Eviction causes and deepens generational poverty, and it has a devastating impact on communities. One in five Fulton County renters, and over two million renters nationwide are faced with eviction every year. Assisting those tenants can have a tremendous impact on addressing income inequality in the United States.

Eviction cases are also among the most inefficient for courts to process and are often the most common case by volume. One of the best, and least expensive, ways to increase efficiency is to educate unrepresented tenants in eviction cases.

An app or mobile enabled website is the best way to deliver information to the tenants we need to reach, and delivering a link to the app on the dispossessory summons is the most efficient way to reach all tenants facing eviction exactly when help is needed.

Keep reading for more information on eviction, its effect on individuals and the court system, how we can partner with governments and homelessness prevention organizations, and how we came up with this idea. Our contact information is also below.

Eviction’s Impact on Individuals, Families, and Communities

Eviction has been linked to a host of negative consequences for individuals, families, and neighborhoods. Eviction is often the last stop before homelessness, ruins credit, and the scramble to find new housing on short notice compels families to accept more dangerous environments and sub-standard housing conditions. [1] Displacement due to eviction is also linked to higher crime rates, diminished opportunity due to constant student turnover in elementary and middle schools, an overall lack of community cohesion, and an overall increase in price for sub-standard housing. [2]

Children are frequent visitors to the Housing Court Assistance Center (more on that below). We ask these children to draw pictures to keep them occupied while we talk to their parents. Here, one budding artist named Maleyah practiced writing her name while her mother and HCAC staff determined how much money was needed to stop their eviction case.

Children are frequent visitors to the Housing Court Assistance Center (more on that below). We ask these children to draw pictures to keep them occupied while we talk to their parents. Here, one budding artist named Maleyah practiced writing her name while her mother and HCAC staff determined how much money was needed to stop their eviction case.

To be more specific, a 2011 Massachusetts Interagency Council on Housing and Homelessness Report found 45% of households gave eviction as the reason they were homeless or at risk of homelessness. [3] In addition, research in Atlanta, Georgia found that schools in areas with high eviction rates see as much as 40% student turnover every year due to eviction. [4] In Seattle, Washington, 87.5% of parents that went through the eviction process reported that their children’s school performance suffered “very much” because of the eviction. [5]

Eviction itself has many causes. Aside from the rising cost of real estate and the corresponding increase in monthly rent, a shock to household income due to illness, job loss, or car repairs is often a catalyst for eviction. [6] In Georgia, a tenant can go from housed to homeless in 20 days. For those on the margins there is no margin for error.

To those that are unfamiliar with eviction cases it is easy to assume that tenants are evicted because they simply cannot afford to pay rent. The truth is far more nuanced.

Poor housing conditions cause eviction cases. Studies from across the country show that many tenants misinterpret the law and withhold rent due to substandard housing conditions and landlord neglect. [7] In these cases, families that are already dealing with the physical and mental effects of living in deplorable conditions are forced out before they are prepared to move, must pay a premium for future housing – often equally substandard - because the eviction will now appear on their record, lose personal possessions due to damage or theft when their property is forcibly removed and placed on the curb, and lose faith in a justice system that forces the tenant to pay down judgments for years to come.

A particularly powerful report from Chicago-Kent College of Law student court monitors noted that:

“One of the recurrent tragedies monitors witnessed was tenants being evicted from shockingly substandard housing, often documented with photographs brought to the court, whose attempted defenses failed because they did not know that they were required to provide notice of their intent to partially withhold and that they should not withhold all of their rent. The failure of these defenses not only inflicted dignitary harm but did substantive injustice. It appeared that in these kinds of cases, tenants seemed to believe that the only way to make the landlord provide habitable housing was to completely withhold rent and that if they could only “tell their side of the story” in eviction court, things would work out. Yet by the time tenants have failed to give notice, completely withheld rent, not tendered rent in response to notice from the landlord and appeared in court, it is too late.” [8]

 
Credit: Elora Raymond, Richard Duckworth, Ben Miller, Michael Lucas, Shiraj Pokharel, Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta Community and Economic Development Department, Discussion Paper 2016-4, December 2016.

