Scaling Legal Aid

Helping renters across the country review, sign, and email to their landlords the Declarations required get the protections from eviction in the CDC's new Order.

*The app was reported on by the New York Times and duplicated by public service organizations across the country, including the Debt Collective in California and the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland.

September 26, 2020

Please introduce yourself.

My name is Ben Carter. I work at the Kentucky Equal Justice Center. My fancy title is Senior Litigation and Advocacy Counsel, but I'm just an attorney who litigates and lobbies for Kentuckians.

To be able to say to people renting their homes and people helping homerenters, "Here's a place you can go—just using your smartphone—and in a few minutes you can review the declaration, sign it (electronically), and email it to your landlord"? That's huge.

Why did you build the CDC Eviction Declaration App?

Recently, the CDC issued an order that said nobody in America can be evicted for non-payment of rent during a global pandemic and economic crisis, provided they fill out a form and send it to their landlord. (Those protections last through December 31.)

I came up as a lawyer during the foreclosure crisis. At Legal Aid Society of Louisville, we helped a lot of people try to get loan modifications from their mortgage services. I saw firsthand how an "opt in" process, where people are required to take actions before they're protected by a rule, leaves a non-trivial percentage of people unprotected. Ideally, during this crisis, we would have rules (e.g. eviction protections) that people wouldn't even know they were protected by, that would allow people to just keep living their lives. Unfortunately, that's not what we have. To get these protections from the CDC's Order, you've got to take action, you've got to "opt-in".

This is where Community.lawyer comes in. We're able to build an App for opting into the eviction protections, which allows us to simply tell people "go to this website, learn about the declaration you have to make, make it, sign it, and send it to your landlord."

When people make these rules like, "You've got to send your landlord a Declaration", it sounds simple to people in offices—most of their job description could be simplified to "receive forms, send forms." But, for people in the real world, sending a form to their landlord requires that they:

  1. Know about the requirement

  2. Can access the form (either in paper or online)

  3. Understand the form

  4. Have a printer or access to a printer

  5. Go to the post office or make a trip to their landlord's office

  6. Have access to a lawyer in case the landlord tries some funny business to avoid the protections

It's just...a lot. So many places for people to fall down in the process of "Send this Declaration to your landlord."

So, to be able to say to people renting their homes and people helping homerenters, "Here's a place you can go—just using your smartphone—and in a few minutes you can review the declaration, sign it (electronically), and email it to your landlord"? That's huge.

That's the primary benefit of using Community.lawyer, but not the only one. One of my favorite features of Community.lawyer is that I can allow other organizations to duplicate and edit my App. The CDC Eviction Declaration App we built is pretty generic: it applies to everyone nationwide and just gives general guidance. The only state that we're able to provide specific, county-level guidance on rental assistance and legal aid is Kentucky, for obvious reasons.

But, it would only take someone who is moderately nerdy and curious about the Community.lawyer platform to duplicate our app and provide state-specific information for their users. For example, one of the CDC's requirements for opting into this rule is that you apply for rental assistance. Rental assistance rules are local—sometimes hyper-local. I can't tell you what Ohio's process is for rental assistance, but an Ohio legal aid attorney can duplicate this App and very easily edit it to include that local guidance.

Is building Legal Apps a normal part of your job?

Ha. No, not really, but I'm fortunate to work for an organization that provides me with a lot of autonomy for how I use my time.

KEJC was founded in the late 70s primarily as an organization to coordinate training and education between Kentucky's four legal aid organizations. We've grown to provide direct services, but training and coordination is in our DNA. Building a Legal App is an extension of our duty to support other legal aid orgs. It allows us to approach the hundreds of other legal aid attorneys in Kentucky and say "here is a tool that your intake department can either walk through with people or that you can provide as part of your social media communication strategy to help publicize this new rule." I view this App as a gift to our brother and sister organizations, both here in Kentucky and across the country.

Now here we are making Legal Apps, and there is no question that these Apps have raised our public profile in Kentucky.

One of the similarities between this pandemic and the foreclosure crisis of 2008 is that legal aid organizations are trying to leverage the fact that their constituency has near universal access to smartphones and computers. How are we doing this time around?

