The following is a conversation between Georges Clement, Co-founder & President of JustFix.nyc, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: Around 1.2 million New Yorkers live in what qualifies as deficient housing. And in the battle between tenant and landlord that can ensue, the former has historically been at a severe disadvantage. But there’s a young organization that, through technology, is helping to even the playing field and promoting housing justice. It’s JustFix.nyc, and it’s a pleasure to have with us their co-founder and President Georges Clement. Good evening, Georges, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Georges: Thanks so much, Denver.
Denver: Tell us about the mission of JustFix.nyc and what the organization was created to do.
Georges: JustFix.nyc has a mission of building data-driven tools for both individual tenants and advocates fighting displacement currently focused on New York City.
Denver: Now, you and your co-founders were inspired by observing tenants, some of them with pretty good cases, but who were just not prepared for evictions court. What was lacking?
Georges: That’s right. Historically, in New York City and in cities and states around the country, there is no right to legal representation for tenants in housing court. So what that ends up meaning is you observe courtrooms where over 90 percent of the tenants have no legal representation, and over 90 percent of the landlords are represented by a lawyer. So, you have a courtroom with a lay person on one side and a lawyer on the other side, which when we look at the history of the justice system, is not how it was meant to be built. It was meant to have lawyers on either side of the room arguing a case on equal playing fields.
And so what has ended up happening is in housing court in New York City, it has become an eviction machine where you have this really severe imbalance between tenants and landlords. What we observed through hundreds of hours of literally sitting in the back of courtrooms around New York City was individual tenants coming into the courtroom, often with grocery bags filled with various documents– their lease and violation reports, and they would try to tell their story, to talk about what was going on in their apartment, what kind of issues they faced. And when judges would ask them to actually show them evidence of repairs that needed to be made, we actually saw a lot of tenants approach the judge’s bench and start swiping through photos that they had taken on their phone. And the judge would say, “You know, I see these issues, but I actually can’t enter that as evidence.” And so, these tenants would be backed into really, really bad negotiated agreements, simply because they weren’t presenting their case in this very formal, organized way.
We saw at that moment this opportunity where there was this existing behavior of folks cataloging the issues that they were dealing with. They weren’t thinking of it as “gathering evidence” in legal terms, but they were actually taking photos of the issues. And so, our opportunity was: How can we help people formalize and organize this information in order to present it in this particular context?
Denver: One question on that: Why were their pictures on their phone inadmissible as evidence?
Georges: There are a few things. One is: they actually had to present things as printed-out photos in court; and another thing that JustFix helps them do is actually pull out what’s called the “metadata” of a photo – so the exact time, date and location the photo was taken – to verify that this photo was taken in their apartment at this particular day. The status quo – you had landlords’ attorneys that were saying, “Oh, well. This isn’t your apartment,” or “This is a photo from before we made repairs.” And so, it turned into this hearsay that ended up in tenants not getting the kind of results that they deserved.
Denver: So, what did you do, Georges? You and your co-founder are sitting in the back of court when you observed this, and you think there’s this real opportunity and a real need here to be addressed. How did you go about starting?
Georges: We took a very community-led approach and what’s called a “human-centered design process.” My co-founder Dan had actually been doing some volunteer tenant organizing with a group in Brooklyn called the Crown Heights Tenants Union.
Denver: Because he was living this problem, wasn’t he?
Georges: He was living this problem, dealt with a lot of issues in his own apartment. Unfortunately, this is quite a universal problem in New York City, but it is especially acute when you look at low-income renters with very little leverage in terms of being able to go find another apartment that they can pay for.
Denver: Not that it needs to be said but, obviously, the incentive for landlords who evict these people is?
Georges: Oftentimes, these are tenants that are living in rent-stabilized apartments, and so they actually don’t have the option of bringing that rent-stabilized lease to another apartment. So, their leases govern how much rent can increase every year. It’s typically either no increase or one- or two percent increase per year. And so these are very, very valuable leases and apartments to hold on to, and has become sort of the de facto affordable housing in New York. Landlords, therefore, have this enormous financial incentive to force those people out, and if they can get those folks out, they can raise the rent to market rate, which could be as much as 5x the monthly rent.
Denver: Walk us through exactly how JustFix.nyc, which is an app, works.
Georges: Our tenant-facing services, we sort of refer to as: imagine TurboTax for suing a slumlord. So, starting with helping tenants gather evidence in a very structured way, or doing a checklist of issues that they’re dealing with in their apartment– which could be repairs, could be issues with their lease, not getting rent receipts, or being harassed in some way.
