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4Q4 Podcast, Digital Impact Grants, Interviews

Can Data Make Bad Housing Practice a Thing of the Past?

Dan Kass of JustFix.nyc is working to make public data more accessible for those seeking to further housing justice in New York City.

Digital Impact 4Q4 Podcast: Dan Kass on Housing Data

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00:00 CHRIS DELATORRE: This is Digital Impact 4Q4. I’m Chris Delatorre. Today’s four questions are for Dan Kass, Co-founder of JustFix.nyc. With funding from a 2018 Digital Impact grant, Dan and his team are leading a data coalition whose aim is to further housing justice in New York City. The Housing Data Coalition, or HDC, is working to make public data more accessible and actionable for housing justice groups.

00:37 CHRIS DELATORRE: Dan, housing speculation is known to drive displacement because it often requires evicting tenants. Meanwhile, speculators are profiting from the loss of hard-working families who may not be able to afford the rapidly rising market prices of urban centers like New York City. How can more accessible and transparent public data make predatory housing practices a thing of the past?

01:03 DAN KASS: Hey Chris. Well, first of all thanks for having me today. I’m really excited to get to share the work that we do, both at JustFix as well as at HDC. So, as many folks are probably already keenly aware, we’re in the midst of a housing crisis in this country, both in New York City, in many cities all over the US. We’re seeing a lot of tensions and difficulties with just providing folks an easy, safe, affordable place to live.

You know, across the board we’re seeing trends in decreasing opportunities for homeownership, so increasing numbers of folks who are renting their apartments. And in New York as well as a lot of other places, we have never had a higher homeless population than we do right now. And a big driver of this housing crisis at the moment is just this huge imbalance of access and power between tenants and the real estate industry on the other side. So, if you’re an average tenant and again—this should be almost anyone who’s living in a city at the moment—it’s incredibly difficult for you to know who your landlord is, what’s happening in your neighborhood, crucial information about your building to inform on the larger context around your living situation. If you’re a tenant who needs to go to housing court, the vast majority of the time you don’t have access to free legal representation. While of course on the other side, almost all landlords have that, you know, paid attorneys who are in housing court every single day. So, our focus at JustFix and HDC is to take public data, to take this sort of information and make it more accessible to give people more power.

“There was a lot of this sort of constant wheel reinvention that was happening and a big lack of shared resources.”

So, we’re working regularly with data that we, was provided from the city level, the states, the courts, and use that to both again, make it available in a way that it isn’t currently. So just straight up just making the data available but also transforming that data into tools that can proactively equip tenants and tenant organizers to actually take action. So, that includes data on shell company networks, real estate finance that can give folks a much better lens onto who the actors in the space are, know where to be targeting their efforts, understanding in real time trends in their neighborhood. And, and so we think that’s not the solution to the housing crisis, but an incredibly important tool to have in the toolkit.

03:43 CHRIS DELATORRE: In a promotional video for JustFix.NYC, you describe how thousands of tenants have used the app to document issues and build legal cases against neglectful and deceitful landlords, to “navigate the complex bureaucracy of the city services as well as connect with people in your community who can assist with these issues.” Where and how do JustFix and the HDC intersect? How does participating in this process empower tenants and community leaders who may not have a voice otherwise?

04:17 DAN KASS: Yeah, so JustFix began in 2015 with my [fellow] co-founders George and Ashley. And we are a nonprofit. So our mission as a nonprofit is to utilize data and technology to support tenants and tenant advocates in fighting displacement. But pretty quickly after we begin working, it was very clear that there was already a group of people in many different places across the city who are doing some version of this work—who were researchers, data scientists data folks that were working at our partner organizations. And so a lot of people were already doing really interesting work and really critical research around housing data. Our observation, though, was that there was a lot of this sort of constant wheel reinvention that was happening and a big lack of shared resources.

FURTHER READING

The HDC provides opportunities for coalition members to connect, learn, and give mutual support to a variety of projects involving housing data.

So you would see the same projects kind of popping up again and again, trying to make, just, you know, make, you know, use of the data in a very simple sense. And so part of the inspiration around HDC was for all of us just to sort of get in the same room, really started to map out, you know, where our work lies and ways that we could both collaborate as well as ways in which we could continue to work on our respective projects in a more dispersed way.

One of the major projects of the housing data coalition is a tool called NYCdb, stands for NYC database and it’s a tool that helps collect data, all of this different disparate data from all of these different sources, that are relevant to doing housing justice work and puts it in the same place. So all of our projects can now be built on top of NYCdb, and we have good peer-review strategies and different sorts of ways in which, now the universe of building these projects has become that much easier. So the, that, it all sort of is a moot point without having a really meaningful co-design process, as you said, that empowers tenants and tenant leaders to have a real active voice in the development of these tools. So, beyond sort of these shared resources that we focus on at HDC, we’re also really looking and are constantly focused on creating a space where tenants, tenant organizers, technologists, designers academics can come together but also to be bringing in tenants and tenant leaders within those spaces and really focusing on ways to have transparency, shared language, decision-making frameworks that allow the people who are closest to this problem to also be the most active participants in developing the solution.

07:13 CHRIS DELATORRE: JustFix began working with tenants in New York City in 2015. Co-founder George Clement says, “Through our aggregation of data, we have tenants on opposite sides of the city that are dealing with similar issues but have the same landlords. Taking collective action can be the most powerful way to enact not just getting one repair made but enacting meaningful system-wide change.” You also see this project as an opportunity to understand how the HDC can serve as a model for addressing community data needs. Do you see similar initiatives happening, happening elsewhere in the country and is there a plan to replicate the project in other cities or to address other issues?

