How can text messages help prevent evictions?

By Sarah Verschoor, originally published on Legal Design & Innovation

During many evictions, tenants & service providers face a troubling paradox.

Just when a tenant is most at risk of eviction — and most in need of legal, financial, and housing services — this is when it is most difficult for service-providers to engage with them.

When people are behind on their rent or worried about their landlord suing them, it’s often very difficult to reach them.

The Stanford Legal Design Lab led a team of students in January 2022 to interview tenants about their eviction experiences across the US. In those interviews, we heard from people who, under normal circumstances, would be ready to Google their problems, or call their city government, or seek out fliers or handouts, or talk to friends about their problems.

But when these people were worried about a looming eviction, they didn’t go seek help. Instead, they were more likely to be passive or even to actively avoid outreach. They didn’t open mail, they didn’t search online for advice, and they didn’t reach out to people or groups for help.

Thinking from the perspective of a service provider who wants to get early, preventative, supportive help to these tenants — what is the best way to engage tenants during this high-risk, high-stress period? There’s a crucial opportunity to get tenants connected to support as early as possible. When someone’s housing is at risk, services like emergency rental assistance, mediators and lawyers, and housing navigators, can help them repair the problems with their landlord — or to form a strategic plan about where to go next. The earlier a tenant can use these services, the more likely they can either stay in their current home, or have quality choices about moving from their home. These services can also stop subsequent harms like lawsuits over money owed, eviction records on their credit report, and difficulty finding future rental homes.

So how can eviction prevention service providers connect early with at-risk tenants?

Our Eviction Prevention Learning Lab (which the National League of Cities and Stanford Legal Design Lab lead) has identified one tactic that has been highly impactful, yet underutilized by government agencies, courts, and service providers to connect with at-risk tenants: text messages. Recently, the EPLL hosted a session in which experts from legal aid, tenant advocacy, and universities shared best practices on using text messages to empower people through different points of their legal journeys. The session covered the need-to-know information on eviction-related text messaging: three of the main use cases for texting for eviction prevention, the basic tools for implementing a text message program, and details on the legal regulation around texting.

How Can SMS Messaging be Used to Prevent Evictions?

There are three main use cases for text messaging in eviction prevention, which align with different stages in a tenant’s problem lifecycle:

  1. Outreach for Intake for Eviction Help
  2. Ongoing Engagement & Participation
  3. Outcomes Tracking

Use Case 1: Outreach and Intake for Eviction Help

SMS messages are a great way of informing people what help is available to them, especially when they’re at risk of eviction. The SMS can be set up as a hotline, where it’s easy for people to text in & discover key information, services, and tools they could access to help them with their housing problems.

“Text the word “help” to this phone number and you can get your FAQs answered, you can get a link to the right website to go to, you can maybe even text in some parts of your intake information to get you signed up,” explained Margaret Hagan, Director of the Stanford Legal Design Lab.

Victoria Zacarias, the Community Leadership Director of Tenants Together, coordinated and developed a California statewide Tenant’s Rights Hotline that did just this.

Tenants Together is one of the only statewide organizations that supports tenants in California to help guarantee housing for all. “Being able to partner with Stanford Legal Design Lab to coordinate and create an SMS texting tool has been an astronomical success in getting needed information to tenants in the most immediate moments of when they are facing a potential eviction or some sort of housing insecurity,” said Victoria.

The Tenants Rights hotline was first implemented in 2020, focused on COVID-19 protections and as a way to help navigate people through what protections are applicable to them. “We saw an increase in call volume on our Tenants Together Hotline, so we were able to kind of triage people through this tool to get the resources ahead of time, so that when they do talk to the counselor, it can be a little more straight to the point into the areas where they’re needing the directed and most immediate support,” explained Victoria.

Message example for a housing hotline, set up using Wise Messenger

Use Case 2: Ongoing Engagement & Participation

“When you’re signing up for dentist appointments or doctor’s appointments, you’re probably getting these kinds of reminders,” says Margaret. Reminders of dates people need to abide by and action items they need to complete before those dates arrive are excellent reminders to send through text.

This is the type of messaging that the Legal Design Lab created when partnered with Orange County, San Mateo County, and the Las Vegas Criminal Court. This one-way messaging system would inform people of court dates, remind them of their court date repeatedly, and, as the date approached, message more information about what to prepare for appearing in court.

“The key thing here was that it was connected to the case management system so clerks were not having to do extra work. Clerks didn’t have to go into this other software program and type in people’s phone numbers or type in when they should receive text messages. Rather, all of that was set up through a database connection and API,” explained Margaret.

How SMS Reminders can Function for Courts

Use Case 3: Outcomes Tracking

SMS messages can also be effective for surveying individuals in the short- and long-term after they have received assistance or participated in an eviction prevention program.