Credit: Elora Raymond, Richard Duckworth, Ben Miller, Michael Lucas, Shiraj Pokharel, Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta Community and Economic Development Department, Discussion Paper 2016-4, December 2016.

Eviction in Fulton County, Georgia (Atlanta)

Over 40,000 eviction cases are filed in Fulton County every year. A recent Federal Reserve study found that 22% - over one in five - Fulton County renters faced eviction proceedings in 2015. Roughly half of those renters were evicted resulting in an estimated 12.2 percent eviction rate. [9]

To put these numbers in perspective, in Fulton County 109 evictions are filed EVERY DAY, and over 50 renters are removed from their homes- and this does not account for weekends or holidays. If the marshals operated 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, one eviction would occur every 25 minutes.

Even more startling- a deeper dive into the statistics shows that eviction disproportionately impacts African-American women.

Housing Court Assistance Center One Year Report

Housing Court Assistance Center One Year Report

The map to the right, created as part of the 2015 Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta study cited above, demonstrates how eviction disproportionately impacts black communities.

From October 1, 2017 to October 1, 2018, the Housing Court Assistance Center - a free legal assistance clinic for Fulton County tenants facing eviction - saw similar results. The chart below details how tenants that availed themselves of this service self-identified.

 

How does Eviction Affect the Court System?

Civil trial courts all over the country are inundated with unrepresented (“pro se”) litigants. In its Report on the Future of Legal Services in the United States, The American Bar Association recently revealed that these unrepresented litigants consume disproportionately high amounts of court personnel time, increase the legal fees of opposing parties, and result in cases decided on technicalities. [10]

A 2018 Philadelphia Bar Association report likewise found that processing cases with unrepresented litigants - specifically unrepresented tenants in eviction cases - placed a significant burden on court staff and resources. [11] Of particular interest, a survey cited in the report noted that tenants listed “consultation with court staff” as one of their top three legal aid resources. [12] Researchers also found that considerable time is spent on cases with unrepresented litigants because “incomplete or illegible court filings make it difficult for judges to determine what relief the litigant is requesting or if the claim has a legally cognizable basis.” [13] The inconsistent number of tenants that appear for hearings also makes it incredibly hard for court staff to estimate the amount of time judges will need to clear their dockets. [14]

Looking at the issue from the judge’s perspective, a 2011 survey conducted by the Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation indicated that frustration with increasing numbers of pro se litigants “came up over and over” among judges, ranking as their number two issue after concern for children in family law cases. [15] Judges went so far as to say that “pro se litigants are becoming an increasing problem for the courts” and, of particular import to this project, judges reported that “lack of understanding of the judicial process” makes it more difficult for litigants to work through the legal system. [16] 

Legal trade associations and academic researchers have been calling for a solution to the problems posed by unrepresented litigants in civil courts. Many of these organizations see technology as a solution, and thought leaders have been calling for online based, easy to understand, and user friendly solutions for over 25 years. A 2000 Conference of State Court Administrators’ position paper on self-represented litigation called for its members to “…use the Internet as a primary vehicle for disseminating information to the self-represented” and “…sponsor an examination into the most effective use of plain language forms.” [17] In a more recent poll cited by the Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation, judges saw online self-help as “more available and practical than in person ‘clinics,’ because most people have access to [the internet] and attendance at clinics can be spotty.” [18] Just last year, the Judicial Council of Georgia’s Administrative Office of the Courts called on Georgia courts to prioritize assisting people that cannot afford to represent themselves and “…use technology, innovative self-help clinics, and kiosks…” to help people fill out legal forms. [19] The Judicial Council’s report repeated these directives several times, and were the basis of initiatives one and two of nine. [20]

Volume is also concentrated in specific case types, and in most magistrate court-level courts these case types tend to be dominated by civil cases with large amounts of unrepresented parties. As demonstrated by the chart below, nearly half of all cases in Fulton County Magistrate court are dispossessory (eviction) cases. The table below also shows that concentrated volume in specific case types are consistent among courts throughout the state.

Case Type Chart.JPG

How does this add up?

