of Charlotte and Gastonia.

Fannie Mae, Charlotte and Gastonia provided a total of $100,000 in startup funds for SocialServe.com.

With a staff of 38 employees, 30 working for its call center, SocialServe.com has developed websites under contract with housing agencies in 20 states, including www.nchousingsearch.org for the N.C. Housing Finance Agency.

Through the toll-free call centers it operates for each state, landlords can list properties and tenants can search for properties, Gottel says.

And agencies can use a password-protected section of their state’s SocialServe.com website to find housing for clients with special needs.

And SocialServe.com, which writes and supports its own software, continues to develop new online features, including Google mapping; a “shopping cart” that lets users compare properties; and a “rent-reasonableness” tool.

SocialServe.com has just launched a tool that clients can use to save their search results and receive email alerts when properties matching their needs become available, and that Socialserve.com can use to let landlords know details of properties that are in demand.

SocialServe.com also is working with the National Low Income Housing Coalition and the N.C. Housing Finance Agency on a pilot project to develop an inventory of all subsidized housing in the state, an effort that Gottel says can serve as a prototype for other states.

“Nonprofit doesn’t mean non-business,” Gottel says.

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