While housing displacement often makes headlines, there is less data and advocacy around evictions. According to the Eviction Lab, there were over two million evictions filed in the U.S. in 2016, a number which has not much changed in the last two decades.
Startup Phonesis Technologies is testing an app that aims to both lower eviction rates and save courts time and money by providing tenants the information they need to adjudicate an eviction case.
Attorney Andrew Thompson saw the astounding volume of eviction cases in his work running a free tenant defense clinic at the Fulton County courthouse in Atlanta. He estimates that, during the six hours per week he spent at the clinic, he saw about 1,000 people come through in 2018.
Many of these defendants lacked understanding on the actual processes and next steps in the legal system required to adjudicate, or settle, their case. Thompson worked with them on a case-by-case basis, but thought that technology could make that much more scalable.
He teamed up with Claire Hennessey, an Emory MBA student, to create an eviction assistance mobile app that delivers timely, user-friendly information about housing court. The application walks a user through the steps of filing the eviction documents and how to continue with court proceedings. It also provides resources such as where to find a lawyer and how to look for a new home, should that be necessary.
Phonesis Technologies’ app is currently in testing stages in Fulton County courts. Thompson and Hennessy hope it can alleviate the inefficiencies in his system and provide tenants with hope for a second chance on their home.
What’s your pitch?
Each year there are over 40,000 eviction cases filed in Fulton County alone. Only half of the tenants who receive those documents will attempt to file the legal answer, which is the required next step to slow down the process.
By providing information that is easy to read and a step-by-step process, I found that you can substantially increase the response rate and success rate of tenants fighting their eviction case. It is a dual proposition impact for the tenant to get educated as well as a major efficiency in cost savings for the court.
How did you come up with this idea?
I run a free tenant defense clinic at the Fulton County courthouse. I was only doing it six hours a week, but in the last year I saw about 1,000 people come through with eviction cases. There are 39,000 other people that are not saying that they need help, and I coupled that with the data I was collecting from the people I did see.
I was able to decrease people’s chances of getting evicted by half, just by providing them with basic information about the court and eviction process. I started polling the people I saw about how they accessed the internet and what questions they want to be answered.
How have you financed the startup thus far?
We are currently using money that we won from different pitch competitions to create the first stages of the app interface.
What is the market impact nationally?
There are over 2 million evictions a year nationally. Courts spend $5 million a year on their eviction budgets alone, so saving one minute per case can save $500,000. The market impact is both on the individual side, with the thousands of people facing eviction, but also with the courts.
What is your revenue model?
We want to work the angle of being a huge cost efficiency benefit for the courts — we are committed to never charging the user for the product. The model that we are working on is providing a QR code at the bottom of a standardized eviction summons.
The tenant would then go to the app and walk through the process. The app would be paid for through an annual licensing fee, covered by the court, that would be a volume-based percentage of the number of eviction cases that use the app.
We are also considering building in a one-time customization fee based on each county.
Does anyone have a product like this yet?
There really isn’t anyone doing exactly what we are doing, but there are court technology companies that help people file documents. Other courts are not integrating both the court and the tenant side to bring lower cost and greater efficiency like we are.
What are your next steps?
We are currently working on the first stages of the app and are hoping to release the first testing stages this fall. We can then do initial testing and surveys and tweak the application as needed.