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New York renters take on dodgy landlords using open data

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez November 4, 2019
New York - like many other major cities across the world - is facing a housing crisis, with renters suffering terrible conditions. How can open data help?

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According to the most recent Comptroller’s report, around 1.2 million New Yorkers live in “deficient” housing. This means that at any given time, their homes have three or more serious code violations present and unaddressed. Equally, like many other major cities across the world, New York is facing a serious housing affordability crisis, with approximately a third of renters paying more than 50% of their income in rent. 

Couple this with a complex bureaucratic system that’s hard to navigate, and a pool of dodgy landlords that own dozens of properties across the city (but avoid responsibility for tenants), and you end up with thousands of vulnerable people that are at the mercy of a system that is more powerful than any individual. 

However, a group of people and organisations are helping to address this imbalance through the use of open data. JustFix NY is using open data to expose unscrupulous landlords, map building ownership across the city and also enable renters to take on landlords in court. 

Georges Clement, co-founder and President at JustFix, was speaking last week at mySociety’s TICTeC Local event in London at City Hall, where he explained how the organisation is using open data to put the power in renters’ hands and influence policy in New York. 

Balancing power in court 

JustFix started four years ago, when a group of New Yorkers came together in the hope of building a more equitable New York, through the use of data and technology. Commenting on the fact that 20% of New Yorkers live in deficient housing, Clement said: 

These are things with really serious health repercussions, such as rats, mould, lead paint. That’s about a fifth of the city living in those conditions. 

When tenants tried to remedy these issues, they faced an incredibly complex and disjointed process. From trying to navigate reporting these issues to the city, to trying to get legal help, but also the interpersonal relationship with the landlord. It was a very complex system and it is incredibly overwhelming. 

This is made worse by the fact that if a tenant could get to housing court, the highest point in escalation in the resolution process, they were facing an incredibly imbalanced system where over 90% of tenants couldn’t get legal representation and over 90% of landlords had a lawyer. You can imagine the sort of success rates when you’ve got a lawyer just arguing one side of the case.

Knowing this, JustFix began investigating by sitting in housing court for weeks on end, observing the process and identifying pain points for tenants. One of the first things that Clement and his team noticed was that tenants would often walk up to the judge with their cell phone and show them pictures of issues with their apartment, such as rats of mould. 

However, short of giving the judge their phone to keep, the photographs were never allowed to be submitted into formal evidence. To remedy this, JustFix decided to build a mobile friendly web-app that gave tenants the power to do everything from document issues in their apartment, to get codified action steps, connect with various resources in their neighbourhood, and then create the court filing themselves to start a case. The app then compiles this information to create a case history to present as their formal documentation in court. 

In the past two years, JustFix has served over 15,000 tenants in this way and achieved approximately a 60% win rate. 

What next? 

Whilst this is an incredibly impressive win for JustFix, Clement said that the team didn’t want to stop there. It didn’t want to just speed up and enable a process for tenants, it wanted to address the power imbalance inherent in the system. Clement said: 

The story could stop there and it could have been a really good initiative to help folks navigate this bureaucratic maze. But when we started to dig deeper with partners, we started to get a lot of additional questions that were outside the realm of helping tenants navigate this legal process. One was, who is the real owner of this building that I live in? And, what other buildings do they own in this neighbourhood and across the whole city?

Clement explained that most people pay rent to some kind of shell company, which is a company that doesn’t usually have a tangible owner - it’s more of a complex corporate structure. So, JustFix started looking at data from a variety of city and state agencies, as well as the data that it had acquired from the thousands of court cases it had been involved in. And began connecting the dots. Clement said: 

Using this data we started to think about mapping out: who really owns all of these various buildings and map out the true corporate portfolios? You’re looking at things like the registered business address from tax filings, individuals names, corporation names. 

You’re talking about 250,000 residential buildings that are private rental buildings in New York. It’s a pretty big network. And we found all these different ways that landlords were purposefully obscuring the ownership of their buildings.

For example, the true owners of these shell companies were registering the superintendent of the building as the owner, rather than themselves. Shockingly, they were also purposefully misspelling their names on various forms. Clement said: 

So if you search in government systems, you were searching one iteration of a name. And that one iteration of that name would pull up maybe one...two...three buildings. But if you search every possible iteration of that name, that was a different spelling, you would start to see this much larger ownership network. For example, we found one landlord that spelt his name twelve different ways across different buildings.

You can imagine why they do this. When the government is doing due diligence for permits, they are only seeing one tiny snapshot. When they go to banks for financing, they only see one small slither of their ownership. Also, when they need to show their track record in any way, they can present a very particular picture of their ownership.

Working more effectively

JustFix is using this approach to open data to group buildings together to enable group litigation. It is also enabling media to carry out investigations more easily and city agencies are also doing enforcement that is looking at entire portfolios, rather than just one sliver. 

It has also helped create a group that it is calling the Housing Data Collection, which forms representatives from different policy think tanks, people that are policy or data analysts, community organisations, as well as representatives from the city and academic institutions. Clement explained: 

Everybody comes to together on a monthly basis. We realised that a lot of people were doing a lot of repetitive redundant work. We were all doing the same kind of data infrastructure work that each of us was doing individually. Taking the open data, cleaning it and joining it was taking 85% of people’s time. The analysis was the last piece that they could do. It was incredibly inefficient. 

So we created nycdb - a database that is open to all the members of the Housing Data Coalition to use and access. It is now resulting in various projects that are coming out of it, such as mapping out and visualising evictions across the city and putting together a worst evictors list.

You can find the list NYC’s worst evictors here, which not only names and shames, but also details how many families each of them houses, how many families they have each sued, and who they are funded by. 

Clement said that he hopes that all this work not only helps tenants when making renting decisions, or when they are stuck in dire situations and need help, but also helps to address policy, legal and systemic change. 

How do we provide better direct services, but also use the aggregation of all of that information that we can get from these better quality digital services for individuals, and use that towards broader policy and systemic change? Civil tech can be a much bigger impact than helping people navigate complicated bureaucratic processes.

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