For millions of people in the U.S., home is the edge of a cliff.
Research group Eviction Lab 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 renters months behind on rent, and landlords hungry for payment. Sometimes negotiation is possible, but many tenants don’t know where to start.
Using tech tools can help put a bit more power in the hands of tenants as they navigate a complicated legal process during a very stressful time. According to data compiled by the National Coalition for the Civil Right to Counsel, most tenants don’t have legal representation to help them if they’re faced with eviction: Nationally, about three percent of tenants have attorneys during eviction proceedings – but 81 percent of landlords do.
Hello Landlord, 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 begin.
Hello Landlord’s design is somewhat similar to TurboTax: It asks users a series of questions about their financial and living circumstances, then formulates a letter that users can send to their landlord to ask for more time to pay, set up a payment plan, or inform the landlord that they are awaiting government aid to help them pay their back rent. The letter can then be emailed or printed off and given to the landlord. The service is available in both English and Spanish, and can be accessed via smartphone, laptop or desktop. It was developed by legal technology firm SixFifty in cooperation with the Brigham Young University School of Law and the University of Arizona Law School’s Innovation for Justice program. SixFifty has also created a sister tool, HelloLender, which creates a letter homeowners can send to their lender to avoid foreclosure.
SixFifty CEO Kimball Dean Parker said the two tools have been used nearly 18,000 times between March 2020. It can be used by renters in any of the 50 states. But beyond some thank you notes from grateful users, SixFifty doesn’t track the outcomes that follow the generation of a landlord letter. And there’s no way to know how effective these letters are at preventing or delaying an eviction.
Deborah Thrope, Deputy Director of the National Housing Law Project, identified the lack of outcome tracking as a problem. Without it, there’s no way to tell if such tools are really doing much good.
“They can be really helpful for some tenants, but that’s really dependent on families’ technological access and language barriers and so on,” said Thrope, adding that the ability to send a letter is no substitute for legal representation.
“Tech access, language access, disability access - we hope the creators of these apps are keeping all those issues in mind,” Thrope said. “These tools are helpful for some people, but they certainly leave a huge portion of renters out.”
Perhaps indicative of the high levels of need for help preventing eviction, none of the dozen housing rights organizations asked to comment on eviction defense tech tools responded before the deadline for this article. Often, the voicemail boxes and email inboxes of these groups were full.
JustFix.nyc, a nonprofit that builds tools for tenants, housing rights organizers, and legal advocates to fight displacement, has an array of free online products aimed at renters in New York state. Users can use their tools to write and file hardship declarations, get their apartment’s rental history (which is necessary in order to challenge rent increases or overcharges), find out if their apartment falls under the city’s rent regulation guidelines, or request repairs via certified mail.
The hardship declaration tool, developed in partnership with the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition and advocacy group Housing Justice For All, walks tenants through New York state’s form. The form can then be filed to suspend or prevent eviction proceedings for people experiencing financial or health problems due to COVID-19. It is accessible by 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 certified mail, for free, to housing courts within the state and to landlords. The declaration can also be emailed, printed or downloaded from the user’s account.
JustFix’s Deputy Director, Stephanie Rudolph, said the hardship declaration tool had been used 19,000 times since February, and that 15,000 declarations of hardship had been sent through the tool. Each user spends an average of 13 minutes completing the process.
The state of New York has suspended evictions for renters experiencing hardships through January 15, 2022. But as of Sept. 26, the Right to Counsel Coalition NYC Coalition’s Eviction Crisis Monitor counted more than 224,000 open residential and commercial eviction cases filed in city courts alone – meaning that those cases can move forward as soon as the moratorium expires, leaving thousands at risk of homelessness.
Preventing eviction prevents a host of other problems. Immediate homelessness is the most obvious one. But having an eviction on one’s record can also make it harder to find subsequent housing. Kids might have to move away from their school and their friends. Heirlooms and important papers can be lost in the chaotic move, or when someone can no longer afford the fees on a storage unit. People are often forced into less comfortable, more precarious living quarters – a car, an overcrowded relative’s house, a shelter bunk, or the streets.
Eviction isn’t a desirable outcome for many landlords, either, said Parker.
“It’s expensive, it’s emotionally taxing, so if they could avoid it they’d love to do it,” Parker said. “I’ve talked to a lot of landlords who say, ‘I will work with a tenant, if they work with me, if they have a medical form, if they can write how they’ll pay.’”
Parker said he’d love to see the tool add a way for tenants to directly apply for local, state or federal aid to help pay overdue rent, but that function hasn’t been added yet. For now, there is a way for Hello Landlord users to indicate they’ve applied for emergency rental aid.
The process of applying for the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program, or ERAP, seems ripe for innovation. Congress has allocated $46.5 billion dollars to help tenants pay rent that is coming due or in arrears, but only 11 percent of it had been distributed as of August. Tenants may face a virtual obstacle course as they try to determine how to apply, and to whom. Many might not know the program exists, or might assume that they aren’t eligible. Others don’t have a formal lease, or have a hard time proving lost income because they are undocumented or paid in cash.
The aid itself is administered through a patchwork of state, county and municipal agencies with different application processes. The easiest way to apply is online – but the applications often are designed to be completed in one session, so if users lose their internet connection, or don’t have all the needed documentation ready, they have to start over. And resources in languages other than English or Spanish can be hard to find. Landlords are also required to send supportive documents for their tenant to receive aid – and if they don’t send that information within a certain deadline, the tenant’s application can be withdrawn or rejected.
“It would be a good thing to have navigators or individual advocates to help people through the process,” similar to the Affordable Care Act navigators available in some states, said Rudolph. “I can’t think of a tech solution, just because the state controls how the application has to be sent through their tools. Unfortunately, we can’t go in and make better tools [for them].”
This article is part of The Clean Slate, a series about how cities can use technology and policy to eliminate unjust fines, fees, and other barriers to economic mobility. The Clean Slate is generously supported by the Solutions Journalism Network.
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