And then they have a series of actions that they can take that escalate from simply reaching out directly to their landlord by sending a formal letter of complaint via certified mail, which is an important step in terms of proving if they do go to court, that they did notify the landlord; making sure folks are calling 311 and logging in a complaint through the city and getting an inspector to their apartment. This can also help in actually suing them in housing court, so actually creating the court filings necessary for what’s called an HP action in housing court.
An important additional piece is: we want to get individual tenants in touch with the advocacy community whenever possible, so for particular cases that means actually connecting with a legal aid provider and getting a free attorney. Oftentimes, this also means getting in touch with a tenant-organizing group. So these are community-based grassroots groups that will help buildings with especially acute issues to put together a tenant association and start to take collective action. And, obviously, collective action is an incredibly powerful lever in this system, and so whenever possible, we want to get people banding together with their neighbors who are oftentimes facing very similar issues.
Denver: I got you. So you have an ability then to aggregate all this information and then see patterns, whether it be in a building or maybe even with a landlord who owns a number of different buildings. And then when you begin to identify those, you have more leverage in terms of trying to address the problem.
Georges: Absolutely. From an individual standpoint, it means instead of taking what may feel like a very risky action by yourself, going out on a limb and trying to fight for your rights–
Denver: Fight City Hall.
Georges: Exactly. Just you against this landlord, or it feels like you against this big system. From an individual standpoint, it means “now you’re part of a group,” and there’s certainly a lot of safety and power that comes with being part of a larger group taking action.
In addition to that, tactically, this is actually very, very helpful in terms of filing group cases from a legal standpoint. Or tenant-organizing has historically done things like rent strikes and using the power of a significant number of tenants in a building all joining together as a real point of leverage against landlords… who may not be so worried about one of their tenants, but is certainly worried about 50 percent of their tenants taking action together.
We always knew that at the point where we have thousands of tenants across the city reporting their issues, filing cases, that that would be interesting. We’ve now seen in about the past 9- to 12 months really how that can be effective and powerful. And so, to your point, that means identifying trends across buildings, across neighborhoods, across the whole city, and identifying the worst landlords who have these patterns of neglect and harassment across their entire portfolios.
Denver: Is this a free app? How do people find out about it?
Georges: This is entirely free for individual tenants. They can go to JustFix.nyc and create an account. So it is one of these “dot nyc” websites that the city really likes but can confuse people sometimes, but JustFix.nyc.
Denver: How many households have you been able to serve since you were founded back in 2015?
Georges: We sort of formally incorporated in 2016. We have served about 10,000 tenants across the city through our various services. That means helping folks get repairs in their apartments, prevent evictions; and overall, our goal is preventing displacement.
Denver: It is a great guidebook. You have the letters in there; you have the text in there, the templates… it’s really step by step. What languages is this available in?
Georges: Right now, the primary tenant-facing service on JustFix.nyc is available in English and Spanish. There is also a site called evictionfreenyc.org for tenants that are facing an eviction, in order to find out if they are eligible for a free attorney through the new Right to Counsel Law. It’s also called Universal Access by the city, but this is a law in which income-eligible tenants that are facing an eviction in housing court can get a free attorney. And that’s available in five languages at evictionfreenyc.org.
Denver: Is there a fine line, Georges, between what you do and giving legal advice, which presumably, you’re not allowed to do?
Georges: There is a fine line, and anybody in the legal world will tell you that there is quite a gray area. It’s something that the legal aid providers deal with a lot as they try to think of more innovative ways to provide access to “ know your rights” information and provide access to this kind of legal knowledge… in a space where most people can’t afford an attorney, and legal aid providers are over-capacity and can’t represent everybody.
Luckily, we are able to provide these kinds of tools in this sort of self-help context where the vast majority of tenants would be what’s called “Pro Se,” which basically means representing themselves in court. And so there is sort of a lot more wiggle room in that area, given we know we’re not competing against the bar association and attorneys that are going to represent those kinds of tenants because they don’t have the means to pay for an attorney.
Denver: What has the response been of the legal profession, the courts, to the evidence that has been produced as a result of the JustFix.nyc app?
Georges: We started working with housing court judges and attorneys from the very beginning as part of our design process to make sure that whatever we were going to build would actually be useful and would move the needle in terms of helping tenants be successful.
