Nicole picked a tough time to move.
In November 2019, she lost her job with the Illinois pharmaceutical company where she had worked for the last 16 years. In February, she moved her family to North Carolina — just as the pandemic struck. That made it next to impossible for her to find another job.
Now a resident of Cabarrus County in suburban Charlotte, Nicole, who asked to go by her first name only, exhausted her funds in August. She says she planned for a lapse in her Illinois unemployment benefits, but the pandemic benefits she was supposed to start receiving never arrived. A single mother of two children, she could only scrape up half the August rent.
The eviction notice arrived on September 5, just as she was preparing for a pair of job interviews.
“It’s making me sick to where I can’t sleep,” says Nicole. “I’m trying to figure out whether I need to buy a tent. Are we going to live in my car? Is anybody going to rent to me now that I have an eviction?”
One day before she received an eviction notice, a second federal moratorium on evictions went into effect. Under the terms of the rule, tenants seeking to avoid losing their homes need only sign a form that declares that they’ve suffered a substantial loss of income and have no other options for housing. That’s when Nicole discovered Hello Landlord, a free legal tool for tenants. After answering a few questions online, she says she was able to generate the required notice to her landlord — using only her phone, which came as a relief, since she has no access to a printer.
Hello Landlord is a product by SixFifty, a subsidiary of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, a law firm that focuses on technology and intellectual property. Everyone knows Wilson Sonsini’s clients — Google, Netflix, Tesla and other technology giants — but SixFifty is a boutique shop, focused on issues such as compliance under the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation or the California Consumer Privacy Act. Hello Landlord is a pro bono product, a TurboTax-esque system to help tenants comply with the terms of the federal moratorium imposed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Here’s how Hello Landlord works. The site asks tenants like Nicole a series of 19 questions in order to generate a couple of forms: a letter to the landlord promising the tenant will pay when she can and the declaration to satisfy the CDC’s requirements. (Or if the tenant doesn’t qualify for the federal eviction protections, just an extra-conciliatory petition to the landlord.)
“We think this could help thousands of people,” says Kimball Dean Parker, CEO of SixFifty and also the director of LawX, a legal design lab at Brigham Young University Law School. “We can’t help in other ways during the pandemic. We don’t know how to sew masks or make ventilators. But we do have this unique ability to help with legal problems and to scale it with technology.”
Hello Landlord is an example of what’s called lawtech — technology designed to open legal avenues to individuals and small businesses. It’s not to be confused with legaltech, according to Electra Japonas of the legal optimization company The Law Boutique: That term refers to tech solutions built for firms and corporations, not consumers. In a limited sense, Hello Landlord is automating some of the work of eviction counsel who might otherwise appear with tenants before housing court. Landlords frequently bring lawyers to these cases, but tenants overwhelmingly don’t. And while some cities are working to establish a right to eviction counsel, that’s far from the norm.
Documents generated by Hello Landlord are based on a straightforward template. One comes with a declaration, an affidavit that swears the tenant is making no more than $99,000 in annual income (or $198,000 jointly) and other requirements that will stand up in court. The accompanying letter names the tenant, landlord and residence and spells out a promise to pay.
“Although the CDC’s Order may prevent my eviction, I want you to know that I am willing to work with you moving forward during this challenging time,” one of the letters reads, in part. “I am trying to improve my financial situation as best I can. I know that the COVID-19 emergency is affecting everyone, including landlords. I hope that, with your cooperation, we can work through this difficult situation in a way that is beneficial to both of us.”
Since its debut on September 9, Parker says that more than 200 people have used the Hello Landlord tool. Several thousand have downloaded Hello Lender, a free tool that SixFifty developed to help homeowners defer their mortgage payments under terms set out by the CARES Act. Some 7,000 renters and homeowners have made use of the firm’s lawtech tools since the onset of the pandemic.
Parker says that the letter that accompanies each rent declaration is an important acknowledgment that tenants and landlords will need to work together to weather the next stage of the pandemic housing crisis. “This Trump moratorium is going to end at the New Year, and then all of the rent is due,” says Parker. “You don’t want a letter that burns any bridges with them. You have to work with the landlord as soon as that is over and a lot of them will not be able to pay at that point either.”
Nicole’s eviction hearing was on September 14. The judge threw her case out before the moratorium came up, because the landlord had not given Nicole sufficient notice before filing the eviction, Nicole says. Still, finding Hello Landlord made all the difference: When she read the letter, she was compelled to challenge her eviction.
Now, she says, her landlord is threatening to file an eviction against her on grounds other than nonpayment — specifically for domestic violence and noise complaints. Nicole disputes both claims. She suffers from an inner-ear disorder known as Meniere’s disease that makes her sensitive to sound, so she doesn’t own a television or a radio. And she says she was the victim, not the perpetrator, of domestic violence back in April.
In a recent conference call with the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Michael Levy, an epidemiologist at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, underscored why housing advocates are so intent on getting the word out about the CDC moratorium.
In the best of times, evictions can destroy families, derail childhood development and wrack an adult’s physical and mental health. But in a pandemic, they threaten entire communities. Those who lose their homes often move in with other family members, which means more chances to introduce the virus, more transmission within the household, and more transmission out of the household to other people. And with tens of millions of people in the U.S. facing the threat of displacement, even a modest rise in evictions could magnify the lethality of the coronavirus dramatically.
Working with scientists at Penn, Harvard University, and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne, Levy produced a model for estimating the impact of evictions on the spread of the pandemic. The model shows that a low eviction rate (0.25% per month) results in about 1.5% more of the population contracting Covid-19 by the end of the year, compared to a zero-eviction rate. That works out to around 15,000 excess cases and 150 additional deaths. A higher eviction rate (1%) would mean a 5–10% higher rate of Covid-19 — about 1 death for every 60 evictions. “Those deaths aren’t all occurring among the evicted households, nor are the cases,” Levy said. “It spreads.”
There’s very little that public health officials can do to stop transmission inside homes, so leaders shut down businesses in order to stop transmission between homes. But lockdowns are less effective, Levy says, if they cause households to grow.
For now, Nicole has weathered a crisis that could have put her family over the edge of a cliff. The success of the new federal moratorium may depend on whether other renters find out about their rights before they are forced out of their homes. Nicole says that she just discovered that her landlord was threatening to evict her neighbor for nonpayment of rent, too. So she shared the Hello Landlord tool with her.
“It’s nerve-wracking. We have a little bit more time,” Nicole says. “It could have been prevented without the bullying and harassment. My anxiety went through the roof. Sometimes it just takes a little bit to find the information.”