Current Projects

The State of Eviction Prevention Efforts

Lessons Learned from the Eviction Prevention Learning Lab cohort

As eviction rates go back up following the court shutdowns and emergency moratoria during the pandemic, communities are struggling with the question: how can we prevent evictions?

How can we help people stay in their homes, avoid lawsuits to force them out of their houses or pay extra fees, and have a scarlet ‘E’ on their credit report for years to come? And how can we help mom-and-pop landlords who are trying to avoid a costly lawsuit and turning a unit over to find a new renter?

The past several years have seen a tide of new programs, policies, and technology initiatives all aiming to prevent evictions in different ways. What are all of these initiatives, and how can we expand them to help more communities across the US?

Our team at Stanford Legal Design Lab and the National League of Cities runs the Eviction Prevention Learning Lab (EPLL), which has established a strong, local base of knowledge about how to prevent evictions, and how to start up and scale successful new programs and policies.

The Eviction Prevention Learning Lab, a peer-to-peer network of local city leaders, has just concluded our cohort. This program engaged teams from 30 municipalities in 22 different states, totaling roughly 400 individual participants. The EPLL cohort operated from early 2021 through autumn 2022 and uncovered many promising practices around how evictions can be prevented, — as well as barriers that stand in the way of local leaders looking to move the needle on housing stability.

After working closely with the city leaders over the past 18 months, our organizing team at Stanford Legal Design Lab and NLC have synthesized the cohort’s progress, insights, and next steps in this essay. These insights & patterns from the 30 cities in the EPLL can help other regions’ government agencies, courts, nonprofits, and community leaders to use in their eviction prevention work.

Why have an eviction prevention cohort?

Communities across the country are struggling with a growing eviction crisis, in which tenants are at risk of lawsuits, forced moves, and other strategies to displace them from their rental homes. Evictions lead to housing instability and homelessness, as well as collateral consequences for people’s credit reports, education, employment, health, and finances.

So what are ways to prevent evictions? In the past, local leaders have had to struggle with this question on their own. Eviction laws and housing market dynamics are often highly local. Different cities and states have different rules, protections, policies, and market forces. This fragmented landscape makes it hard to address the crisis. Local leaders often have to take the lead in navigating their local stakeholder groups, legislation, court rules, and funding relationships to find solutions.

The EPLL helped local leaders know what programs and policies are possible, what’s been tried in other similar regions, and how they can deploy these new initiatives successfully. Throughout the 18 months, EPLL cohort members learned what is happening throughout the country to deal with the eviction crisis, through presentations, interactive meetings, design workshops, and technical assistance engagements. They were trained in new data and communication skills, they heard detailed case studies about how new services or policies roll out, and they built relationships with their counterparts in other regions. All of these webinars, meetings, and share-outs have led to a strong national network that can adapt and scale the most promising practices to address evictions. The EPLL participants have used the cohort to create new innovative solutions that work for their local dynamics.

What have the past 18 months of eviction prevention been like?

At the closing meetings of the EPLL, our organizing team asked city leaders about what they have accomplished since the start of 2021. Here are some of the big accomplishments they highlighted:

Emergency rental assistance distribution to keep people in their homes

The biggest accomplishment most leaders shared from the past two years was the huge volume of rental assistance used to prevent evictions. Significant amounts of emergency rental assistance were successfully distributed to tenants and landlords at risk.

For example, $304 million dollars were distributed to people in need in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In Fort Wayne, Indiana, it was $52 million. Local leaders created completely new emergency rental assistance programs during the pandemic and successfully used ERA money to keep people in their homes and resolve landlord-tenant disputes.

Court partnerships, rule changes, and programs.

Many EPLL leaders were able to bring city agency, nonprofit, and court leadership together to create new court-based interventions. These are key to preventing evictions by getting support, mediation, and financial assistance to tenants and landlords struggling through a conflict. Some of the innovations included new diversion programs to turn lawsuits into settlement agreements, changes to courtroom setups that connect litigants with more holistic services and guidance, outreach strategies to encourage participation, and co-located services to help litigants get financial and housing navigation.

Some courts even changed their rules about how eviction cases proceed, with more judicial management, mediation sessions, integrations with ERA programs, and support for people without lawyers. These court pilots are now being formalized and spread through initiatives like the National Center for State Courts’ Eviction Diversion Initiative.

Innovative, equity-focused outreach efforts

The EPLL members, with guidance and assistance from our NLC and Stanford team, created new ways to connect tenants and landlords with eviction prevention help. This included new on-the-ground community networks and in-person assistance. City leaders and nonprofits in places like Louisville and Chattanooga have brought services to people in their neighborhoods, with door-knocking campaigns, pop-up offices, and on-site training. They built these community-based outreach efforts in order to reach people with strong word of mouth, particularly in areas where there was a high risk of eviction.

In addition to community-based outreach, the EPLL members also developed strong digital and visual outreach as well. They created (and shared) new style sheets, social media campaigns, landlord-tenant websites, text message lines, and intake partnerships with other social service groups. These outreach materials made use of many different modes and leveraged the power of the Internet to reach different audiences. These strategic outreach efforts helped increase awareness about new programs like ERA and eviction diversion programs and encouraged equitable participation in them.

The establishment of strategic coalitions and networks

EPLL cohort members, including city teams in Pittsburgh, Louisville, and Milwaukee, highlighted this theme as a key priority to deploying any new individual initiative. To really prevent evictions, city leaders discovered that it was necessary to build a local strategy group that spanned different agencies, nonprofits, courts, legal aid, and community groups.