Anne Sweeney, a Managing Attorney for Community Engagement for the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, explained best how this use of SMS helped her work.

“We wanted to figure out if texting with our clients could help us better understand if they were understanding their rights and options after we delivered some type of limited scope services,” explained Anne. These limited scope services include advice and assistance to address issues. “There may just be a single point in time that a lawyer is actually delivering that service and telling the client, ‘Okay, these are your rights, this is what you can do, here’s the form to fill out to go forth and solve your problem.’”

The Legal Society in Cleveland sent surveys using a sequence of messages, such as the one below, as a follow-up after a case closed. By sending out surveys and collecting responses, the Legal Society was better informed on what aspect of their services was working well and what needed to be improved.

How Can a Group Set up Automated Text-messaging Systems?

What’s great about these automated text-messaging systems is that there is little to no coding experience required for many services, making text messaging an outreach and engagement method that is accessible and efficient for both those providing legal services and those receiving them.

We detail some services that might be useful for setting up a text messaging system below, based on tools that can aid two types of messaging models, an important factor to consider:

  • will messages be one-way, broadcasted messages like for ongoing engagements?
  • or will they be two-way, conversational messages like for outreach and intake or outcomes?

Depending on what service is being offered, what protections one might want to hold for recipients, and the capacity of an organization, one messaging model might be better than the other.

There are 3 tools that services can work with to launch texting services:

Tool Type 1: Authoring messages to be sent, written in a script and sequenced for different scenarios.

Authoring messages can be done using a flowchart editor. This lets a person lay out visually what the sequence should be.

Texts can be sent sequentially and at specific intervals for one-way, broadcasted messages — according to the flowchart.

As an example, text reminders and specific information can be sent one month before an appointment, then two weeks before, and finally one day before the appointment. For two-way, conversational messages, interactive SMS trees can help with certain text messages sent based on trigger words (e.g. “YES” or “NO” to a question sent in an automated message will warrant different responses). Useful software for this includes Twilio Studio or Frontline SMS.

See an example of a visual flowchart authoring tool, like Wise Messenger that the Legal Design Lab built for free use by legal aid groups

Tool Type 2: Sending the Messages & Tracking them

This type of tool will ensure messages are sent successfully from the message flowchart tool, to people’s phones. Itcan track when the messages are unable to send.

Here’s a view of a tool letting you know a message has been sent, has been received, and at what time markers.

Sending messages from scripts at the right time and to the right person are essential for either type of text messaging system. Services Twilio or ClickSend ensure the authored scripts’ messages are sent to the correct recipient’s phone number regardless of their provider (e.g. Verizon or AT&T).

These services can also track metrics, which can be useful for understanding the success of the text messaging program for an organization, such as unsubscription rates, errors in sending messages. Metrics beyond the text messaging system can be useful for determining the success of the program as well, such as tracking how many people follow through with the message’s request (completing a form, appearing in court).

Tool 3: Managing Responses

The third function of a messaging tool (that may be included in the same software above) is about receiving information from the end-user. This function should let a group track and record individual responses. The tool should either manually or automatically store these responses into the group’s existing case or client management system.

A tool can prepare to record responses from the user, and save them to specified fields in your case management system.

In the case of two-way, conversational messages, there needs to be a way to store some of the information that recipients might provide by answering some questions to automated messages, such as their name. General case management platformsFrontline SMSTwilio SMSor Wise Messenger all help with gathering and storing responses into the right places of case management systems.

Are These Messages Legal to Send?

These SMS systems are legal, but groups must be aware of limitations around spam and privacy.

Federally, the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) as of 2021 only prohibits sending messages without the prior consent of the recipient if the messages are sent using an automatic telephone dialing system (ATDS). An ATDS is a machine that chooses numbers randomly or sequentially rather than from, say, a court list of those who have appointments.

Legal aid groups can refer to an LSC program letter from March 2022 that lays out how groups can use texting to proactively engage with people about eviction prevention.

While state laws vary, these laws tend to focus on marketing-based messages and not informational ones. As of today, there are no new limits on SMS. “ So right now, since 2021, it’s easier for a legal aid group, a court, a government agency or any other nonprofit agency to send messages proactively,” says Margaret.

The Key Takeways…

Text messaging is a form of communication more closely aligned with how people connect with each other and the world, and reducing failure-to-appear in court rates are not the only legal efforts that can benefit from it. What’s more, texting is low-cost and requires minimal capacity to operate successfully.

Texting is a form of communication people still pay attention to. More eviction prevention actors can be using it to notify people of services, coach them through complicated processes, and gather key information from them. The hope is that more courts, nonprofits, community advocates, legal aid, and city government groups will use texting to build strong, supportive relationships with people at risk of eviction.

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