Web-Based Tool Hello Landlord Aims To Decrease Evictions, Improve Tenant-Landlord Communication

Published: Wednesday, June 26, 2019 - 5:15pm
Updated: Thursday, June 27, 2019 - 9:34am
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STEVE GOLDSTEIN: The Eviction Lab at Princeton University estimates that in 2015 there were more than 2 million eviction filings in the U.S. and it's believed that number has been going up since then. Tucson is a city that struggles deeply with evictions and as part of the response to that, the U of A Law School teamed up with BYU Law about a year ago to develop possible solutions and offer assistance to people who may be on the path to eviction. Today those schools, in collaboration with a subsidiary of the law firm Wilson Sonsini, have unveiled a new online tool to improve communication between tenants and landlords. It's called Hello Landlord, and with me to talk about it is Stacy Butler, director of the U of A's Innovation for Justice program. Stacy what is Hello Landlord and what are you hoping it'll do?

STACY BUTLER: So, Hello Landlord is a web-based tool that helps tenants create letters to their landlords when they anticipate missing a rental payment or when they've missed a rental payment or when there's something wrong with their rental and they'd like to communicate with their landlord about that. It works on a laptop, tablet or smartphone. It's available in English and Spanish and it's not jurisdiction specific, so it can be used anywhere in the United States.

GOLDSTEIN: Why can this tool help? What are some ways in which will help with communication or other aspects?

BUTLER:  So, one of the things that the students discovered working on this project, pretty early on, was that there were a lot of communication breakdowns happening between tenants and landlords, that were then leading to evictions that were perhaps preventable. We've talked to a lot of tenants who said when they had an issue with their rental, whether they were having financial trouble or a problem with their living conditions, that they really didn't know where to start and that they didn't know how to reach their landlord. Maybe the property manager changed frequently or they just weren't sure about ... that level of communication and sometimes feel a little bit nervous about that communication. At the same time we talked to landlords who felt that, you know, they don't like doing evictions and they would like to work more with tenants to prevent eviction. But that, often they feel that their tenants don't reach out to them when there's a problem and don't give them an opportunity to pursue other conflict resolution besides an eviction. And so ... that communication gap and hearing it from both sides really prompted the students to think about what can we do before eviction happens, that might have an eviction prevention effect.

GOLDSTEIN: Well that's especially intriguing, to be going back to this, because I think there is the reputation, certainly as the specter of evictions has grown across the U.S., that perhaps landlords wouldn't be willing to do that. In any way, did that surprise you that landlords said that they would be willing to work through this if communication were improved?

BUTLER: It was a little surprising to the students, I think. You know on the one hand I think students went into this maybe with some assumptions that, you know, really what the narrative about eviction is often ... that tenants are the victims and landlords are the perpetrators. But, you know, with with my program we have a no villains rule and we try to go into every project with an open mind and talk to really all of the stakeholders involved in an issue and get a lot of different perspectives on the issue. So, I think that's one of the reasons why it's important to engage like that from the beginning. And so we were a little surprised by how cooperative landlords were but it was ... a pleasant surprise and we worked with a lot of landlords who really were willing to engage with us and talk to us and give us feedback as we were going through the process. And it was, I think, a good experience.

GOLDSTEIN: So let's talk about some of the process that went into this. You mentioned the students that were involved. This is something that must have taken a lot of intense work. Who did the students talk to? How much observation did they do?

GOLDSTEIN: Right, well we started the project not knowing what we're building and so we try to uncover every stone. So the students, first of all, they were served with an eviction notice and they went through the process of standing in the shoes of a tenant who has been served with an eviction and navigated that process on their own out in the community. They also observed about 220 eviction court proceedings and captured a lot of information there. And then they talked to a wide variety of people. So, tenants, landlords, attorneys for tenants, attorneys for landlords, social services, government services, judges, court staff, journalists who are working on eviction; just really as many people as we could engage around the issue as possible.

GOLDSTEIN: How big a step can this be? I mean certainly it may not be more than a baby step but in terms of moving in the right direction, how important you think this tool can be?

BUTLER: Well I think there's a couple of things about this tool that really make it unique and exciting. One, is that it is an upstream tool. A lot of what's happening in the legal innovation and tech space, is bringing technology to the legal system to try to help people act like lawyers when they're not lawyers in the court process. And this tool is really targeting a much earlier space and it's different in that way. It's also a unique collaboration in that it's not jurisdiction specific. So that was, I think, one of the goals in partnering with BYU, is let's look at this issue across two states and see how can we dive deeper and uncover something that's going to work in more than one little pocket of the world. And then the third really unique thing about this, is that it's not just a partnership between two academic institutions but we have private sector support. So for Wilson Sonsini and its subsidiary, SixFifty, to join this collaboration and contribute their expert knowledge and their technology skills is really remarkable.

GOLDSTEIN: Well, Stacy where does Tucson, where does Pima County rank when it comes to the problem of evictions, if we compare it to the rest of the U.S.?

BUTLER: Well, so Matthew Desmond's Eviction Lab site ranks Tucson as a top 25 evicting city. So we have a very high eviction rate compared to the rest of the nation.

GOLDSTEIN: There's been major concern we heard, really all over the place, and even more so here in Maricopa County of late, affordable housing. It's just very-very difficult for people to find. How big a factor is that, when it comes to this?

BUTLER: I think that's a huge factor. I think that was another surprising thing that came out of this project ... I think people went in assuming, you know the students went in assuming that evictions happen in court. So, eviction must be a problem with the legal system. What they found, was that by the time an eviction gets to court and becomes a court proceeding, we're really talking about the last chapter of a much longer story about systems level failure and a big part of that failure is the affordable housing shortage in Arizona. And we have something like, 50,000 affordable housing units for 250,000 households that need them. And so when tenants are giving in such a huge-huge piece of their monthly income to cover their rent, they just have no capacity to absorb, one, an unexpected financial hit. And once that one-time unexpected financial hit happens an eviction can happen really quickly. Because that one missed rental payment can become an eviction… and you're out of your home in less than a month.

GOLDSTEIN: OK. That is Stacy Butler she is director of the University of Arizona's Innovation for Justice Program. We've been talking about the new Hello Landlord online tenant landlord communication tool. Stacy thanks very much for talking today.

BUTLER: Thanks so much for your time.

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