BRONX — Tenants and advocates fighting evictions can get some much-needed assistance from an award-winning new app launched by a nonprofit startup.
JustFix.nyc is piloting a dashboard interface to make it easier for community organizers and legal aid attorneys to keep track of open maintenance cases —like leaks, mold or rodent infestations — and communicate with multiple tenants in one building or across a complex, according to startup co-founder Georges Clement.
Clement — who developed the app with Dan Kass and Ashley Treni while they were fellows at Blue Ridge Labs, the Robin Hood Foundation’s tech incubator — saw the need for such a tool after spending many days observing housing court proceedings.
They saw how tenants rarely had legal representation, unlike their landlords, and often ended up simply showing judges photos on their smart phones to prove poor apartment conditions — which were inadmissible as evidence unless they wanted to give up their phones.
By streamlining the ability to monitor open cases, he said, it will be easier for housing advocates to negotiate with landlords and build strong legal cases against them — especially in rent stabilized buildings where owners may be trying to push out low-income tenants through harassment and neglect.
The app lets tenants document their own situations, so that organizers can view them in one central dashboard to be able to build a case against slumlords. Clement and his team are also in the process of integrating open source data into the dashboard, including a building’s violation and complaint history.
“Everyone in the advocacy world is overwhelmed and over-capacity, so we need to figure out a way to scale up existing resources,” Clement said. “These organizations are largely pen-and-paper-based right now. We want to help them with digital tools not to replace the process they’re currently conducting, but to amplify it and help them serve more tenants.”
“In working with tenant organizers and legal aid attorneys, we saw that the group is more powerful than the individual voicing their own grievance,” Clement added.
Roughly 1.2 million New Yorkers live in housing that’s deemed “deficient,” with three or more unaddressed violations, the startup noted.
Housing organizers from CASA: Community Action for Safe Apartments have been piloting the app in three buildings in the Southwest Bronx and attorneys with the Legal Aid Society have been trying it out with tenants in Jamaica and Far Rockaway. This week, eight other groups are expected to start piloting the app, and another 10 are expected to be using it within six months, Clement said.
The dashboard builds upon the app designed by JustFix.nyc enabling tenants to document their living conditions and providing a template to file complaints — which garnered the startup the Grand Prize award of 2015 NYC BigApps contest.
Advocates say the app is crucial because current efforts by the de Blasio administration to end evictions rely primarily on $62 million in increased funding for legal aid attorneys — which only kicks in once tenants land in court.
The same applies to the City Council's recently announced $93 million initiative to provide counsel to low-income tenants in housing court.
“We’ll be hiring and building up a small army of tenant lawyers, but we won’t be able to hire people or bring any cases for repairs or harassment, which are other ways that that landlords evict tenants,” said Sateesh Nori, of the Legal Aid Society, who has been testing the app and hopes it can help fill a void left by these funding streams.
Nori said that since he and his colleagues are in court defending tenants in court, they have little time to go out to buildings and organize door-to-door.
The app, he believes, will help provide the needed evidence for legal aid attorneys, especially since it’s user-friendly even for immigrants who don’t speak English as their first language.
“Fortunately, we live in a world where technology can be a great equalizer,” Nori said, noting that a lot of low-income tenants do have smart phones even if they don’t have home computers. “JustFix allows people to document the conditions in their apartment, and a picture is a picture, whether you speak English or not. If tenants can do legwork and provide the raw information, we can aggregate and more effectively file cases.”
CASA organizer Yeraldi Perez said the app is already helping. At one building with 167 apartments, for instance, she would have needed to visit each unit and take notes on apartment conditions.
Instead, she’s held workshops with tenant leaders and other residents, showing them how to use the app, while creating accounts for older tenants and others who don’t have smartphone access. The tenants are now able to document when conditions are reported and fixed — and keep Perez in the loop.
“It’s impossible for me to remember every single tenant’s complaints and conditions,” Perez said. “This has made it easier to keep information up-to-date and as concise as possible.”