In March, as the spread of COVID-19 across large swaths of the US effectively shuttered much of the country’s economy, millions of newly unemployed were left wondering how they would be able to pay rent. Some cities, such as Los Angeles, where nearly 60 percent of residents are renters, imposed COVID-related prohibitions on evictions. LA’s eviction moratorium required that renters who had lost jobs due to the pandemic notify their landlords in writing that they would be unable to pay rent.
“It can be very intimidating and a real challenge to tell your landlord that you can’t pay rent, even in cities where local governments have put in place an eviction moratorium,” said Georges Clement MPP 2020 and the Co-Founder of JustFix, a New York-based nonprofit that builds data-driven tools for tenants and organizers fighting housing displacement. JustFix, which has won plaudits for its suite of tools to help New Yorkers request apartment repairs or research landlords or their apartment’s rent history, had recently partnered with SAJE, a Los Angeles-based tenants rights organization to bring their data and technology driven approach to protecting housing rights to California when the COVID pandemic began to unfold.
JustFix and SAJE quickly worked to launch Norent.org, an online platform to help those hit hard by the economic crisis and at risk of eviction. The site allows users to generate a formal letter to their landlord asking for rent forgiveness or cancellation, and connect them to larger collective action and the #cancelrent campaign on the local, state, and national level. “Many of these eviction moratoriums require sending letters to landlords but finding an attorney to help draft one is a daunting and expensive process, especially now,” said Clement. “What we set out to do with Norent.org is to educate people that these letters are a crucial tool to enforce eviction protections as well as potentially establishing a legal defense in court later on.” Since its launch earlier this spring, the tool has been used by hundreds of tenants in Los Angeles seeking to forestall eviction.
“In our digital era, we so often forget the legal importance of a simple letter dropped in a mailbox,” said HKS Lecturer in Public Policy David Eaves, who was one of Clement’s faculty advisors at the Kennedy School. The two recently paired up to co-edit a report examining the state of digital governance, which surveyed several government professionals from around the world. “Georges’s work with JustFix demonstrates how data and technology isn’t simply the domain of big business or government but can empower average citizens in ways that were unthinkable only a few years ago.”
Now back in his native New York, Clement is serving as JustFix’s acting executive director and is as busy as ever. The nonprofit recently launched a new app to allow tenants to sue their landlords for failing to make repairs or for harassment, a longstanding issue with much of the city’s rent-controlled housing stock. With New York’s housing courts closed during the pandemic to all cases except those that threaten a tenant’s health or safety, “we wanted to give people a tool to access the courts during this uniquely challenging time,” said Clement. “Housing insecurity has spiked during the pandemic, but we wanted to make sure that renters had the tools to fight for their rights.”