Responding to COVID with an app that helps tenants stay in their home

How JustFix and SAJE used Community.lawyer to build 'Can't pay rent?', a web app for Los Angeles tenants to send a letter to their landlord during the COVID pandemic.

1.5 weeks

From idea to live app.

6,400

Website visitors in 3 weeks.

260+

Letters sent in 3 weeks.

April 20, 2020

Please introduce yourselves.

Jon: I am Jon Truong, Director of National Partnerships at Justfix.nyc, a non-profit organization that builds technology for the housing movement. We build tools to help tenants and tenant organizers in exercising their rights as well as fighting against displacement. My role is to support and replicate the tools we build for tenants and tenant organizers across the country.

Maria: I am Maria Patiño Gutierrez, Program Coordinator at SAJE (Strategic Actions for a Just Economy). SAJE is an equal rights tenant's organization based in South LA.

What was the thought process behind launching the app?

Jon: We (JustFix.nyc and SAJE) were just wrapping up a design sprint about habitability complaints when COVID hit and the 'stay at home' orders were being issued. So we quickly got back together to brainstorm a way for us to support tenants in wake of all this, because every issue tenants normally deal with (housing stability, high rent, habitability) were about to get a lot worse.

Having a no code tool like Community.lawyer was extremely valuable because our engineers were tied up in other projects to update our existing tools.

Many ideas came up during our brainstorm, but for reasons of practicality and speed we landed on the idea for an interactive website that sends a letter notifying your landlord that you're unable to pay rent because you've been financially impacted by COVID.

What exactly does the app do?

Jon: It's really simple. First, the site shows you an example of the letter you're going to send. Next, it collects some basic information to help you find out exactly which COVID eviction policy applies to your county (the site gives you a bit of "know your rights" assistance). Then, you can enter the ways in which you've been financially impacted by COVID. You'll be prompted to add supporting documentation, such as a note from your employer or childcare provider, etc.

Ultimately, the tool ends by allowing you to input your landlord's contact information and sending them a letter plus the supporting documentation via USPS Certified Mail. The letter notifies the landlord that you're not able to pay your rent while citing the relevant rule (known as an "eviction moratorium").

If this app didn't exist, what would tenants in LA do in this situation?

Maria: First of all, they would call SAJE and we would direct them to our letter templates online, or we would ask for their email to send them the templates directly. Calling / emailing is a much more time consuming process, especially now because our office is closed.

Without this tool, we would not be able to serve the same amount of people. Traditionally, we can only serve people that live within a 30 mile radius of our office; with this letter-builder, we can serve everyone in LA.

How has the app been received?

Jon: We've had thousands of visitors to our website and we've had at least 250 letters generated. The reception was also really positive from the organizing community in Los Angeles.

As soon as we launched the tool, we saw lots of social media posts along the lines of "Don't know how to pay the rent? Check out this thing we found online." Totally organic referrals like that were popping up from everywhere. And we hosted the tool on a simple URL and we built a landing page that was simple but professional and trustworthy.

JustFix.nyc, among other things, is a tech company -- As a tech company, why use a "no code" platform when you have software engineers on payroll?

Jon: Before you build anything, before you invest and sink a bunch of engineering time to build something from scratch, it's important to get a prototype out into the world to test your value proposition. To answer the question, 'do people really need this thing?'

Having a no code tool like Community.lawyer was extremely valuable because our engineers were tied up in other projects to update our existing tools.

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