07:59 DAN KASS: Yeah, so a great question. That’s actually been something through, you know, the Digital Impact grant, both as in within HDC and and also in the course of our work at JustFix. We’ve really take that question on in 2019. So for the past several months, we’ve really started to understand what the ecosystem and landscape looks like in different cities and, and, and trying to establish what the need looks like in other places. And it’s very encouraging.

“They want to be working on projects… but it’s not always clear how they can contribute in the most effective way.”

So, what we see in other places we think is very similar to what we were seeing at the beginning stages of HDC. We have some really incredible folks both working in the tenants’ rights community, in the civic technology community and elsewhere that are doing interesting work are trying to support housing justice work wherever they’re living, if it’s in Los Angeles, Chicago. Just last week I was in San Francisco meeting with folks there. However, what we’re seeing is a very similar thing to, you know, again what we really started with HDC which was creating space, shared language and principles, to have a more collaborative environment in doing this work, and really to be able to share a co-design process that allows technologists to collaborate with tenants and tenant organizers. I think a very common thing that folks who are really interested in civic technology feel is, you know—a huge amount of interest—they want to be working on projects, they want to be contributing. But it’s not always clear how they can contribute in the most effective way.

And so by taking the open-source work we’ve done here in New York, the things that we’re writing up about the projects that we’re doing here, we see a way to almost sort of promote these projects in other cities and, and build similar groups of folks who are local to that place to really start to do this work on their own and how we can support them in that process.

FURTHER READING

Digital Impact grantee JustFix.nyc is using the urban housing crisis to lay the groundwork for a nationwide movement built on public data.

10:09 CHRIS DELATORRE: Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams says, “Information cannot stay in the hands of the numerical minority. It must go out to the countless number of majority people who are in need of that information.” The HDC is addressing housing justice from a variety of standpoints. A lack of access to information seems to be the driving factor behind that. Two-part question. First, what about people who can’t get online? Can tenants and advocates participate without access to Wi-Fi? And second, is having that access enough? How can tenants and community partners use what they learn to help themselves and each other?

10:50 DAN KASS: Yeah, I think that’s a great question and, and that’s a question that we’ve been asking ourselves since the very, very early days of starting our work at JustFix. You know, to me it goes back to an amazing quote that I’m going to paraphrase from Dana Boyd at Data and Society who made this observation that given the digital divide we currently see and how the vast majority of technology that’s currently being developed is being developed towards very specific populations and more tech-savvy users. So Dana Boyd has this quote talking about how if you in the process of building your technology aren’t actively combating that bias and inequity in the developing of your tools, then you’re only furthering them. That simply perpetuating the status quo is only making things worse.

“Our focus at JustFix—and I think what’s reflected in our tools—is a desire to just go beyond simply displaying information.”

So for example, if our tools, you know, one of our tools helps a tenant in the process of bringing a case to their landlord in court. So, we streamline the, the housing court process for someone who doesn’t have legal representation. If we only made that tool easier for someone who was already more likely to be able to use the technology, we’re only furthering that gap and widening it. So our focus is very much on meaningful distribution. So, we really partner with organizing groups, local neighborhood groups that can really put these tools in the hands of the folks who need it the most. So we’re not looking to just pick up any type of user, anyone who’s going to use our tools, but we specifically through our nonprofit mission have a focus on the people who are the most at risk of displacement or, you know, have repeated and flagrant harassment from landlords, who are in the state of being evicted and things like that. But also call, it speaks to the need for accessibility and usability.

So we focus on creating SMS-based tools that are deeply accessible. Even my grandma knows how to text and send emojis and so we see, there’s a huge opportunity to deliver services through that platform. And we also create ways, and this was sort of learned through our design experiences and through the past several years of deploying our tools, that we also create pathways for advocates, caseworkers, paralegals, anyone who might be supporting tenants to be able to use it on their behalf. So, a percentage of the folks that are able to use our tools or not using them directly but we have folks that are already helping them and we’re making those advocates’ lives a lot easier and streaming their workflows as well.

And towards your second question, I think that’s another really great, just like deep existential question about our work—creating access and just making information easier. So, of course, an important step in the right direction but we don’t pretend that that’s the solution. Our focus at JustFix—and I think what’s reflected in our tools—is a desire to just go beyond simply displaying information. There’s a lot of tools that you could potentially think of that will just display, you know, here’s the violations in your building, here’s some, you know, data points, here’s like some good visualizations. We think that’s great but we really want to translate that into actions.

So, how can we leverage this data in a way to provide more personalized sets of tools, to use that information that we have to streamline these processes. So for example and is that you heard in that quote from George, we’re able to use our data analysis that connects landlord buildings. Oftentimes landlords register shell company networks to sort of hide what buildings they’re involved in. We’re able to use data analysis to connect those buildings together really meaningfully for the first time to build more proactive class-action litigation, to inform more proactive code enforcement from folks at city agencies.

So, we’re really looking to not just open up access and provide information, which is of course important, but to really bring that to the next level in terms of having that actually result in concrete actions that can really change some of the underlying dynamics of landlord harassment, evictions, and displacement in New York. If you’re looking to learn more, our website is justfix.nyc. We’re on twitter @justfixnyc. And if you’re interested in learning more about the housing data coalition, that website is housingdatanyc.org.

15:42 CHRIS DELATORRE: Dan Kass, Co-founder of JustFix.nyc, thank you.

Digital Impact is a program of the Digital Civil Society Lab at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. Follow this and other episodes at digitalimpact.io and on Twitter @dgtlimpact with #4Q4Data.

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