These activists are hacking housing problems in NYC using apps and data

Affordable and humane housing is one of the most prominent problems in America’s metropolises. While all manner of task forces and social activists continue to attack it, no one group has been universally successful at tackling it. However, a community of like-minded coders in New York City has banded together to at least to make life a little better, the New York Times reports.

These do-gooders informally identify as the Housing Data Coalition and consist of a variety of principled hacktivists who are building easy-to-use, intuitive tools that employ data as a weapon to combat illicit and unethical housing practices in a city that houses nearly 9 million people. They call their tools “civic technology” and employ their skills in service of the people, not the landlords who prey on vulnerable populations.

There’s Dan Kass, who moved to New York City in 2013 and found his apartment in Crown Heights not only had been rented illegally, but was nearly heatless and infested with vermin. He soon co-founded, along with friends Ashley Treni and George Clement, a nonprofit technology startup called JustFix.nyc, which launched apps that help tenants track disputes with landlords and navigate housing court, among others. The dashboard interface on the apps makes it easier for community organizers and legal aid attorneys to track problems like leaks, mold or rodent infestations.

Other examples emerging the app developers include an app called Heat Seek NYC, created by students at a coding academy in the city. Designed to collect information even if a user doesn’t have a high degree of tech literacy, the app uses a smartphone’s sensors to measure building and apartment temperatures, helping prove when landlords are skimping on the heat. (In increasingly frigid NYC, landlords are required by law to maintain temperatures of at least 55 degrees.)

Then there’s the Displacement Alert Project, an initiative of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, a coalition of affordable housing groups. Their technology maps out buildings and neighborhoods at risk of displacement.

Many of the tools these activists are developing are designed to pierce the veil of secrecy that has protected the real estate moguls of America’s largest cities for decades. They identify the landlords that are speculative or even predatory in their practices and enables communities to organize against those malicious acts.

A recent initiative of JustFix.nyc grew out of monthly meetings at a shared workspace in Brooklyn where activists exchange ideas about how to make things better. The new tool is called Who Owns What and allows tenants to enter an address and look up other buildings associated with the landlord or management company.

The technology being developed under the umbrella of the Housing Data Coalition isn’t intended to replace more traditional activism such as canvassing or protests, but it does give tenants a better way of gathering and communicating evidence to make their case for fairness.

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