Computer programmer Dan Kass had a cockroach problem. A rampant one. And his landlord in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Crown Heights, Brooklyn wasn’t exactly responsive–his management company has a history of bad treatment of tenants in rent stabilized buildings.
As Kass got involved in community organizing work with a local tenants union, he realized it was a world that technology hadn’t much touched: “The organizers there are doing really great work but there were a lot of problems in terms of access to valuable data and tracking of how harassment and neglect were happening.”
The result of his involvement is JustFix.NYC, an app designed with low-income tenants in mind. It helps renters document problems in their apartments; share their stories with landlords, lawyers, and advocates; and create a paper (and photo and video) trail for housing court. The app also educates renters on the laws, connects them to neighborhood resources, and helps them fill out paperwork. Now, after winning six months at Blue Ridge Labs, an incubator program that the Robin Hood Foundation runs for social entrepreneurs, he is partnering with groups like the Legal Aid Society and Metropolitan Council On Housing to pilot the app with renters and for use in court proceedings.
JustFix.NYC is one of a number of new tools and services aimed at helping renters fight for their rights in apartment buildings. They can be as simple as a phone’s video camera, as the New York Times wrote in October, or as smart as a system of sensors that can record when a landlord isn’t providing enough heat.
“There’s a lot of online tools to help people find apartments, but there’s nothing really there to help someone live in an apartment,” says Philip J. DeVon, community membership manager for Chicago’s Metropolitan Tenants Organization, a group that worked with a design studio to develop its own app for tenants and landlords to resolve issues that arise in buildings.
Over 5,000 people have signed up for the app, called Squared Away Chicago, and hundreds of issues have been marked as “resolved” within the app, DeVon says, such as getting security deposits returned and repairs made. The group is talking with large management companies about having all building managers use the app.
SquaredAway is mainly meant to help landlords and tenants keep relations friendly. Another technology under development, Heat Seek NYC, is more intended for situations when there’s already conflict: The New York startup’s sensors measure building and apartment temperatures, helping tenants prove their landlord isn’t providing enough heat (New York City law requires landlords maintain overnight temperatures of at least 55 degrees.)
So far Heat Seek has done a small pilot partnering with community groups but installed sensors themselves in six buildings, says co-founder and executive director Noelle Francois. But the team has worked to make them simple to use, so tenants or organizers could operate them on their own. “We didn’t want tech literacy to be a prerequisite,” she says–an apartment Wi-Fi connection isn’t even necessary. An expanded pilot, with 120 sensors in 40 buildings, is next, with groups like Community Action for Safe Apartments in the Bronx taking the lead.
For technology tools to be their most effective, however, city officials often also have to be on board. JustFix.NYC wants to work with the city to use it to schedule housing inspector visits, so tenants can be sure to be home. Los Angeles housing advocates, Strategic Actions For A Just Economy (SAFE) learned that it needed to work with the city the hard way: It developed Tenants In Action, a housing violation reporting app, before it had integrated with the city’s housing violation system.
“The complaints didn’t go straight to the housing department. They went straight to us, which didn’t really help. We just ended up with tons of complaints on our desk,” says SAFE executive director Cynthia Strathmann.
Hannah Calhoon, director of Blue Ridge Labs at Robin Hood, the social impact program that has worked with both JustFix and Heat Seek, says cities are starting to see the value of bringing more technology to the housing system. “Historically, housing has been too complex–too hard to change, and so some people shy away from it. But today there’s a lot of momentum within different levels of city government to make change.”
Providing more customized housing support will be important as property values and displacement in New York continues to rise. Future ideas, Calhoon says, might involve using predictive analytics to find families at risk of eviction or understanding ways the ways that communities–rather than just management companies–could buy buildings or capture property value. It might also involve helping advocates track landlords and better separate the good and bad actors across the city. Heat Seek envisions its sensors might one day also measure things like indoor air quality or hot water for tenants.
“We think technology can augment the services that exist and collect better data on what’s happening where,” says Calhoon.
An important question is whether data from apps will prove useful in housing court. In New York City, landlords often have the upper hand in housing court, leading to high eviction rates. Usually, 90% have attorneys, whereas 90% of tenants do not (there is no “right to counsel,” like in criminal proceedings, though that’s something advocates want to change).
JustFix.NYC has seen already, with its very early test users, that housing judges have been grateful for their well-documented cases. Heat Seek has yet to have its first test in housing court: “We’ve heard anecdotally from the tenants that once their landlord hears that there’s sensors watching them, then the heat will just go on,” says Francois.