A recent National Center for State Courts study revealed that eviction cases consume, from start to finish, an average of 10 minutes per case. [21] To put this in perspective, the same study found that civil traffic cases took 0.2 minutes - 12 seconds per case. [22] Assuming that the court processes eviction cases cases 50 weeks a year, 5 days a week, 40,535 cases consume a little over 27 hours a day. Naturally, this is an impossibly high burden on the court.

The financial burden is even more stark. We performed an in-depth analysis of court budgets and found that Georgia magistrate courts spend an average of $125.81 per eviction case. Specifically, large counties (over 40,000 eviction cases per year) spend roughly $127.79 per case, medium-sized counties (around 30,000 eviction cases per year) spend roughly $129.92 per case, and small counties (around 5,000 eviction cases per year) spend about $119.73 per case. These amounts do not account for filing fees, which are typically in the $60.00 range if the case does not reach the stage where a writ of possession is granted by the court. [23] About half of all Fulton County cases proceeded to this stage. [24]

Taken together, Georgia court data shows that focusing on specific case types in specific courts is the most effective way to address volume concerns. Eviction is by far the largest case type courts process- so streamlining these relatively inefficient cases can have a tremendous impact on court productivity.

Why is Intervention Within Seven Days of the Court Notice So Important, and Why Use a Mobile App to Do It?

The Housing Court Assistance Center (or “Center”) is a program that provides free legal advice to Fulton County tenants whose landlords have filed for an eviction (also known as a dispossessory) in an attempt to remove a tenant. Volunteer attorneys and law students under the supervision of an attorney meet with tenants to explain their options under Georgia law and provide limited advice on completing an answer to dispossessory summons (notice of eviction from the court).

An answer is a legal document, and it is the tenant’s opportunity to tell their side of the story. If this form is completed correctly it can have a tremendous impact on the tenant’s case. The answer is due seven days after the tenant receives a dispossessory summons. Tenants may visit the Center on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings from 9am to 12 noon. No appointments are necessary.

In its first year of operation, the Center assisted 691 Fulton County tenants. All told, a full 74.8% of those that visited the Center avoided eviction. Of those 691 tenants, the Center helped 60% either stay in their home or leave on their own terms. The Center advised a further 16% of their rights under Georgia landlord-tenant law, most of whom used the information to avoid becoming a defendant in an eviction case. The Center also saved each tenant, on average, $461.99 in back rent and fees.

A Writ of Possession is granted when a landlord succeeds in court. It is estimated that half of tenants in cases where a writ has been granted are actually removed under Marshal supervision.

A Writ of Possession is granted when a landlord succeeds in court. It is estimated that half of tenants in cases where a writ has been granted are actually removed under Marshal supervision.

 While these results are fantastic, inevitably our attention turned to the tenants that we were not seeing. In other words, we needed to find a way to reach the 39,000 other tenant-defendants facing eviction in Fulton County, and we needed to do it with a limited budget.

Given the near impossibility of reaching all the tenants that need us by word of mouth, the prohibitive cost of a media campaign, or the complexity and time needed to form partnerships in each community, we decided to take a more analytical approach. We looked at what every tenant facing eviction has in common. From there we looked for effective ways to deliver complex information to tenants that 1) is free to the end user; 2) is easy to understand; and 3) utilizes familiar, non-complex technology.

 In the Fulton County’s housing court system, defendants learn that an eviction has been filed against them when they are served with the dispossessory summons - often referred to as an eviction notice or eviction papers. Aside from very few exceptions, this summons is served using a stock form supplied by the court.

This summons can say a lot to the trained eye. To the untrained eye, however, the form is confusing. When tenants visit the Center, attorneys and student-volunteers always start by asking tenants if they can see this form. The case number is often printed in an inconspicuous place, the typeface can be small, and the language on the summons uses legal terms that a lay person may not be familiar with.

 But this form is also the one thing that we know each tenant sees, and it is the first court document they are confronted with. So how do we take advantage of this opportunity with the very limited space on the form?

We asked tenants.

Most of our tenants can only access the internet through their cell phone.

Most of our tenants can only access the internet through their cell phone.

We polled the tenants that came to visit the Center through a short survey completed before they spoke with an attorney or law student. First, we knew we needed to utilize technology in some way, but we needed to understand how tenants use technology. From there, we can determine how tenants prefer to access information so we can reach as many tenants as possible.

