In 2014 I paid over $1,000 a month to live in an apartment that my roommates and I eventually referred to as the “rat infested fire trap.” Of course, the apartment seemed fine at first glance, and with competition and property prices at an all-time high, we ignored the fact that the landlord seemed a bit “off” at the showing and immediately signed the lease. I then spent the next 12 months dealing with issues like a rodent infestation, clogged shower pipes, and a dryer that caught on fire. My roommates and I spent countless hours of our lives documenting all of these issues and trying to contact our landlord and city officials to make him take action. Just before my lease ended health inspectors finally started coming to investigate the apartment, but it wasn’t until about 10 months after I moved out that anything happened. Apparently the Department of Building Inspection had been receiving complaints about my landlord for 19 years.
If you’ve ever rented property in the U.S., whether in a small town or big city, chances are you’ve experienced something similar from a neglectful landlord. With city development driving up the already exorbitant cost of property, housing is reaching a state of crisis – particularly in low income communities where tenants have retained their homes thanks to rent stabilization. But many greedy landlords have turned to tactics like harassment and illegal eviction threats to turn a bigger profit.
After witnessing instances like this first hand in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Dan Kass teamed up with Ashley Treni and Georges Clement to build a digital platform that connects tenants, community organizers and legal teams with the tools and resources they need to achieve housing justice. Last week I chatted with Georges to hear more about JustFix.nyc.
Can you start out by telling me a little bit about your background and your focus at JustFix.nyc?
My parents are both public school teachers in NYC. This strongly influenced my career choice to leverage technology for public service. I met my cofounders Dan and Ashley through Blue Ridge Labs at Robinhood. We were part of a 3-month summer fellowship in which we investigated problems faced by low-income New Yorkers and developed an MVP of a digital product to improve their lives. We each came into the fellowship with different backgrounds in management, design, and development, giving us an interdisciplinary perspective on how to explore our solution.
We focused on housing off the bat because of Dan’s background in tenant organizing. The project started with baseline research – we interviewed dozens of tenants, housing court judges, community organizers, tenant attorneys. I even shadowed building supers for two days just to get a complete understanding of the housing ecosystem in NYC. Deep research allowed us to put together a hypothesis around how tech could make an impact. We were sitting in housing court observing one day and we saw countless tenants struggling to tell their story. They would come in with a big bag of papers, and often when trying to articulate the issues they were experiencing they would approach the judge’s bench and start flipping through photos on their phones. It became clear to us tenants needed a way to tell their stories in a more concise and compelling manner. A tech solution would make housing court more effective especially when you consider that with 90% of tenants unrepresented and 90% of landlords represented, tenants are at a severe disadvantage. We built JustFix.nyc to help tenants build their case by digitally translating their story into evidence and a timeline that can be shared with advocates, lawyers and housing court should it get to that point.
Were you or your cofounders motivated to build a tech solution for neglectful housing situations as a result of personal experience?
I grew up in Uptown Manhattan near Columbia University. Throughout my childhood i saw the neighborhood change drastically. The demographics changed, the University was buying up a lot of real estate and turning it into high income housing for professors or international students who could pay much more. But Dan was really the impetus for the project. When he graduated college, he moved into Crown Heights, Brooklyn, a neighborhood going through massive change, gentrification and redevelopment. There he regularly witnessed neighbors being harassed by his landlord because they paid rent-stabilized rates, and the landlords wanted to flip their units to make more money. Newcomers to the area often paid 5-6x the amount of the legacy tenants in the same building just because the landlords could get away with it.
When we first started this project we basically did analog case management. We put up Google and Facebook ads to reach people who needed counsel through issues they were experiencing. I worked alongside a tenant attorney to help 10 tenants in neglectful housing situations to learn the step-by-step process a tenant takes to resolve each issue. We were walking tenants through every step all in order to get the best possible understanding of the process before we ever wrote a line of code or built a product.
Can you describe exactly how JustFix.nyc works?
