PROVO — The eviction rate of those renting their residences, be it apartment, condo or home, has skyrocketed over recent years and is now happening at a clip of some four per minute, or over 2 million annually, according to a Harvard report from earlier this year.
Now, a free digital tool just released by BYU's legal innovation lab LawX is aiming to mediate issues between landlords and tenants and help keep people in their homes.
LawX Director Kimball D. Parker said the web-based Hello Landlord follows in the steps of last year's project developed by the program that created an easy way for defendants in debt collection lawsuits to stand up for their rights. This tool, however, looks to mediate landlord-tenant issues before they end up in the legal system.
"We really wanted to try to understand the problems surrounding evictions … from the viewpoint of landlords and tenants," Parker said. "And we figured out some pretty interesting things. The court system is very hostile toward tenants and in Utah they have just three days to respond to an eviction notice. Then there’s a litany of court filings and papers, just like in debt collection, and 99 percent (of defendants) don’t have attorneys.
"When eviction cases get to court, it's almost too late."
The LawX students collaborated with peers in a similar program, Innovation for Justice at the University of Arizona as well as Parker's recently launched SixFifty, a private sector legal innovation effort that is a subsidiary of the Bay Area-based Wilson Sonsini law firm.
Parker said the students at BYU and Arizona launched dual research efforts at the beginning of the fall 2018 semester aiming to find out, from both landlords and tenants, what was at the crux of issues that led to eviction proceedings. Turns out, the answer was pretty simple.
"We talked with a whole bunch of landlords, and they told us they hate filing evictions," Parker said. "It’s expensive, it has an emotional toll. They all expressed a pretty open willingness to work with a tenant that missed rent or had some other issue.
"But what was happening was the tenant would miss rent then stop communicating with the landlord."
Creating an intervention tool that gave landlords what they needed — direct communication — and tenants what they needed — a resolution path that avoided an eviction notice — led to Hello Landlord. The online, automated software helps tenants generate a letter, in English or Spanish, about a missed rental payment or a problem with their rental via simple, guided questions such as “what is your landlord’s first name?” and “why can’t you pay rent?” The platform then generates a letter that clearly and respectfully explains the tenant’s situation and proposes a solution.
Parker said virtually all the landlords who previewed the tool said they would be willing to work with the tenants to resolve the problem if they received a similar letter.
Stacy Butler, director of the University of Arizona's Innovation for Justice program, said the platform is aimed at closing the "justice gap" and minimizing the harm suffered by those that are displaced through eviction proceedings.
“Eviction is a national crisis, and the ripple effects of an eviction are devastating to families and communities," Butler said in a statement. "We went into this challenge knowing that we wanted to design a scalable, bilingual, jurisdiction-agnostic solution that could positively affect widespread change.
“For most people, that eviction notice is the last chapter in a much longer story about systems failure. We hope that by spreading the word about this new access to justice tool and making Hello Landlord available to as many people in as many states as possible, we can encourage communities to think preventively about the justice gap.”
BYU law student Scott Balsmeier said he wanted to participate in LawX during his final year in school because of the program's innovative approach to solving legal issues.
"I was definitely drawn to taking the idea of design thinking and applying it to legal issues and legal problems," Balsmeier said. "I also wanted to be able to do something that had impact and made the law more accessible.
"As a law student, you don’t get a lot of opportunity to be impactful, and I wanted to be part or something that could make a difference."
Balsmeier said once the tension point of communication issues was identified through both the Utah and Arizona research efforts, the path to creating the tool was aided in large part by the work that had previously been done on Solo Suite, the debt collection tool created in the inaugural year of LawX that also used a guided pathway to help users create a critical document.
"We had the technology that was used for Solo Suite in the background, but initially we weren't sure if it was really the solution for our problem," Balsmeier said. "We discussed a bunch of things that could occur, including online dispute resolution or facilitating some other online communication.
"Recognizing how much of a breakdown there is in these situations between landlords and tenants really helped us identify that creating a letter could go a long ways toward a solution."1 comment on this story
Balsmeier noted that the results of the collaborative research efforts reflected that both landlords and tenants, collectively, were a lot more reasonable than some stereotypes about evil landlords or horrible tenants reflect. The experience of developing Hello Landlord also highlighted, he said, how many more legal issues could benefit from the kind of approach LawX is working to perfect.
"One of the things that surprised me the most that I learned along the way is how many legal issues there are out there that need to be solved, and could be solved, through the idea of using design thinking and innovation," Balsmeier said. "Ultimately, I think in 15 or 20 years the legal industry will be embracing this type of model more fully."