Across the city, thousands of tenants have logged onto JustFix.nyc, ticked off descriptions of maintenance issues in their apartments and generated an attorney-vetted memo reminding their landlord of its legal obligations.
Receiving the notice via certified mail from JustFix compels many companies to make repairs, the nonprofit said. And for those who do not have such success, the JustFix team says it is close to introducing a new service on its app, designed to make suing apartment owners as simple as paying the IRS through Turbo Tax.
"They would be able to do all of the steps of escalation all through JustFix as one continuous experience," said Georges Clement, president of JustFix.
The nonprofit’s co-founders — Clement, Dan Kass and Ashley Treni — met in fall 2015 while participating in Blue Ridge Labs’ civic technology fellowship program. Kass’ involvement with the Crown Heights Tenants Union inspired him to focus on using coding, mapping, data visualization and other tech skills to assist renters, particularly those at risk of losing rent-regulated homes. Clement and Treni collaborated with him and wound up incorporating as JustFix, Inc., and launching the first iteration of its Tenant App in fall 2016.
The tool, which is available in English and Spanish, aims to mitigate maintenance backlogs, which some landlords stall on tackling in an attempt to compel families to vacate rent-regulated apartments, putting them one step closer to being available at market-rate, according to JustFix.
Since its launch, the Tenant App has attracted 2,500 users, most of whom have already reported their concerns to 311, according to Clement. About 55 percent of those accounts have since reported that their maintenance issues were resolved, according to Clement.
In most of the successful cases, property owners acted after receiving the memo, Clement said. The notice cites the civil penalties owners may face for failing to make repairs and notes the signee has "recorded evidence of the violations should legal action be necessary," according to a template of the document.
When landlords are not responsive, JustFix’s six employees and team of volunteers recommend other tactics, and attempt to connect users with lawyers and tenants organizers. Several households registered with the Tenant App have forced upkeep through housing court cases that were built, in part, through JustFix tools, according to Clement.
And at least 20 residence-wide cases have relied on the nonprofit or its research — JustFix operates a database called, "Who owns what in NYC?" which maps out buildings held through LLCs that are likely to share a parent company and includes related property tax information as well as eviction and housing code violation statistics.
Juan Zayas said JustFix helped him learn about ways to hold his landlord accountable.
Shortly after his grandfather died, Zayas, 36, moved into the rent-regulated Harlem apartment the patriarch had shared with his wife since the ’70s, with the goal of supporting his grandmother, Herminia Zayas, 87. His cousin, Deyanira Caminero, 35, had also recently joined the household.
Under a benefit available to senior citizens, their grandmother has her monthly rent frozen at $255.41, and the city compensates her landlord for the rent increase she is exempt from — which amounts to $331.99 a month until the end of 2020 — through property tax benefits, according to the city Department of Finance.
After growing up in Rhode Island, Zayas said he and his cousin were unfamiliar with the nuances of local housing laws, so he explored JustFix in August after seeing it on Facebook. Leaks and mold had recently prompted a swath of ceiling over the bathtub to collapse, and they regularly sent their grandmother to stay with relatives because she wheezed while in or near the bathroom, Zayas said. Parts of the ceiling and walls were deteriorating elsewhere in the apartment, and the family was using a hot plate to cook because the gas was cut off and an electric stove had not yet been installed, he said.
The cousins had to persuade their grandmother to take action. They said she was fearful of upsetting the landlord, who had suggested she accept a buyout of her rent-regulated lease, and the management company, which once threatened to charge the family more when they called multiple times to report a periodically clogging tub. But since they had abided by JustFix’s suggestion to report violations to 311, the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development got involved and scheduled an appointment with its emergency repair team, Zayas said.
That prompted his landlord to reach out, and Zayas decided to give the company a shot at performing the work. The super fixed whatever was causing leaks from above, and replaced the sheetrock above and beside the bathtub, Zayas said. But he worries the issues will re-emerge, as the super did not surround the bathtub with tiles or any other water-resistant material.
"The super told me that the landlord’s goal is to have us move out," said Zayas, a sales manager, who picked up court case forms from a housing court staffer this summer and plans to file them if conditions deteriorate further. "If I wasn’t here, it would be worse for her, and I couldn’t imagine who else is going through this that is in a worse position than my grandmother is. It’s just the principle."
The Zayas’ apartment building currently has 47 open housing code violations, according to the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development, which sued the landlord in September and is asking the court to compel the owner to address conditions in the building. That agency said it has made two requests to contract private market partners to fix plaster and paint violations in the family’s unit.
"HPD has been actively involved in this property by issuing multiple violations, conducting emergency repair work, as well as initiating a case against the owner in housing court," agency spokesman Matthew Creegan said in a statement.
The landlord, Miron Plaza, LLC, did not return several requests to discuss the building or its relationship with the Zayas family.
Legal Services NYC, which represents low-income New Yorkers in civil matters, has started instructing tenants calling about its housing court clinic to make an account on JustFix. When clients show up with a digital archive documenting poor conditions and attempts to remedy them, the process of preparing a case is significantly streamlined, according to Marika Dias, director of the tenant rights campaign at Legal Services NYC.
"We can just basically export it across into the court papers that we’re preparing for them," said Dias, noting that after learning about the housing part (HP) cases designed to force repairs at the clinic, most clients represent themselves in housing court.
Clement said JustFix is finessing a template for digitally filling out PDFs, which can be printed and filed as HP actions in the city’s housing court. It may be a while before JustFix users can submit cases with a click of the mouse because the city housing court system accepts only physically filed lawsuits at the moment, according to Clement.
"That will be publicly available in the next couple of months as we work through the process of making sure that there’s no issues with tenants presenting these in courthouses … and that clerks and the judges all know what to expect," said Clement, 28, of Manhattan.
Although the Rent Stabilization Association has not noticed the Tenant App, the trade group for landlords of rent-regulated housing said the tool seemed unnecessary.
"The easiest way for tenants to get repairs done is to call their owner or the managing agent, which is what 99 percent of them do every day, and it gets taken care of," said Frank Ricci, the association’s director of government affairs. "The housing stock’s in the best shape that it has ever been. So I don’t know what these guys are trying to accomplish."