Using Tech for Housing Justice: The JustFix.NYC Story

Several weeks ago, I got a chance to catch up with Dan Kass and Georges Clement, two of the three co-founders of JustFix.NYC, a rising civic tech nonprofit that has been earning a lot of positive attention for the ways it is supporting tenants and affordable housing advocacy. As they both show in this conversation, JustFix has learned a lot of valuable lessons about how to co-create effective civic tech tools and practices, working closely with the community it is rooted in, using technology for housing justice. Kass recently announced that he was stepping down from the role of executive director, and Clement has stepped in as the organization’s acting executive director.

Sifry: Where to begin? How do you tell your story?

Dan Kass: Georges and I met at the Blue Ridge Labs Fellowship program, with our third cofounder, Ashley Treni, back in 2015. That was the same year that we did the NYC Big Apps competition, and we have pretty much just been going at it since then. JustFix started as a side project that I had been working on, collaborating with organizers in my neighborhood, doing tenant organizing work, with a perspective of how data and technology can contribute to what they were trying to do.

It took us a couple of years to figure out the funding game and really build out a team. We’re up to about 10 people now with two very complimentary services.  One is meant for individual tenants, anyone here in the city, public housing or private housing, that’s having issues in their apartment that will likely lead to displacement. Our mission at its core is to stem the flow of working class and low income communities leaving the city. Helping to get repairs and fight harassment from your landlord and understanding the process of fighting evictions, understanding the legal process, connecting with resources, things like that.

We have a number of different products that fall under that side of the work, either really easy to use texting services or fully-fledged web apps. What was really effective was doing these individual small projects one at a time and really seeing which ones stuck, and then building out the usability and accessibility side of those.

Q: How do you test and discover what sticks?   

Kass: My first civic tech introduction happened to be a workshop that Laurenellen McCann was  hosting. I’m kind of lucky to have started there. We have built lots of one-on-one relationships with tenants, plus a partnership network with tenant organizing groups who really have a lot of the institutional knowledge. Our staff is not just techies–we’re hiring organizers and building a multidisciplinary environment, where on a day to day basis, everyone’s really coming together and brainstorming around that.

Georges Clement: Usage is developed through actual contact with people as opposed to what’s viral on the web.

Kass: This is not the field of dreams kind of situation. Part of Ashley’s thesis was also really looking at preexisting behavior and what are they doing with smartphones in particular. What she saw was folks who are already documenting these issues. You’re already taking photos of your apartment. You already have these text messages with your super, with your landlord, so there’s already this process of documentation. But to then bring that into a legal setting where you’re on your own, you don’t have access to an attorney, you don’t have the right to an attorney a lot of the time. The question was how can you really leverage that in a way that’s actually going to drive results? And so we built a lot of our products around that challenge.

Clement: Just in the past few weeks, we have gotten agreements to launch what we’re calling the design advisory council. We’ve had relationships with dozens of legal aid providers and major community organizations, and more informal organizing groups, over the past few years. Now we’re using this design advisory council to formalize relationships with a handful of them and have it be a regular advisory group that is coming together on a quarterly basis. And then in addition to that we host workshops at each of the organizations on a regular basis, working with their tenant leaders as well as their paid professional organizing staff.

Q: How many people do you think you’re serving?

Kass: We have served just over 15,000 individuals. We launched our first tenant service in 2016. Obviously we are hoping to reach a lot more than that. This sort of segues into the fact that direct tenant services are really just half of the puzzle. What we can see from the outcome of these tools is in many cases that’s really a driver of getting a better dynamic with the landlord, actually getting repairs, for example. But we also know that the service delivery component alone isn’t necessarily transforming some of the root cause issues of how tenants get into some of these harassing and disrepair situations to begin with.   

So tenant services are one thing. And then on the other side, we started to really look at what are some of the more structural and institutional causes.  One of the biggest things that we are hearing from organizers is the difficulty in just tracking some of these landlords, due to the patterns of property ownership in the city. Every building is owned by a shell company, a limited liability corporation. So around 2017, we started to take a really deep dive  into some of the property ownership data and found a way to build an algorithm for property ownership mapping where you can really connect the dots and the shell companies to proactively display the buildings that are part of large corporate landlord portfolios.

In many cases, there are a handful of landlords that are really at the forefront of displacement. They know what neighborhoods to be investing in that are going to be gentrifying in a few years, ahead of time, and have business models established around how they’re proactively displacing tenants.

So we built this tool called Who Owns What that has has an order of magnitude more engagement than anything else we’ve ever done. Hundreds of thousands of people are using it,  including over several thousand people who use it on a daily basis. It was designed originally for tenant organizers to be able to use. But since we launched we’ve radically expanded the types of users who are on the platform, including legal aid attorneys that are building more comprehensive sort of litigation like class action status across a landlord’s portfolio. You’ve never been able to do that before. We’ve also been doing a lot of city council trainings on the tools so they can understand who’s doing what in their neighborhood.

The community reinvestment arm of banks are also using it to understand who this landlord is that might be applying for financing and make a more informed decision about them. City agencies themselves now use this tool. 

So while individuals are finding value with this tool, it’s also a pipeline into aligning this database of people and buildings to really fuel collective action, or organizing on a larger scale, class action litigation, and it allows the city to do more proactive enforcement.