As you can imagine, judges prefer a case where tenants come in with this great documentation, printed-out photos, the timeline of the issues they’ve been dealing with, as opposed to showing them photos on their phone and a grocery bag filled with different documents. So, it has been very well-received by judges, by attorneys who work with these tenants who have been using JustFix.nyc to organize themselves through this process.
Denver: Who are some of the partner organizations that you work with?
Georges: We work very closely with Legal Services NYC, Legal Aid Society, a lot of the large legal aid providers in New York, as well as an extensive network of community organizations across the city. We piloted our services with a group in the Southwest Bronx called CASA that does tenant-organizing.
We really think it’s important that these aren’t just partners for distribution, but these partners have been critical from the very beginning in designing these services. So we follow this sort of methodology called “build with, not for.” The basic premise is: we don’t know what we should be building, and we’re not presenting people with solutions to problems; but instead, anything that we build has to be informed by the communities that we serve and the communities in which we operate.And so this network of partners has been really critical in gaining the trust of tenants across the city and making sure that what we build is actually going to be effective.
Denver: Yes. You’ve done a lot of testing and a lot of feedback, and you keep on changing the product all the time, which you need to do to be responsive.
So you maybe have touched on this a little bit, but what do you do when you encounter a situation which is too complicated to handle on the website alone?
Georges: There are certainly cases that escalate to a point where a tenant really needs to access legal counsel. When you think about the number of cases that get to a point of somebody facing imminent eviction, that person needs to work with a lawyer right away. And so, part of our partnerships with legal aid providers around the city also means flagging cases for them where the tenant should really be working with a lawyer. So once a case escalates to that point, we’ll put them in touch with those legal advocates.
Denver: Well, this is so encouraging to hear because I think we’ve all looked at the housing system as being too big, too complex, that you just can’t touch it. And it seems that through technology, we’re beginning to make a dent. Are you seeing other forms of technology that are being created to help impact the housing system of New York City?
Georges: Absolutely. I think there are certainly some companies on the for-profit side of things that are trying to leverage technology in creating greater transparency in the rental experience of finding a new apartment and having some sense of the quality of that building or that landlord. For us, the tenants that we are working with don’t have an option of what apartment to live in, and so those products are focusing on more of middle- and upper-income demographics.
I think when you look at housing in New York City, especially right now, but really across the country, you see a crisis in public housing, and in New York, NYCHA is in the headlines constantly. That is a daunting problem. They have about a $35-billion-dollar backlog of repairs, of capital improvements that need to be made, and that’s because there are issues with the roofs and elevators that are broken. These are very expensive repairs to be made.
Denver: And lead.
Georges: Lead throughout the building. So real infrastructure problems. And that feels like a problem that can’t be solved through an app, through technology certainly. And so, there are most definitely areas where we can use technology to address problems. But at the same time, there are very foundational issues here– with defunding of public housing and that type of thing– that are leading to a lot of the issues we see.
Denver: Well, you’re a nonprofit organization, and I know one of the things that you always wanted to do was make this app free to anybody who wanted it.
So what is your business model; who your funders? Do you receive any government funding?
Georges: Our funding comes from foundations, from corporate philanthropy, smaller community funders as well. In terms of government funding, we receive some funding, just discretionary funding from city council members and borough presidents. We don’t have any government contracts.
But we have been very, very lucky to have started this organization coming out of the Blue Ridge Labs program at the Robin Hood Foundation. So this is basically an in-house technology incubator under the umbrella of the Robin Hood Foundation… so certainly a very, very novel concept in the foundation world. And it meant that from the beginning, we had this backing of the Robin Hood Foundation, which has been really critical in getting other funders on board, as Robin Hood has this reputation of being a very difficult funder to break into. And so, we’ve been very lucky in getting support for our work in New York.
Denver: Georges, are there other similar apps in other cities across the country? And along those same lines, do you have plans to bring this app to other cities?
Georges: We spoke with folks in Chicago from a tenants union that built a product called Squared Away that was similarly helping tenants send emails or letters to their landlords and bring some structure to those notices. We have spoken with a number of tenants unions, legal aid providers, city governments around the country in cities that are dealing with very similar issues of displacement and harassment from landlords, eviction crises, that type of thing. And we are very excited in 2019 to start to formalize those partnerships with groups around the country, and see how we can start to replicate some of the tools that we’ve built in New York in other cities.
Those conversations are really focused on what actually is needed in another city, as there are differences in the legal process certainly and, in particular, regulations. And so rather than saying what we’ve built is going to serve everyone everywhere, making sure that it’s informed by the reality on the grounds, and that advocates in other cities are really driving the process of what would be developed and how JustFix.nyc might be helpful.
