Not all heroes wear capes. Not even in New York, perhaps the city most synonymous with caped crusaders. As the co-founder and Executive Director of JustFix.nyc, Dan Kass has more than a fair claim at hero status. JustFix.nyc is a tech innovation that supports New York’s housing justice movement by helping tenants get legally tooled up against bad landlords by, for example, fighting displacement.
Justice Hub spoke to Kass as part of our #MyJustice series. In the interview Kass explains what JustFix.nyc has already accomplished in New York, what justice means for tenants and what he has gained from The Hague Institute for Innovation of Law (HiiL) which helps spur justice innovations around the world.
Justice Hub: What is JustFix.nyc?
Dan Kass: We were a New York City–based non-profit organization. Our mission is to support tenants and tenant advocates in fighting displacement through the use of data and technology.
Justice Hub: Why is that needed?
Dan Kass: That’s a great question. New York like many other cities, both in the US and across the world, is facing an immense housing crisis at the moment. As cities continue to urbanize and inequality is really on the rise, folks from working-class communities and from other sorts of marginalized backgrounds are really being pushed to the edges of where they can live.
Specifically, the things that are pushing them to those edges are predatory real estate practices, landlords that engage in harassment and discrimination and really forcing folks to live in horrid situations where they have few remedies or access to being able to enforce their legal rights.
Justice Hub: Why is it that they don’t have that kind of access? I think most people would assume that because these people live in the United States and it’s a very legal, lawful kind of society the surely they must have access to anyone they want. Don’t they?
Dan Kass: One thing that even folks in the US sometimes are surprised by is this concept that if you are a tenant who has to bring your landlord to a housing court you don’t actually have the right to legal representation. This whole “you have the right to an attorney” really only applies to folks who are in criminal proceedings.
Over 90% of tenants who are forced to go to the housing court lack access to legal representation. On the other side of things, on the landlord side, over 90% of them have legal representation. So we see in instances of housing and in tenants’ rights massive imbalances of justice that occurs in a legal system.
Justice Hub: What’s your role then? How do you address that imbalance?
Dan Kass: At JustFix.nyc we work on two different fronts. We support tenants directly by providing digital tools that allow them to understand their rights as well as take action. A tenant will come to our platform and be able to register the types of things that they’re experiencing. It could be repair issues like going months without heat in the winter time or having severe mold issues or even structural defects. A pretty wide range of things really. They will then be able to report those both to the city, navigate the process of informing their landlord, which is a very important legal precursor because they need to be able to show that they have notified the landlord of these issues.
After that, we are able to actually automate the housing court process for them. This includes things like creating legal paperwork and accessing the courts. We can translate this into something that only takes a matter of minutes that you can do through your smartphone.
On the advocacy side, we see how that data in aggregate can be used to illuminate patterns as well as track landlord activity. Oftentimes we have folks who come to our platform that are living on opposite corners of the city but are reporting the same tactics of harassment by the same bad landlords. We can collect those cases together for a larger, group-wide action or for more strategic litigation.
Justice Hub: Do you have examples?
Dan Kass: One of the worst landlords in New York is now the president of our country [Donald J Trump] and his son-in-law [Jared Kushner] still maintains an active real estate practice in New York. Working with some of our partner organizations last year, we managed to identify some severe patterns of fraud in their activity where they were not reporting affordable housing units that they were required by law to report and also engaging in some of these harassment practices where they were obtaining construction permits as a way to make tenants feel uncomfortable in their homes.
Through that identification we were able to use strategic litigation to bring this to the city and, working with our partners, we were able to get about two and a half million US dollars paid back to the tenants living in Kushner company buildings.
Justice Hub: What does justice look like for these tenants? What would justice mean to them?
Dan Kass: At JustFix.nyc, our belief is that housing is a fundamental human right. We believe that everyone should have access to a safe, healthy and affordable home. As you mentioned, there is this notion that folks living in the United States are well resourced and lived somewhat comfortable lives. From the communities that we work with and the folks who are our neighbours we can really see that for many many people, millions in fact, that is really not the case.
Specifically, they are not able to access the legal system in an equitable way. Therefore, for us, justice looks like people being able to access that system in an equitable way.
Justice Hub: How important is it to be part of a community where you can exchange ideas and learn about other people’s innovations?
Dan Kass: It’s absolutely important. The impetus behind JustFix.nyc was this inspiration that to build meaningful technology for a social justice issue you had to start local. We have a partnership-based approach and initially, we focused on a neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood strategy which is very unique when you think about technology and how it’s being used. But as we have grown and as we’ve started to enter into not just networks across the country but across the globe, we’re not only able to identify areas where there are similar sorts of problems and issues and where the housing crisis is affecting folks, we are also able to see shared processes and patterns.
For example, working with with Asha Krishnan of Haqdarshak and seeing some of the challenges of working with citizens to access data or understanding the process of how do you build very easy to use accessible sorts of technology that can reach less tech-savvy populations are things that we wouldn’t be able to know without some great networks and communication.
Justice Hub: Why are you doing this?
Dan Kass: My background is in data and technology. I went to university to have a computer science degree. Unfortunately, I was also raised with a good social and political conscience. It was always a challenge for me to apply the things that I was learning in a meaningful way When I left University I literally couldn’t find a job that I felt like could translate my skills in a way that matched my values.
To be JustFix.nyc is an exploration on how technology and data skills can be done meaningfully in conversation with folks who are advocates and who are coming from directly affected communities.
Justice Hub: What does the future look like?
Dan Kass: One of our challenges, like I mentioned, is how do we apply this model in other places? That is a community-centred local approach to developing technology resources. We are currently working with folks in other cities in the US and also in a couple of other cities in Europe to see how we might be able to apply the work that we’ve done in their context but in a way that actually meets the needs that they have on the ground.