Q: Say more about that. It’s not obvious to me right off the bat how helping individuals in their engagement with battling their landlord through the legal process to shame them or legally forced them to do something, how that leads to collective awareness or action. And the same goes for a search tool. Yes, lots of people are using your tool, which is awesome. But then what gets them into any kind of collective formation that they’re all identifying as people with the same problem who need to band together and then do something together.

Kass: We don’t have everything drilled in just yet. This is our idea at least. If we had just made kind of like a “Yelp for landlords” type thing, with no real clear incentives for people to contribute to the platform. We’re trying to provide incentives where people are really going to say, ‘Oh, here’s the actual value I can get out of putting my data into this platform, into this tool.’

Q: So when a person is battling a landlord, they’re also given the option to make the information they’re using available in some other ways.

Kass: We give get them the choice to do that, an opt in. The potential is because we have this partnership network of legal aid organizations and the organizing groups, if this offers them a better way to access all of these individuals and connect them together. So say you’re a legal aid attorney and you’re getting complaints around a particular landlord. You’re able to search for that landlord and we can give you the contact information of a dozen different people who live in a dozen different buildings that, that landlord owns spread across the city.   That’s something that has never been able to have been done before. So it’s really about these individuals opting in to having their data aggregated in a way that opens up the opportunity for all of this collective action that our partners can galvanize.

Q: Talk more about your partners and who’s paying for all of this.

Kass: I started this work with the Crown Heights tenants union, a group of people who really care about their neighborhood. Other groups are organizing it on a very local basis, all the way up to more traditional tenants’ rights nonprofits to the Legal Aid Society, which is a multi-million dollar operation spread across the city. Some of our partners are tenants’ rights nonprofits that have been around for over a hundred years. Certainly technology is something that is not there, a lingua franca, but they know that they want it. That’s a role that we help to play within the larger ecosystem.

Clement: On the legal side of things, one of the power users is the city’s Commission on Human Rights, because there’s lots of landlords that they come across that have this pattern of discrimination. The Robin Hood Foundation has been a supporter of ours from the very beginning and they’re very interested in the direct service side of things. How do we serve individual tenants to get their issues resolved?  We’ve also gotten funding through the Community Reinvestment Act function at a number of banks around New York, which is really interesting and sort of something that we’ve learned over the past few years. We’ve gotten funding from a number of other foundations, including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Pioneering Ideas portfolio, the Open Society Foundations, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

The first couple of years were very difficult because we were basically subsisting off of random prize money and stuff. And so it was basically just the three of us and it takes a lot to sustain yourself. There’s a big [funding] chasm there. To now be at the point that we’re at, with a growing team and  a million dollar budget, is very exciting.

We also see it as an opportunity and a responsibility that we’ve been given—the chance to do really interesting work in this space.

Q: Do you see yourselves only staying in New York or, or is this becoming something that people want you to do in other places?

Kass: So there’s definitely a lot of interest in us replicating these products in other places.  We started with a relationship with a group in Los Angeles, for example. People have seen our track record in New York, both the products that we’ve built, but also how we’ve gone about that, and so our goal is really bringing that same kind of model and doing a co-design process  there to understand what are the experiments that we can run that are based off of the priorities and the need that we uncover together.

Q: How do you think you fit into the larger civic tech ecosystem?  Also given your experience since 2015, where you think the gaps and needs are?

Kass: One thing that I observe about the work that we do, going back from day one, is we’ve always been pretty pragmatic. We’ve been pretty gung-ho about just doing the work, not necessarily have been as good about talking about the work that we do. We think we have a lot that we’ve learned that we are really eager to at least share into a broader conversation. We know that a lot of folks are also thinking about these things, such as how do we do real co-design? How can these tools do more sort of root cause issue work and be more transformative, and also where are they limited and where is that inherently the case? We are also really interesting in seeing how technology can be embedded within social justice work and different social justice movements, as another tactic in that fight and to really equip folks who have been on the front lines of this work for decades.  Our tagline is “supporting a 21st century housing movement” and so that’s about adding to this continuum of social justice work with a new sort of toolkit.

Clement: The idea of being a data and technology layer of the movement and building that particular capacity within the larger movement that’s happening is really critical. I recently spent some time with Palak Shah, from the National Domestic Workers Alliance and she is also focused on the possibility for technology and product development to be a capacity building element of a social justice movement.

Kass: Folks in the housing movement say the single largest constituency in New York are tenants. And imagine if you can really have the opportunity to organize around that and have a narrative around that? Because you know the opportunities for home ownership are only getting further away. There’s just no real way to really organize or activate it yet. And you know, I’m not going to say we are the silver bullet to any of that, but we think we’re an important piece of it.

Q:  I think it’s really interesting to think of JustFix as a civic tech startup that started rooted in a problem rather than a solution looking for the problem. You started with the problem of housing precarity and what can we do? Let’s ask the people who have the problem. This is absolutely civic tech’s third wave. The first wave was individuals who acted on their own to hack something and then kind of blew people’s minds with what they were able to do. The second wave that got attention was institutionalizing that type of behavior and beginning to create platforms or ongoing organizations around that type of work. The third wave is people developing from the standpoint of “let’s ask people what they need.”

Kass: Or, as Laurenellen McCann put it, “build with, not for.”