Technological tools aim to help tenants fight eviction
For millions of people in the United States, home is on the edge of a cliff.
Eviction Lab research group counted more than 532,000 evictions since March 2020 in the six states and 31 cities where it collects data from state, nonprofit and commercial sources. The expiration of the eviction moratorium has left many tenants behind on rent and landlords eager for payment. Sometimes negotiation is possible, but many tenants don’t know where to start.
Using technological tools can help give tenants a little more power as they navigate a complicated legal process during a very stressful time. According to data compiled by the National Coalition for Civil Law at a council, most tenants do not have legal representation to help them if they are faced with an eviction: Nationally, around three percent of tenants have lawyers during eviction proceedings, but 81 percent of owners have them.
Hello owner, a free software platform created by legal technology company SixFifty, aims to bridge a communication gap between landlord and tenant and help prevent evictions before they start.
The design of Hello Landlord is somewhat similar to TurboTax: it asks users a series of questions about their financial and life situation, and then formulates a letter that users can send to their owner asking for more time to pay, put in place a payment plan or inform the landlord that they are expecting government assistance to help them pay their rent arrears. The letter can then be emailed or printed and delivered to the owner. The service is available in English and Spanish and can be accessed via a smartphone, laptop or desktop computer. It was developed by legal technology company SixFifty in cooperation with Brigham Young University Law School and the University of Arizona Law School’s Innovation for Justice program. SixFifty has also created a sibling tool, HelloLender, which creates a letter homeowners can send to their lender to avoid foreclosure.
SixFifty CEO Kimball Dean Parker said the two tools had been used nearly 18,000 times between March 2020. They can be used by tenants in any of the 50 states. But beyond a few thank you notes from grateful users, SixFifty doesn’t track the results of generating an owner letter. And there is no way to know how effective these letters are in preventing or delaying an eviction.
Deborah Thrope, Deputy Director of National Housing Law Project, identified the lack of outcome tracking as a problem. Without it, there is no way to know if such tools are really doing much good.
âThey can be very useful for some tenants, but it really depends on the technological access of families and language barriers etc.,â Thrope said, adding that the ability to send a letter does not replace legal representation.
âAccess to technology, access to languages, access to people with disabilities – we hope the creators of these apps keep all of these issues in mind,â Thrope said. “These tools are useful for some people, but they certainly leave a lot of renters out.”
Perhaps indicative of the high levels of need for help preventing evictions, none of the twelve housing rights organizations asked to comment on eviction defense tech tools responded by the deadline for this article. Often times, the voicemail boxes and email inboxes of these groups were full.
JustFix.nyc, a non-profit organization that creates tools for tenants, housing rights organizers and advocates to fight displacement, offers a range of free online products for tenants in New York State. Users can use their tools to draft and file hardship statements, get their apartment rental history (which is needed to dispute rent increases or surcharges), find out if their apartment complies with regulatory guidelines city âârents or request repairs by certified mail. .
The difficulty reporting tool, developed in partnership with the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition and advocacy group Housing Justice For All, guides tenants through the New York State form. The form can then be filed to stay or prevent eviction proceedings for people experiencing financial or health problems due to COVID-19. It is accessible on both mobile and desktop / laptop, and is available in English and Spanish (the form itself is also available in Bengali and Chinese). Renters can even send the declaration letter by registered mail, free of charge, to state housing courts and landlords. The statement can also be emailed, printed or downloaded from the user’s account.
JustFix deputy director Stephanie Rudolph said the hardship reporting tool had been used 19,000 times since February and 15,000 hardship reports had been submitted through the tool. Each user spends an average of 13 minutes completing the process.
New York State has suspended evictions for tenants in difficulty until January 15, 2022. But since September 26, the Coalition for the Right to Counsel NYC Deportation Crisis Monitor has counted more than 224,000 open residential and commercial eviction cases filed in the city’s courts alone – meaning these cases can move forward once the moratorium expires, leaving thousands at risk of without -abrism.
Preventing eviction prevents a host of other problems. Immediate roaming is the most obvious. But having an eviction on file can also make it more difficult to find accommodation later. Children may have to move away from their school and their friends. Family heirlooms and important papers can be lost during a chaotic move or when someone can no longer afford the costs of a storage unit. People are often forced to live in less comfortable and more precarious housing – a car, an overcrowded relative’s house, a bed shelter or the street.
Eviction is also not a desirable outcome for many homeowners, Parker said.
âIt’s expensive, it’s emotionally taxing, so if they could avoid it, they would love to do it,â Parker said. âI’ve spoken to a lot of landlords who say, ‘I’m going to work with a tenant, if he works with me, if he has a medical form, if he can write down how he will pay.’ “
Parker said he would like to see the tool add a way for tenants to directly apply for local, state or federal assistance to help pay overdue rents, but that feature has yet to be added. For now, there is a way for Hello Landlord users to indicate that they have requested emergency rental assistance.
The Federal Emergency Rent Assistance Program, or ERAP, application process appears ripe for innovation. Congress has allocated $ 46.5 billion to help tenants pay past or past due rents, but only 11 percent of it had been distributed in August. Renters may face a virtual obstacle course as they try to figure out how to apply and to whom. Many might not know the program exists, or might assume that they are not eligible. Others do not have a formal lease or find it difficult to prove loss of income because they are undocumented or paid in cash.
The aid itself is administered by a patchwork of state, county and municipal agencies with different application processes. The easiest way to apply is online – but applications are often designed to be completed in one session, so if users lose their internet connection, or don’t have all of the necessary documentation, they have to start over. And resources in languages ââother than English or Spanish can be difficult to find. Landlords are also required to send supporting documents for their tenant to receive assistance – and if they don’t send that information within a certain time frame, the tenant’s request may be withdrawn or denied.
âIt would be good to have individual navigators or advocates to help people through the process,â like the Affordable Care Act Navigators available in some states, Rudolph said. âI can’t think of a technical solution, just because the state controls how the application should be sent through its tools. Unfortunately we can’t come in and make better tools [for them]. “
This article is part of The Clean Slate, a series on how cities can use technology and policies to remove fines, fees and other unfair barriers to economic mobility. The Clean Slate is generously supported by the Solutions Journalism Network.