JustFix.nyc builds technology for housing justice. We’ve created a tech product to help tenants in neglectful housing situations build cases and connect with housing advocates and lawyers. Tenants are able to use our Web app to do a few things. First there is the evidence gathering component, which could mean photos or a room by room checklist of issues and documentation. Second are tools for mediation. We provide templated language for text messages to supers, emails to landlords and official written letters of complaint to be mailed to landlords. The third component allows users to directly report to city agencies like 311. We give tenants a breakdown of the steps to file with the state and city housing agencies. Each piece of evidence and action step taken is aggregated and logged into an individual’s case history, which is like a Facebook Timeline that shows everything that’s happened from the time when the issue started, through every step a tenant takes to get repairs made. Other sections help tenants connect with local community organizing groups and legal services and there’s also a feature that provides a high level guide on tenants rights.
Why did you decide on a nonprofit business model?
We always want this to be free for tenants. We went down this path because of the customers we serve, which include nonprofit community groups and legal aid services running on small budgets. This is a more sustainable model for us. We anticipate working closely with city governments across the nation as we expand, and government funding makes a lot more sense as a nonprofit too.
Why did you choose to build your product as a tech solution and how do you foresee technology being advantageous to your business goals?
We realized this problem deserved a tech solution when we saw people flipping through photos on their phone in housing court to explain their case. We are looking at two metrics as we evaluate success. On an individual basis we are looking at higher success rate, both in housing court in a true legal setting or before housing court. That may manifest itself in different ways – repairs made, evictions avoided and thus instances of homelessness avoided, quality of life implications. On the organization side our goal is to increase the capacity of our partner organizations to help them streamline and become more efficient in serving more tenants with the same resources for the same staff.
Can you talk me through your ideal use case?
The ideal use case is actually when two or three tenants in the same building experience similar issues but don’t know that others in their building are experiencing similar problems. Each of these individuals use the app to seek help and as a result community organizers or legal advocates using our platform see multiple tenants in one building are having issues. They are able to build a group case which could be resolved by sending in a joint letter among multiple apartments or bringing a group legal action to court, the equivalent of class action in housing court. This can result in improving the conditions for the entire building. We believe in the power of building as much leverage on the tenant side as possible, and grouping multiple tenants within a building is the most impactful way to do that.
What has been the greatest challenge so far as a tech nonprofit?
One thing is working in the legal space and making sure we aren’t overstepping our bounds. There is a fine line between giving general suggestions and information and providing advice and counsel, which we aren’t allowed to do. We have to toe that line very carefully and make sure we are personalizing the information we provide without being too directive. That also relates to us just interacting with the legal system and making sure the case history tenants put together is going to be admissible in court. This is an informal part of the judicial system but we still need to make sure the effort tenants are putting forth is actually helpful.
After going through 2 accelerator programs, what advice you would give to other entrepreneurs on how to maximize those opportunities?
I would say identifying the strengths of each programs and using those to the fullest. Understanding the network of each and maximizing those to build your network. Using sort of the social proof of being in the program to get introductions within those networks. The other thing is just knowing you’ll receive tons of conflicting feedback so knowing that you aren’t going to take everything that’s given as gospel. You can sort of take some and leave others.
Do you have any user stories from early tests?
One woman used an early version of our analog product and she was able to avoid eviction. This elderly woman was living alone in the South Bronx and her landlord was about as bad as they come. She didn’t have a lease, most of the tenants in the building were undocumented and she had every problem that you could imagine – mold, leaky faucets, crumbling porch and her landlord was coming to her apartment and threatening her against withholding rent. She didn’t even necessarily just want repairs made, she wanted to get out of there. We were able to help her put together a body of evidence and once the case was taken to housing court she was granted 3 months to find another apartment, rent free. At the end of those 3 months she was able to find another affordable unit to move into.
What’s the long-term company vision?
We would like a version of JustFix.nyc to be in every major city in the United States and for this to make a meaningful dent in the incredible imbalance that exists in every housing ecosystem as a result of tenants not having the right to counsel in housing court proceedings. Evictions are an epidemic in the US right now and our hope is that we can make a dent in preventing some of the evictions and ensuing homelessness. Eviction is the cause of 30% of instances of homelessness.
For more info on JustFix.nyc or to sign up for their beta, visit: http://beta.justfix.nyc/