A foreclosure in Bullhead City, Arizona, in 2009. Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Students at BYU’s LawX Lab and the University of Arizona are building software that can help imperiled tenants get automated legal assistance, fast.

Hell is receiving an eviction notice in the Beehive State.

Here’s why: Once a tenant finds that black spot waiting for them in Utah, they have just three days to pay up or leave. The notice is just the beginning of how things can go terribly wrong.

If a tenant is still there on day four—if they believe they did pay their rent, for example, or if they’re away for a family emergency and never received the eviction notice, or if they’ve got nowhere else to live—that’s when the fines really start to pile up. On the fourth day after a pay-or-quit-the-premises notice, a tenant who has done neither is responsible for treble damages plus court fees from that point forward.

“Understand that with respect to these notices, there’s no wiggle room,” says Martin Blaustein, managing attorney for Utah Legal Services and chair for its housing task force. “If the landlord gives you three days, and on the fourth day, you want to tender your rent, the landlord doesn’t have to accept it.”

In Provo or Salt Lake City, where apartment rental vacancies are at historically low rates, tenants who try to abide by an eviction notice—whether it’s legal or not—may be unable to find another place to go. One-sided laws that favor landlords offer a tempting money-making opportunity for property owners, since even a single day’s stay beyond the terms of a notice can result in triple per-diem rent plus any court costs. To an unscrupulous landlord, this is a payday.

For a Salt Lake City tenant, a three-day eviction notice is a one-way ticket out of town.

“Three-day pay-or-quit, three-day summons, three-day order of restitution. Within 10 days, you could be on the street,” Blaustein says. That doesn’t give tenants who want to fight an eviction much time. A state probably couldn’t get away with giving any less notice for an eviction, he adds. “Can you do it in less time than that and provide some semblance of due process?”

Not very likely. Utah has some of the strictest eviction laws of any state in the nation, says Blaustein, who has defended hundreds if not thousands of eviction cases over the last 20 years. And the laws are growing stricter. Utah and Arizona, another state with extremely tight notices, make up America’s Eviction Badlands.

So the students who’ve enrolled in legal design labs this fall at two universities in Utah and Arizona have their work cut out for them. Law classes at both Brigham Young University in Provo and the University of Arizona in Tucson aim to design a workable solution for tenants in trouble to get legal help—fast—when they face eviction.

“The vast majority of those who have an eviction action filed against them do not hire an attorney, ranging anywhere from 95 to 99 percent,” says Kimball Dean Parker, director of LawX, the legal design lab at BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School. “These people have a short amount of time, and they have no legal help.”

The stakes in this struggle are high: Evictions can shatter families irreparably, and they are every bit as damaging to cities. In the short term, losing one’s home feeds blight and homelessness. In the long term, it’s a key driver of structural inequality. Tenants with an eviction on their record (for a legally warranted cause or not) are often forced to accept less safe, more expensive housing in poorer places. As sociologist Matthew Desmond wrote in his Pulitzer-winning 2016 book Evicted, the result is a “geography of advantage and disadvantage that characterize[s] the modern city: good schools and failing ones, safe streets and dangerous ones.”    

Evictions may be a nationwide crisis, but the laws can be far harsher in some places than others. According to Desmond’s Eviction Lab, which recently launched this new interactive mapping tool ranking eviction rates in U.S. cities and states, Tucson’s rate of more than 6 percent ranks it among the top 25 evicting large cities in the nation.

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Parker launched LawX last year with the goal of using design thinking to propose a scalable solution for thorny legal issues. The goal is for students to identify a situation in which people routinely do not seek or cannot afford the help of an attorney, then immerse themselves in that problem. In its first term, LawX settled on debt collection. More than 70,000 debt collection cases are filed every year in Utah. People who don’t respond to a notice in a timely fashion—virtually all affected Utahans—simply lose.

The LawX seminar-cum-hackathon churned out an answer: SoloSuit, an app that prepares a free legal response to a debt collection notice and gives users instructions on how to file it. Parker describes it as TurboTax for scary debt collection notices: The program asks straightforward questions about the notice and walks users through their options. Users who fill out the questionnaire are actually receiving consumer protection advice, he says.

“Do you agree with absolutely everything in here? Do you disagree with something?” Parker says, explaining how the program prompts users to admit or deny various allegations. That’s exactly what a lawyer does.”

He adds, “At the end, it pumps out a document that looks like it was produced by an attorney. And in my opinion, it’s 95th-percentile attorney product. Five percent of lawyers could do something better.”

Stacy Butler, director of Innovation for Justice at the University of Arizona’s James E. Rogers College of Law, is launching a cousin course based on a design-thinking framework on Monday. In Pima County, where this Tucson university is based, landlords file an average of 22 evictions per day. Butler guesses that one in 10 tenants at best seeks out legal advice.

This kind of legal innovation built on design thinking is a growing trend at the law school level; Butler cites Margaret Hagan’s Legal Design Lab at Stanford and Dan Jackson’s NuLawLab at Northeastern. Arizona and BYU are stepping it up a notch. Recognizing that Utah and Arizona tenants face similarly harsh environments when it comes to eviction law, Butler and Parker decided to follow a parallel track this fall.     

Butler’s course starts with “empathy work”: Students will talk to tenants, landlords, and other stakeholders, and they will observe eviction proceedings firsthand. Students will attempt to navigate through the legal system from the perspective of a tenant who has just received a five-day notice in Arizona—a sort of mock eviction proceeding.

Once they’ve identified opportunities for intervention, right before the fall break in October, Innovation for Justice students will confer with their LawX colleagues to see whether they’re on the same track to build the same thing. The back half of the semester is dedicated to trying to build out some kind of deliverable for the community by prototyping a possible tool or resource.

While the courses may come up with different solutions, the set-up is the same at Utah. “This is not a coasting class,” Parker says.

So far, LawX is producing real-world results: More than 700 Utah tenants have filed a response to a debt-collection notice using SoloSuit since the program’s debut in January. Alaska and California have asked LawX for advice on building their own programs.

In Utah, people can see their lives quickly ruined by an eviction notice. It’s not uncommon for tenants, says Blaustein, to rack up judgments for thousands of dollars, which can land on their credit report and compromise their ability to find another home—and all in about a week’s time. “It’s so dramatic,” he says. “It’s so harsh.”

In Arizona, Butler is realistic about the project’s ability to make a dent in Tucson’s eviction crisis. “As a law professor, my first priority is to educate my students and empower them to be creative and disruptive problem solvers,” she says. “Whether we can create a solution at scale is secondary.”

But, out here in Eviction Badlands, tenants in trouble will need all the help they can get.

“Do I think eight students are going to solve evictions in 12 weeks? Probably not,” Butler says. “But I think it would be fantastic if they came up with a way to reduce evictions that hasn’t been done before.”

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