Over one million New Yorkers live in deficient housing. That means they cope with problems like mold, pests, and neglected repairs. But the city’s legal system can seem overwhelming and it can be hard to access for tenants if they don’t know where to begin. It’s a problem that led three New Yorkers to create an app so that tenants facing landlord harassment might have a fighting chance both at home and in housing court. It may seem improbable– technology helping tenants fight problem landlords–but for some New Yorkers, it’s already helping to tip the scales. Hannah Long-Higgins reports.
LONG-HIGGINS: In an apartment building in the Bronx, a tenant named Lorenzo pulls out his cell phone. He scrolls through pictures of his bathroom walls, which are covered in yellow mold. He doesn’t want to use his last name because he’s afraid his landlord will use this against him. He says his landlord has been harassing him for years.
LORENZO: They want to take the older people living here, they want to take them out.
LONG-HIGGINS: Lorenzo says his landlord is trying to push out long-time tenants so he can make more money by renting rooms to the city as part of a program to house the homeless. Yeraldi Perez is a housing advocate with CASA, a community organization that advocates for safe apartments.
PEREZ: When landlords make these deals with the city, it is more profitable rather than have a rent-stabilized tenant living there.
LONG-HIGGINS: Like Lorenzo. In the past, it would have been his word against his landlord’s. But now, he’s using a new app called JustFixNYC that allows him to keep and access time-stamped, geocoded photos, videos, receipts, and documents on his phone. The service provides step-by-step instructions in English and in Spanish on how to deal with multiple housing problems, from pests to mold to landlord harassment. It even comes with an external thermometer to hang on apartment walls so tenants can document changes in temperature if their landlords shut off the heat. Georges Clement is one of the app’s creators.
CLEMENT: We generate a personalized plan of attack. So, that includes calling 311 and logging the complaint tracking number, but also helping people with templated communications.
LONG-HIGGINS: Clement compares JustFixNYC to a TurboTax for housing issues. You fill in the blanks, and the software churns out a letter you can send to your landlord with your data. He and the app’s other creators worked with housing attorneys to include strong legal language that would send a clear message to problem landlords: I’m taking this seriously, and you should too.
The app also has a new feature that pools data from entire buildings so that advocates and lawyers can find patterns of harassment across buildings, boroughs, and eventually, if there are enough users, across the city. Perez says it’s already helping her keep track of more cases when she’s stretched too thin to visit tenants in person.
YERALDI: In buildings where I know there’s pretty severe conditions that need to be addressed, and that tenants are actively in housing court, and there’s like a group case where they’re suing their landlord, that that information I have access to so we can pass it on to the attorneys representing them, and that that information is used to advocate for them.
LONG-HIGGINS: Attorney Gary Voskrtsensky deals with a lot of housing cases. He says the app will make cases move through court more quickly. Voskrtsenksy [VOS-CRES-ZEN-SKEE] : If the tenant already has some sort of proof or some sort of photographs of repairs that need to be made and makes the other side aware of those issues, the landlord’s attorney are going to take the tenant’s word for it.
LONG-HIGGINS: Voskrtsenksy has not seen the app in his cases yet, but he says it will only help speed things up in a housing court system that has reached full capacity.
VOSKRTSENKSY: There’s a lot of landlord-tenant cases, there’s about a quarter million cases in New York City, so you know, the attorneys are very busy.
LONG-HIGGINS: According to the Right to Counsel Coalition, while more than 90% of landlords have lawyers in housing court, most tenants don’t. In Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, tenant Katya Rozanoza says she’s already experienced an improved quality of life because of it. Before using
ROZANOZA: I would just email the landlord directly, and if they didn’t want to fix something, it would just be a long process.
LONG-HIGGINS: When Rozanoza’s oven started turning on automatically, it was easy to take action. The app walked her through the steps on how to contact her landlord, who sent someone to take a look, and she’s waiting on repair. And until the oven gets fixed, she will continue to document the problems on her app in case she needs the evidence in court someday. Hannah Long-Higgins, Columbia Radio News.