The foreclosure crisis was really the first legal crisis where a lot of laypeople suddenly needed legal help and also had access to the internet. This resulted in homeowners coming into legal aid already committed to some pretty wild legal theories they found on foreclosure message boards and listservs. The tools people had just ten years ago were pretty blunt. "Document automation" looked like a blog or message board with .doc templates that you could download and edit for your own purposes. I'm overstating it a bit, but many of those forms would include counterclaims alleging that your bank had engaged in RICO violations in originating or servicing your loan. (For sure, some did.)

Compare that to now where, with tools like Community.lawyer, we're able to provide the public with credible tools that they can actually use themselves. In addition to the CDC Declaration App we have an App that allows homeowners and renters who are facing eviction to demand a jury trial. That App allows us to walk people through this process online, via their smartphones. It allows us to present them with information in an easily digestible format, we can even ask questions for clarification, and in the end we don't overwhelm someone with a huge list of tasks. The document this App ultimately produces is customized to our local practices, our local bar, which means it's a highly credible first step for someone to take when responding to an eviction.

In addition to helping people take the first step, though, we're always careful to really emphasize the importance of connecting with local legal aid organizations. So, we have a commonly-used sheet in a Workbase that has a list of all 120 counties, which legal aid organization serves that county, and contact information for that legal aid organization. Because for many things people are going to face, connecting with a lawyer is ultimately going to be crucial.

What has been the reception to this App?

There is a lot to unpack here.

First, let me say that right now that for the CDC's eviction protections: publicity is paramount. Step 1 in sending a Declaration to your landlord is knowing you need to send a Declaration to your landlord. If people don't know that they have to take action, that they have to opt in, they won't get the protection.

At KEJC, our public profile is pretty low-key. That is sort of our brand: we keep our nose in our legal briefs and get the job done. Now here we are making Legal Apps, and there is no question that these Apps have raised our public profile in Kentucky.

We're not doing this to toot our own horns. Raising our profile helps us in moments like this—where people must opt into a process to get protection from eviction—which means we need more people to be aware that these protections exist in the first place.

Here's an example of how this works: in Louisville, we've had a lot of protests over the killing of Breonna Taylor. At one point, there was a police sweep of the protest site and a lot of people lost their property because Louisville Metro Police Department took all the stuff to the city dump. Using Community.lawyer, we quickly built an App that allows protesters to fill out a property claim against the city. We got on social media and asked people to share this App and they did.

When we ask people to share these Apps, whether it's on Facebook or Twitter or whatever, we're not just providing the people who need that App with a valuable resource, we're also providing people who don't need the App—people who are current on their rent and maybe have no reason to interact with KEJC—we're giving these allies an opportunity to take action, to do something in the face of an issue they care about but doesn't strictly, legally affect them. By sharing our App on social media, people are making it far more likely that others in their network, maybe their cousin who's fallen behind on rent, are aware of the protections available to them and opt in.

Did you intend for this secondary consequence of your App? The primary consequence being that more people opt into eviction protection, the secondary being that more people are aware of, and have a relationship with, the KEJC.

For sure.

As an "unrestricted" legal aid (we don't take money from the Legal Services Corporation so we're able to do work LSC-funded legal aid organizations are prohibited from doing), it's literally our job to lobby and fight for all people in poverty and marginalized communities. It's our job to engage with Kentucky legislators and debunk any negative stereotypes they might have about people facing eviction right now. And to that end, there is nothing quite as powerful as a call or email from a constituent.

Community.lawyer Apps are helping us create relationships with directly-affected people that we hope we can translate into power to affect policy. Kentucky homerenters have NO FRIENDS in the legislature (this is slightly, but only slightly, hyperbolic). Renter rights will be on the legislative agenda in Kentucky in 2021 and if we don't build power—fast—we're going to get smoked.

More than 300 people in Kentucky have already used this App to seek eviction protection. When the rules on evictions change again, I can now email these folks to let them know. Hopefully, this means more legislators will get emails and phone calls from their constituents when considering legislation that will affect homerenter's rights.

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