Landlords Eye Eviction Startup Civvl, As Legal Protections Around Displacement Shift
A new startup that wants to connect landlords with gig workers to help with evictions is garnering the outrage and concern of tenants' rights advocates.
Dubbed Civvl, the company touts itself as the “fastest growing money making gig due to COVID-19” and offers users work as process servers, eviction crews and foreclosure clean-out crews via a website that says “too many people stopped paying rent and mortgages thinking they would not be evicted."
Based on its presence on digital application marketplaces like Google's, Civvl has had an online presence since at least April through OnQall, a larger gig economy company that matches people in need of different services with local freelancers.
The legality of such a platform in a nation blanketed in tenant protections because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and recession is now being examined.
In cases where eviction is still allowed in tandem with local protections, Civvl may be able to operate, according to George Lagos, a partner with law firm Kelley Kronenberg and an expert on real property litigation. In Florida, where Lagos and OnQall are both based, "there's nothing specifically that says [Civvl] isn't allowed," he said, adding that he thinks it is a safe bet other state laws view it similarly.
While residential evictions carry with them very specific guidelines on self-help from landlords, Civvl appears to have the necessary process servers in place through its contract work, thereby probably having that legal question addressed, Lagos said.
But Civvl’s services should theoretically be limited in practice, at least for now. Since early this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has had in place a temporary halt to certain types of residential evictions supposed to last the rest of the year. In a handful of municipalities and states like Minnesota and California, the CDC's measure is now applied to areas that already have stronger protections.
The startup's premise has raised alarms with tenants rights advocates, according to Eric Hauge, executive director of HOME Line, a Minnesota-based tenant advocacy organization. “It’s almost like they’re preying on the folks that might actually see this and apply for this type of ad, so it’s pretty disgusting," Hauge said.
Craigslist advertisements for Civvl, which says on its website it operates in all 50 states, were appearing for cities across the country, including in New York and San Francisco. Hauge himself noticed a Civvl ad on Craigslist for the Minneapolis area, even though, thanks to its strong tenant protections, evictions are actually down compared to previous years, he said.
The company charges workers $35 per month and takes 30% of their earnings, according to its terms of service.
Neither Civvl nor OnQall responded to requests for comment.
Stakeholders on both sides of the issue have spent the summer voicing fears about a wave of evictions occurring whenever CDC and local protections start expiring by the end of the year.
"The concern is about what happens when the moratoriums expire," University at Buffalo Urban and Regional Planning Professor Robert Silverman wrote Bisnow in an email. "Most localities are anticipating a profound spike in evictions. A service like this one would accelerate that process."
Silverman said he doesn't think local sheriffs would contract work out to Civvl directly. Instead, it is more likely that landlords in a long queue waiting for sheriffs would decide to expedite the process by contracting with a private company, he said.
For now, tenants qualifying for CDC protection must provide a declaration under penalty of perjury that they meet criteria for qualification, which include having received a CARES Act stimulus check, having made best efforts to obtain government housing assistance and having an inability to pay full rent because of a substantial loss of income.
“What I would be concerned for on a national basis is they’re probably going to appeal to some of the types of landlord who doesn’t want to do the dirty work themselves to get somebody out illegally," Hauge said. "There are some hoops tenants have to jump through to be protected by the CDC suspension.”
Critics are also dismayed by Civvl's tack of employing likely financially hurting local residents to help evict their similarly hurting neighbors. The service may exacerbate an existing imbalance between landlords and tenants in eviction scenarios, Lagos said. If the tenant is unable to pay full rent, they are also unable to pay for any market-based counters to the market-based solution of Civvl, he said.
But with so many smaller landlords struggling mightily with a lack of resources, some are likely to see Civvl as useful, Lagos said.
“The cringe-worthiness — that doesn’t seem to sway any company that’s trying to fill a void, right?" he said. "If there’s a way to make money off of something, whether it looks good or bad, somebody’s probably going to do it.”