Innovation for Justice program is working to close the access to justice gap
The University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law, BYU Law and SixFifty, a subsidiary of the law firm Wilson Sonsini, today announced the release of Hello Landlord – a free web-based tool that helps tenants communicate with their landlords about issues that can lead to eviction. This nationwide resource is a result of a semester-long collaboration between University of Arizona Law’s Innovation for Justice program and BYU’s LawX Legal Design Lab, which share a commitment to addressing pressing legal service issues with innovative products and solutions.
In 2016 more than 2 million people in the U.S. were evicted from their homes. Tucson is a top-25 evicting city according to Eviction Lab, with less than 20% of tenants appearing in eviction proceedings, 90% appearing without counsel and 96% of cases resulting in eviction judgments against tenants.
Developed by UA and BYU students, and built on SixFifty’s automation platform, it features simple, guided questions such as “what is your landlord’s first name?” and “why can’t you pay rent?” The software then generates a letter that clearly and respectfully explains the tenant’s situation and proposes a solution. Nearly 90% of the landlords who have previewed the tool said they would be willing to work with the tenant to resolve the problem if they received a similar letter.
“Eviction is a national crisis, and the ripple effects of an eviction are devastating to families and communities,” said Stacy Butler, director of University of Arizona Law’s Innovation for Justice program. “We went into this challenge knowing that we wanted to design a scalable, bilingual, jurisdiction-agnostic solution that could positively affect widespread change.”
Students Collaborate on Eviction Intervention Tool
At the beginning of the fall 2018 semester, 10 Innovation for Justice and five LawX students were tasked with utilizing a design- and systems-thinking framework to develop one or more scalable solutions to increase housing stability for tenants in underserved communities by reducing the frequency of eviction.
The students observed more than 220 eviction court proceedings and spoke with dozens of stakeholders, including judges, landlords, tenants, social services providers, attorneys and journalists. They found that by the time a tenant is served with an eviction notice, the eviction process in both Arizona and Utah is too rapid and rigid to afford an opportunity to stabilize the rental housing at stake. In many states, there are few legal defenses available to tenants once an eviction lawsuit has been filed.
The students were interested in developing an upstream solution that could increase the likelihood that tenants and landlords would resolve issues that can lead to evictions.
Specifically, students were interested in targeting a communication gap they observed between tenants and landlords, in which tenants felt powerless to reach out to landlords when at risk of missing a payment or experiencing a problem with a rental property, and landlords felt that tenants did not reach out to try and resolve payment or rental issues. The result was the creation of Hello Landlord, which aims to improve communications between tenants and landlords before a rental issue becomes an eviction court filing.
“For most people, that eviction notice is the last chapter in a much longer story about systems failure,” Butler said. “We hope that by making Hello Landlord available to as many people in as many states as possible, we can encourage communities to think preventatively about the justice gap.”
Kimball D. Parker, LawX director and president of SixFifty, added, “When it comes to evictions, the adage ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’ certainly applies. We found that most landlords don’t want to evict tenants and are receptive to working with those who proactively reach out. The collaboration with the University of Arizona and SixFifty has resulted in an online de-escalation tool that has the potential to help anyone who has missed rent or is experiencing an issue with the condition of their rental avoid legal problems.”
Arizona Law rising 3L Kylie Allen took the Innovation for Justice class and said working on the eviction-reduction project helped bring the law to life.
“The experiential learning model and the ability to brainstorm and create actual solutions sets I4J apart from a typical law class” Allen said. “Being able to engage with problems in the civil legal system in practice (rather than only in theory) was an impactful way to learn. This class reminded me that we can also engage in harm-reduction strategies to mitigate systemic harms.”
Butler added that they appreciate the support they have received from the legal community, including Wilson Sonsini, which has provided assets to subsidize tool development, web hosting and sustainability, and the American Bar Association and National Legal Aid and Defender Association, which welcomed BYU and UA to preview Hello Landlord at the Equal Justice Conference in April. In addition, the Innovation for Justice program received grant funding from the Agnese Nelms Haury Program in Environment and Social Justice to offer tenant education workshops in Pima County, Arizona in partnership with a local pro bono law center. Those workshops will afford the Innovation for Justice program an opportunity to continue its eviction prevention research for two more years, as well as an opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of Hello Landlord.