We found that 48 percent of our visitors were cell phone only internet users. We also found that 41.5 percent of our visitors use cell phones and computers to access the internet. Combining these two groups we learned that we could reach almost 90 percent of tenants facing eviction, this computes to roughly 36 thousand Fulton County tenants.

With that said, we knew we had to use some form of technology that is mobile optimized.

All HCAC tenant-visitors were asked if they would use an eviction assistance app if one was available. 85.4% said yes.

All HCAC tenant-visitors were asked if they would use an eviction assistance app if one was available. 85.4% said yes.

That can take the shape of a website or a mobile app. We plan to pursue both, but we found that a vast majority of our tenants said they would use an eviction assistance app if one was available.

We asked all of our tenants - not just the cell phone only internet users - if they would use an eviction assistance app if one was available. The answer was an overwhelming yes.

 

In light of the foregoing, it is our belief that an app or mobile-enabled website is the best way to deliver information to tenants, and delivering a link to the app on the dispossessory summons is the most efficient way to reach all tenants facing eviction. Given the demand for technology-driven solutions to the inefficiencies presented by unrepresented litigants, we also feel that this method will be easy for courts to implement.

Partnerships with Courts, homelessness prevention programs, and local governments

It is not just courts- state and local governments can save money as well.

Because the mobile application will require a small change to the eviction notice, partnership with government agencies is essential. In Georgia, Clerks of Court will be engaged in the process, but it does not have to stop there. In the same Massachusetts homelessness prevention study referenced above (see footnote 3), the Task Force on the Civil Right to Counsel convened by the Boston Bar Association found that legal assistance in the eviction process - even full representation for all tenants - could save the state of Massachusetts 8 million dollars per year. [25] This figure assumes that 50% of homelessness starts with eviction, and full representation cuts eviction by just 10%. [26]

A recently released study likewise found that, if the City of Philadelphia invested $3.5 million per year in universal tenant representation, the city would save $45.2 million per year in other costs and expenses. [27] Specifically, the city would save $26 million in shelter costs for newly homeless persons, $7.5 million in in-patient hospital costs, $1 million in emergency room treatments, and $7.5 million in mental health costs. [Id]

Implementation of a mobile application will cost significantly less than universal tenant representation, will be available to every single tenant and, if it achieves half of the results that the Massachusetts and Philadelphia studies suggest, can save state and local governments massive amounts of money.

The mobile application can help charitable organizations engaged in homelessness prevention save money, reach their target recipients faster and more efficiently, and have access to data tracking to measure the impact of their giving.

Homelessness prevention programs that offer rent assistance will also benefit. The mobile app will include a page where tenants can apply for emergency rent assistance. These applications will be routed to aid organizations as soon as applications are received, which will allow tenant applications to reach recipients before it is too late. Aid organizations can also use the data available through the app to track case outcomes. Case tracking will allow aid organizations to see exactly how many evictions their emergency assistance prevented and report this data to their stakeholders.

Last but not least- what phonesis means and how to reach us

By now you are probably wondering where the name Phonesis comes from

The name is a combination of two words – one ancient and one new. Phronesis [fróh-nee-sis], is an Ancient Greek word that roughly translates to “practical wisdom.” Often translated as “moral wisdom” and sometimes “prudence,” it is one of the four cardinal virtues of stoicism (the others being temperance, courage, and justice). The second word, phone: [fōn], is well known as a tool contemporary philosophers use to acquire wisdom.

This project is all about making practical wisdom accessible to everyday people using a mobile app, hence Phonesis [fō-nee-sis].

How to contact me

My contact information is below. I encourage you to reach out to me if you would like more information about the project, Phonesis Technologies, or if you want to discuss how technology can increase judicial efficiency and narrow the justice gap.

Phone: (678) 263-3925
Email: Andrew@PhonesisTech.com

If you would like to know more about me, visit my website at www.AndrewThompsonLaw.com.


[1] See “Corporate Landlords, Institutional Investors, and Displacement: Eviction Rates in Single Family Rentals”, Elora Raymond, Richard Duckworth, Ben Miller, Michael Lucas, Shiraj Pokharel, Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta Community and Economic Development Department Institutional Discussion Paper 2016-4, December 2016.

