New Yorkers who receive government rental vouchers and are seeking housing could benefit from a newly developed tech tool. Unlock NYC, an all-women tech collaborative, has created a free “chatbot” platform that enables prospective tenants to report housing discrimination based on source of income.
Since rental vouchers are given to low-income residents, including homeless people, it’s not uncommon for recipients to call to inquire about an apartment, only to be turned away by a broker or landlord who illegally rejects vouchers. This situation is compounded by the pandemic, which has made it more difficult for people to visit groups that provide legal assistance in-person.
“A lot of people are getting locked out of the housing market and it’s super illegal and there are laws against this at the city level,” explains Manon Vergerio, a member of the Unlock NYC team. The tool walks tenants through the complaint process, allowing users to submit the information to the New York City Commission on Human Rights, which can take legal action or help pressure the landlord to accommodate tenants with vouchers.
Vergerio and her colleagues developed the chatbot after months of research spent talking with tenants and people who were at the time homeless, often through Brooklyn-based Neighbors Together, an organization working directly on these issues in neighborhoods like Brownsville, Ocean Hill and Bedford-Stuyvesant. She credits those people as co-creators of the chatbot. In discussions with low-income New Yorkers seeking housing, Vergerio tells The Indypendent, the development team heard a common refrain: “ ‘It’s impossible to find housing with a voucher. Every single broker is turning me down.’ We kept hearing this over and over again.”
Annie Carforo, Campaign Manager at Neighbors Together, explains, “Discrimination can be really difficult and complicated to prove. Their tool captures all of the evidence that somebody would need without really forcing somebody to take additional steps to collect it.”
Unlock NYC is planning to expand the tool by allowing users to record calls with brokers and landlords.
Accessibility was a primary objective. The Unlock NYC team was aware that many people receiving vouchers, especially those staying in shelters or on the streets, have limited access to technology. The program is simple and doesn’t require downloading an app or having a credit card. It can be accessed directly, via computer or smartphone.
The application differs from the standard fare churned out by the Silicon Valley tech companies in that user data is not harvested and sold to third parties. This non-monetized approach allows users to report discrimination anonymously if they are uncomfortable giving their identity.
Vergerio says Unlock NYC is planning to expand the tool by allowing users to record calls with brokers and landlords. This would provide documentary evidence of discrimination, making it easier to prove a legal claim. Unlock NYC hopes to eventually aggregate the data it collects, in conjunction with other activist and community groups in order to document violations by a particular landlord or management company, or within a particular neighborhood.
Guided by its members’ tech and organizing experience, the collaborative deliberately avoided the standard tech approach, which Vergerio describes as, “I invented this brand-new shiny tech tool and we’ll solve the housing crisis.” Her organizing background with groups such as the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project helps inform Unlock NYC’s participatory approach. She stresses the importance of “coming at it from a humble place and being like, ‘What is all the amazing work that’s already being done, and how can we support the work that’s being done and help it through something like technology?’ ”
The true test for this tool will be getting people to use it.
She emphasizes that the people behind Unlock don’t “position ourselves as an isolated tech company that’s coming in,” but are “really taking our cues from organizers and advocates who’ve been on the ground for much longer than we have, and learning from them what’s working right now.”
“The entire design process was completely led by conversations and feedback from our members,” Carforo says. “The end product has just really been this amazing collaborative effort. It’s been designed by input from dozens, if not hundreds of other voucher holders.”
The true test for this tool will be getting people to use it. Unlock NYC will continue working with tenant and social-service organizations to help the housing discrimination chatbot reach as many prospective renters as possible.
The chatbot can be accessed at weunlock.nyc.
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