Xiao Luo and Jessie Chiu

Web App Allows Tenants Facing Eviction to Fight Back

Tenants facing eviction in Atlanta may soon have a new app that can help them to understand their rights through the eviction process.

The web-based app is being developed by a group of Georgia Tech Master of Science in Human Computer Interaction (MS-HCI) students. It can inform tenants of their rights, help them to ensure landlords have properly followed the law, and help them to better prepare for their court hearings.

The students have been developing the web app for the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation (AVLF), which provides free legal services to residents in Fulton County, including advice for tenants facing evictions.

Jessie Chiu, one of the students who worked on the app before graduating in May, said the eviction problem throughout Atlanta is expansive.

In an article published by WABE, a local NPR affiliate, Fulton County Chief Magistrate Judge Cassandra Kirk said her office receives 40,000 eviction filings per year, or about 800 per week.

“Atlanta has one of the highest eviction rates in America, Fulton County especially,” Chiu said. “It disproportionately affects people of marginalized communities. There’s a huge power imbalance between landlords and tenants, and landlords will employ attorneys who specifically work on evicting tenants, while tenants have limited legal resources and knowledge.”

The AVLF operates the Housing Court Assistance Center (HCAC), a walk-in advice clinic where volunteer attorneys and paralegals provide free legal advice to tenants facing eviction. The clinic is located at the Fulton County Magistrate Court in downtown Atlanta.

Working inside the Culture and Technology (CAT) Lab directed by Associate Professor Betsy DiSalvo, Chiu and fellow student Xiao Luo led the group’s research efforts this year just before graduating.

To gain firsthand insights into the legal process, they spent three months interviewing tenants and observing counseling sessions with volunteer HCAC attorneys. This helped them understand what tenants needed from the web app while ensuring the advice provided would be consistent with advice given by attorneys.

Tenant eviction app

“It’s important to get in front of our end users,” Chiu said. “Once we got to sit in on these sessions with tenants undergoing eviction, we gained valuable insights into the complexity of the process. We decided to expand the available resources, covering each stage of the defense process so it became a comprehensive, step-by-step guide.”

Recognizing the limitations of the HCAC to address a city-wide problem, Luo voiced the need for a digital solution.

“There’s limited access to the attorneys,” Luo said. “At the clinic, there’s always a long queue of people there. This could provide users with immediate access to resources whenever they need them.”

One of the most challenging procedures in the eviction process is the seven-day response time given to tenants. Anyone served with an eviction notice must file an answer within that timeframe. Luo said the paperwork is long and complicated and can easily trip up tenants with limited legal knowledge.

Failure to submit the answer within seven days condemns tenants to a default judgement hearing, where judges often rule in favor of landlords.

Currently, the web app provides users with reminders to file their answers and check the court website for any scheduled hearings. Looking to the future, Luo said the goal is to incorporate real-time updates and notifications. The group will need the cooperation of the court system to do so. 

Luo said her team is dedicated to optimizing the web app’s functionality and simplifying the process, making it more efficient and less time-consuming for users.

“We hope to develop a more flexible solution where users won’t feel tied to a step-by-step process,” Luo said. “Instead, they can follow some simple prompts, describe their situations, and it will provide them with the solutions and advice they need.”

Chiu said she hopes the project is the first step toward revolutionizing the eviction defense landscape.

“There’s still a lot of work to do, but it’s exciting to see how tech can be used for leveling the playing field and giving people equal access to information and the tools they need to fight for their rights,” Chiu said.