Our April 16th Technology Salon Brooklyn, co-hosted with the Brooklyn Community Foundation (BCF) and AfroLatin@ Project explored the issue of tenant rights within the wider context of structural discrimination. We aimed to think about how new technology and social media might be a tool for helping community organizations to support Brooklyn residents to know their rights and report violations. We were also curious about how better use of data (and ‘big data’) might help housing rights activists and community organizations to more successfully engage residents and advocate for change.
Our lead discussant was David Reiss from Brooklyn Law School, who provided an overview of the wider housing market and challenges in New York City as well as information on some applications that are helping landlords do a better job of keeping properties up to standard. We also heard from Tynesha McHarris (BCF) and Amilcar Priestly (AfroLatin@ Project). If you’d like to join us for our next Salon, sign up here.
Brooklyn: lots of cool, lots of inequality
Kicking off the Salon, one discussant talked about the essence of Brooklyn. “What do you think of when you hear ‘Brooklyn’?” she asked. “It’s incredibly ‘cool,’ yes. But it’s also incredibly inequitable and there is incredibly inequality, mainly for people of color.” Brooklyn is the hub of New York’s tech industry, yet it’s also where tenants are being displaced, harassed and finding it difficult to live. “We want to see how tech can be used as a tool for, not a tool against,” she said, “how can we support folks to understand, advocate and organize around their rights, how we can use tech to organize in as well as across communities, because these issues don’t just affect some people, they affect all of us who live here.”
She noted that technology is a tool with potential, and donors could be funding projects that use tech to help organize and advocate on tenant rights, but there is insufficient evidence to know how to approach it. To date technology has not really been part of the bigger picture.
Another discussant talked about the housing market as a whole in New York City, citing that there available affordable housing has not kept up with the huge influx of population over the past several years. “Technology will not fix the underlying problem,” he noted. “It can’t expand the supply of affordable housing.” The real potential for technology is more in helping protect the rights of current tenants.
Some examples of how tech is supporting housing rights include applications and portals aimed at improving communications between landlords and tenants, so that problems can be more easily reported by either side, and record is kept of complaints, he commented. Incentives for landlords include free advertising of their units on the site and some reduced legal fees for things like rent stabilization approval. An interesting aspect of these sites is that the data can be analyzed to see where the largest number of complaints are coming from, and in this way patterns can be found and identified. For example, who are the bad landlords? Other sites offer lots of data for those who are interested in purchasing units, and this same type of data could be repurposed and made more accessible for lower-income and less technologically savvy residents.
One participant noted that gentrification and policing are very connected. “As we talk about legal rights and landlord-to-tenant conversations,” she noted, “we need to also bring in aspects of policing and racial justice. These are closely linked.” As neighborhoods gentrify, newer residents often call for a greater police presence, and this can lead to harassment of long-time residents.
What other roles could technology play in strengthening existing work?
Connecting people and organizations
Lots of community organizations are working on the issues of tenant rights and gentrification, and there is a desire to build a network across these organizations. Tech could help to bring them together and to support stronger advocacy and organization. People don’t always know where they can go for help. One idea was to map organizations in different neighborhoods where people can go for help on housing issues. People also may think that they are the only tenants in a building who are having trouble with a landlord. Improved communication via tech might help let residents know they are not alone and to reduce the fear of reporting and speaking out about housing violations. One idea was to use the new system of NYC neighborhood domains to provide local information, including housing rights and specific information on buildings and their histories.
Transferring tactics from one movement to another
We’ve seen the huge role that mobile video has played in raising awareness on the issue of police violence, noted one discussant. “Technology has become a very powerful tool for communication and accountability, look at the case of Walter Scott (who died at the hands of a volunteer policeman). The young man who filmed Scott’s death knew just what to do. He pointed his camera and captured it. How can we transfer this kind of action over to the housing movement? How can we get people to use their cameras and record housing violations and landlord harassment?”
Offering new, potentially more effective ways to report housing violations
Tech can offer different dissemination channels for different people – for example, in Detroit the elderly are particularly vulnerable to housing violations, said one Salon participant. One organization encourages people to report housing harassment via SMS. They included a call-back option to cater to older people who did not feel comfortable with SMS. Stories are also an important part of campaigns and public awareness, noted another participant. Sandy Storyline created a way to share text plus a photo via SMS for those who wanted to communicate stories but who were offline. This type of application could serve as a way of keeping record of housing violations, when/where they are reported and what the outcomes are.
Tracking housing violations
One way that tech is already helping is by tracking whether public housing buildings have heat and water. Sensors are attached to the buildings, and the information is sent to journalists who then write stories when building violations happen, mentioned one Salon participant. This could be accompanied by text messages out to residents of these buildings to inform them of the status of their building. Knowing that they are not the only ones noticing problems could help residents feel more confident about speaking out and confronting bad landlords. “It’s information that says to someone: ‘this message it not only for you, it’s for everyone in your building, and here is the number you can call to get support or if you fear retribution for reporting.'” Media attention puts pressure on landlords and can help bring violations to light and make people feel safer reporting them.