[2] Id.

[3] “The Importance of Representation in Eviction Cases and Homeless Prevention, a Report on the BBA Civil Right to Counsel Pilots”. Boston Bar Association Task Force on the Civil Right to Counsel, , 2012, Appendix A, pg. 2, citing 2011 Massachusetts Interagency Council on Housing and Homelessness.

[4] “Corporate Landlords, Institutional Investors, and Displacement”, pg. 19.

[5] “Losing Home: The Human Cost of Eviction in Seattle”, A Report by the Seattle Women's Commission and the Housing Justice Project of the King County Bar Association, page 3. 2018;

[6] “Corporate Landlords, Institutional Investors, and Displacement”, pg. 19

[7] See “No Time for Justice: A Study of Chicago’s Eviction Court.” Chicago-Kent College of Law Class of 2004 Honors Scholar. December 2003; see also “Economic Return on Investment of Providing Counsel in Philadelphia Eviction Cases for Low-Income Tenants”, Philadelphia Bar Association’s Civil Gideon and Access to Justice Task Force. November 2018; see also” Losing Home: The Human Cost of Eviction in Seattle”, King County Bar Association; see also “Corporate Landlords, Institutional Investors, and Displacement”, December 2016.

[8] “No Time for Justice: A Study of Chicago’s Eviction Court.” Chicago-Kent College of Law, pg. 22-3.

[9] “Corporate Landlords, Institutional Investors, and Displacement”, pg. 19

[10] “Report on the Future of Legal Services in the United States”, American Bar Association’s Commission on the Future of Legal Services, 2016, Pg. 15, citing Conference of Chief Justices, Conference of State Court Administrators Resolution 7, Reaffirming the Critical Importance of Adequate Funding of the Legal Services Corporation.

[11] “Economic Return on Investment of Providing Counsel in Philadelphia Eviction Cases for Low-Income Tenants”, Philadelphia Bar Association, pg. 27.

[12] Id. citing “Research on Self-Represented Litigation: Preliminary Results and Methodological Considerations”, Hannaford-Agor, Paula and Mott, Nicole,The Justice System Journal, 2003.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] “2011 Legal Needs Assessment”, Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation, (2011), pg. 35.

[16] Id.

{17] “Position Paper on Self-Represented Litigation”, Conference of State Court Administrators, August 2000, pg. 6.

[18] “2011 Legal Needs Assessment”, pg. 35.

[19] “Annual Report FY 2017”, Judicial Council of Georgia Administrative Office of the Courts, 2017, pgs. 2-3.

[20} Id.

[21] “Florida Judicial Workload Assessment Final Report”, Brian J. Ostrom, Ph.D., Matthew Klein, Ph.D., Cynthia G. lee, J.D., Shannon Roth, National Center for State Courts, (2016) pgs. 11-12.

[22] Id.

[23] Note: A writ of possession is a court order that directs the Marshals to remove an individual and their belongings from a dwelling. If a landlord is successful in a dispossessory case a writ is either granted immediately or the landlord is directed to apply for the writ after a specified amount of time passes. This time period is almost always seven days. For fee schedule in Fulton county, see https://www.magistratefulton.org/156/Filing-Fees.

[24] “Corporate Landlords, Institutional Investors, and Displacement”, pg. 16.

[25] “The Importance of Representation in Eviction Cases and Homeless Prevention”, Appendix B, pg 3, citing COMMONWEALTH OF MA., DEP’T OF HOUSING AND CMTY. DEV., EMERGENCY ASSISTANCE LEGISLATIVE REPORT (Dec. 2010), It is important to note the Emergency Assistance is a Massachusetts program that gives shelter and other emergency housing services to low-income families with children, and to pregnant women, who are homeless. Emergency Assistance helps eligible families who have nowhere else to live. See http://www.massresources.org/emergency-assistance.html.

[26] Id.

[27] See “Economic Return on Investment of Providing Counsel in Philadelphia Eviction Cases for Low-Income Tenants”, Philadelphia Bar Association.

[28] Id.