Denver: And very much along the same lines, if you’re thinking about getting the feedback here in New York City from your users, knowing you don’t have all the answers; the answers are really in the communities that you’re serving.
You could fairly be described as a high-tech nonprofit looking to have outsized impact with a minimum of overhead and employees. What is it like working in an enterprise such as that? How do you think it differs from your traditional bricks-and-mortar nonprofit organization?
Georges: It’s very fun.
Denver: It sounds like you’re having fun.
Georges: I certainly love working there. I think our team has this very interesting cross-disciplinary or multidisciplinary background where we are bringing together folks with housing justice experience, folks with tenant-organizing experience, and people coming from the tech world, and seeing that merge in our team. And the incredible energy and excitement that both of those groups have to start working together in a dedicated way, full-time, is really, really exciting. It’s amazing to see the people that are interested in joining JustFix.nyc and get excited by the idea of getting to collaborate in that way on a daily basis.
I would say we look a little bit more like a traditional tech startup than we do like a traditional nonprofit in terms of the way that we operate day-to-day. It’s really a difference of: Where does our funding come from? Who are the people that we serve? When I look at the difference between also: how we are different than for-profit startups, we have to compete over similar talent, but we have a very different value proposition as an employer, obviously.
So maybe we can’t quite compete on salary or perks, but there are a lot of folks coming from the tech world that are very disillusioned with what the tech sector has become in the past few years, and are looking for ways to work on something more meaningful. I also think Trump’s election was a real call-to-action for a lot of folks. And so, increasingly there is more interest in organizations that are unique like us, where they can apply their skills to a very particular social justice cause.
Denver: In looking at where you are at right now, sort of straddling the tech sector with the nonprofit sector, do you have any thoughts on how the nonprofit sector could operate more effectively and efficiently?
Georges: Absolutely. I think there is this culture of mergers and acquisitions obviously or process of mergers and acquisitions in the for-profit world that sees large corporations that acquire smaller startups, that are building innovative technology, because they want to update what they’re doing and make sure that they are sort of staying ahead of trends. It’s not something that you see in the nonprofit world because acquisitions and mergers are simply not a practice in this sector.
If anything, the nonprofit world spends more time and energy on fundraising and the administrative side of things that can be really time-consuming and take up a lot of capacity for a small organization like ours. And I think there is a big opportunity for some of these more traditional nonprofits to leverage some of the innovation happening in this burgeoning nonprofit tech startup world.
Denver: Interesting observation. Let me close with this, Georges. Share with us a story of a tenant who used the JustFix.nyc app, and what occurred as a result.
Georges: There is a number of different stories I could tell. Tenants dealing with situations that you can’t imagine people in New York City, in sort of the capital of the world, with such incredible wealth accumulation happening in the city, that folks down the street are living in really, really dire situations and being mistreated significantly.
So, one tenant in particular was living in the South Bronx, a rent-stabilized apartment. Single mother with two young kids. There was a really long-standing issue with water damage, and it started causing really bad black mold problem in the bathroom especially, such that one of her kids was developing asthma. And when you look at that problem on a larger scale, asthma is the most prevalent chronic issue that kids face, and disproportionately affects low-income minority kids in urban areas, and it’s really stemming from poor housing quality. And you see this in a lot of public housing as well.
So she was reaching out to legal aid providers that weren’t able to provide representation because this wasn’t an eviction case quite yet. This was simply an issue of repairs not getting made. They were not coming in to do mold remediation. And so, she started building out a case on JustFix.nyc, ended up having to bring this case to court. And in court, they put together what’s called a stipulation, so a negotiated agreement that required mold remediation in the apartment, which was able to happen. These cases can take a little bit of time so this happened over the course of a few months. But at the end of the day, the mold was removed from the bathroom. There was new plaster, new paint, that type of thing.
I think what’s really critical here is these are not cosmetic issues. These are issues with real health implications for families, and that can be a lifelong health issue that could have emerged from that. So it’s really important to try to get to these problems as soon as possible
Denver: Absolutely. Well, Georges Clement, the Co-founder and President of JustFix.nyc, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. For our listeners to learn more about the organization or get the JustFix.nyc app, what do they need to do?
Georges: They can go to our website www.justfix.nyc and sign up directly through there.
Denver: Fantastic. Well, thanks, Georges. It was a pleasure to have you on the show.
Georges: Thanks so much!
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at www.facebook.com/businessofgiving.