Encouraging local politicians to get involved
A study in Kenya found that youth tend to bypass local politicians and pay more attention to national government and governance. Similar trends are found in the US where although local political decisions may impact more directly on residents fewer are involved in or aware of local political processes than national ones. Tech could play a role in helping connect residents to local representatives who could take action to support fair housing, address bad landlords, and support longer-term solutions as well. Some local political offices have been very open to integrating technology into their work, said one participant, and these offices might be good places to think about partnering on initiatives that use technology to better connect with their constituencies.
Tracking and predicting trends and population movements and displacement
Mapping and big data sets are providing investors with incredible amounts of information on where to purchase and invest. How can organizations and advocates better use this information, not just to identify movement and displacement and conduct research on it, but also to predict it, prepare for it, and fight it together with residents? How is information that data scientists and research institutes have, as well as open data sets on New York City used by local organizations, some wondered, and where could it be better brought to bear? “Rather than coming up with parallel studies, how can we advocate for more and better open data from New York City on housing?” asked one participant.
Don’t forget about the legalities of videotaping and sharing
Some people and politicians are pushing to make things like police videotaping illegal. This happened recently in Spain with the so-called “Citizen Security” law that has made it illegal to videotape a police officer in some cases. One discussant mentioned that some US Senators are also trying to restrict the rights of citizens to film police, and that advocates of social justice need to fight to keep these rights to document authorities.
Use the right technology for the audience
One participant noted that you can create great apps with all kinds of data and patterns, but the question is more about who will access and use them, and who is benefiting from them. Wealthy white men and already-privileged people will likely find it very simple to find and use the information and these applications, giving them an advantage in terms of finding good apartments at lower prices, with good landlords. The best way to reach lower income people, he said, as personally experienced from working on political campaigns, is knocking on doors and reaching out personally and directly. “We need to see how to marry community organization and technology.”
Understand the landscape
In order to understand what tech tools might be useful, it we need to understand the communication and technology landscape in which we are working. Though Salon participants mentioned the importance of certain print publications, community radio stations in various languages, and increasing use of smart phones by young people, no one was aware of any current and widespread information on the information and communication habits of residents of Brooklyn that could help to target particular outreach efforts to different groups who were at risk of housing violations.
SMS is not a silver bullet – and trust is key
SMS can be extremely accessible, and there are many examples where it has worked very well. But experience shows that SMS works best where there are already strong networks in place, and trust is hugely important. One participant cautioned, “People need to trust where the text message is coming from. They need to know who is sending the text.” SMS also has limits because it is hyper local. “You won’t find it working across an entire Borough,” said one participant.
Local organizations are key
Along with the issue of trust is the critical component of local organizations. As one participant reminded us, “especially faith-based organizations – temples, churches, mosques. They know everyone in the neighborhood and what’s going on. They tend to know how to walk a fine line on local politics.”
Youth could play a role
Because youth around the world, including in Brooklyn, tend to be up on the latest technology, they could play a role in helping parents and grandparents with housing rights violations, especially in communities where older people are not comfortable with English or where they may fear the police due to undocumented status or other past experiences. One idea was bridging the technology and age gap by engaging young people, who could help older people find out about their rights, legal support services and where to find help. Some research has shown that young people are starting to rely on technology as an institution, said one participant, with technology and online institutions replacing physical ones for many of them.
Be careful about creating demand without adequate response capacity
As with any tech project, creating demand for services and informing people about the existence of those services is often an easier task than building and sustaining the capacity to provide quality support. Any efforts to generate greater demand need to be accompanied by capacity and funding so that people do not become apathetic or feel that they’ve been tricked if they report a violation and do not receive the support they expect or were promised. Previous experiences with service providers or legal institutions will also impact whether people trust these efforts, even if they come through new channels like technology.
Figure out how community organizations and technology partners can work together
An important thing to work out is what a relationship between community organizations and technology partners might look like. “Community organizations don’t need to become technology experts, we could partner and work together on resolving some of these challenges,” said one participant, “but we need to figure out what something like that would look like.” In some cases, community organizations in Brooklyn have low capacity and extremely poor infrastructure due to limited funding, commented one participant. “How can we reach out and engage with them and ask if they are interested in working with tech partners? How can we find out from them what tech would be supportive for them in their work?”
Think about short and long-term efforts
It will be important to look at both supporting residents and community organizations in the immediate term, and thinking about how to use data and information to help address the long term and the wider structural issues that are playing a role in housing rights violations and differential impacts of the housing situation on specific groups, for example, the elderly and people of color. It’s also important to try to address some of the root causes – for example, as one participant asked, “Who is funding predatory landlords? Who are the investors in these vulture funds?”
In conclusion, participants expressed their interest in continuing discussions and a desire for greater participation by community organizations in future Salons. The hope is that the Salon can help to connect community organizations and those in the tech space in order to work together to address some of the issues that Brooklyn residents face.
Many thanks to the Brooklyn Community Foundation for their fabulous hosting and AfroLatin@ Project for helping make the Salon happen!