EPLL city leaders coached each other on how to build an effective local network. One key step was aligning courts, city government, legal aid, nonprofits, and foundations around the notion of ‘eviction prevention’ as a common goal, which could help them understand how they could collaborate in new ways. Often this meant having regular meetings, having staff members at each others’ locations, finding ways to share data, and teaching each other about their own institutions. This was particularly helpful in setting up new ERA programs and then also winding them down. These ongoing strategic networks can help the leaders and communities respond to the opportunities and hurdles that emerge.

The importance of national networks

The EPLL helped city leaders to find inspiration, guidance, data, and other evidence that could support their own local work. At the EPLL sessions and in their peer-to-peer meetings, these cross-jurisdiction relationships bloomed in order to help city leaders get evidence, blueprints, strategies, and outreach templates that could help replicate and scale successful efforts. These national networks also provide an undercurrent of support to professionals who often are stressed and over-committed. Because they could find peers dealing with similar challenges in other locations, the EPLL relationships ended up being a place for leaders to recharge.

What’s next for eviction prevention?

Now regional leaders are turning to the next phase of eviction prevention work. When we asked them what their current goals and challenges are, here is the agenda they laid out for the next several years:

Moving to longer-term planning for sustainable innovation

Beyond local programs and short-term mandates, city leaders want to use what they learned during the short-term planning of the emergency to design permanent eviction programs, that also fit into the bigger picture at the state and national levels.

Shift to mediation and problem resolution

Now that there is less money to support ERA programs, local coalitions are exploring how to revise their prevention programs — especially court diversion programs. Many are focusing on community mediators, preventative outreach in high-risk neighborhoods, and mandatory pre-filing diversion programs to help landlords and tenants resolve problems without going through an eviction.

State government involvement

City leaders have also discovered the limits of what they can do at the local level to stop evictions. More are now exploring what they might be able to do in partnership with governors, state legislatures, and other statewide agencies. In some cases, this might be about statewide programs.

In other places, it’s legislative changes or funding. For example, some cities are trying to deal with statewide laws that prohibit eviction record sealing. Other leaders are cautious about proposing reforms to statewide landlord-tenant laws, for fear that once the law is open for changes, there might end up being changes that inhibit eviction prevention.

Strengthening local coalitions

Now that some agencies are moving away from eviction prevention as a core priority, leaders are working on how to keep their pandemic-era coalitions intact and stronger. Many cities are exploring more service co-location, referral networks, and funding plans. Some coalitions are considering breaking into different themes or seeking out common funding in order to keep the coalition strong.

Special attention to court involvement & judge leadership

A particular concern is court and judge involvement in these coalitions. Many cities have had difficulty getting local judges and court executives to collaborate on eviction diversion.

In response, they are creating data to show court leaders the impact of current court practices on the community’s housing and homelessness situation. They are also spotlighting how courts can better administer the justice system when they partner with other agencies on eviction diversion programs, resource networks, record sealing, and other efforts.

Judges can play a role in setting better court rules, scheduling, and courtroom setup that allow more participation in court, and more services to get a better outcome for both tenants and landlords.

Infrastructure around common models and data efforts

Groups are also thinking about regional and national coordination efforts that can spread best practices more efficiently and establish more knowledge about the eviction system. Groups are working on national data standardization and sharing efforts, like those led by New America. Some groups, including a coalition in Philadelphia and states in the Justice For All program, are considering how to make standardized, well-designed legal documents like court forms, eviction summons, settlement agreements, and leases, that improve prevention efforts. Some city teams are considering investing in broader public awareness of housing rights and equity, so that more people see how these interconnected programs around rental assistance, court diversion, mediation, affordable housing, and homelessness prevention all work together.

Working Towards Sustainable Eviction Prevention

The past two years have been a flurry of eviction prevention innovation, with new initiatives like emergency rental assistance, court diversion efforts, and community justice navigators starting up in regions across the US. But will these fledgling new initiatives take root, to become permanent, growing eviction prevention efforts?

Much of that will depend on what happens in the next year. Local leaders, as well as our NLC and Stanford Legal Design Lab, will continue to work on innovative, coordinated new efforts to help prevent evictions and all of the harm they cause to families and communities.

More Resources

Explore pilots and data about eviction prevention at our site Eviction Innovation.

Find practical guides in the Emergency Rental Assistance Toolkit for more effective outreach, program design, partnerships, and more.

Read more about the Eviction Prevention Learning Lab here.

Current Projects

An International R&D Community for Better Justice Innovations

Margaret Hagan, Aug 16, 2022

Building a network that’s researching, designing, and evaluating what works to increase access to justice

Earlier this summer I was lucky to spend a Saturday in conversation with Professor Monica Palmirani & her research group CIRSFID at the University of Bologna.

It was a pleasant afternoon talking about projects & giving feedback on early-stage initiatives. Especially because of COVID, it has been hard to build up international (or even inter-university) connections about what our different legal labs and research groups are working on.

It turns out that there was a surprising amount of overlap between our work at Stanford Legal Design Lab and the CIRSFID group in Bologna.

Both of our groups are focused on an overarching theme:

How do we empower more people to participate in the government systems meant to benefit and protect them? In particular, how do we increase people’s ability to understand, use, and participate in the legal system to resolve housing & finance problems?

For us at Stanford Legal Design Lab, we have been very focused on people’s participation in the United States’ state court and legal aid systems. For people facing life problems around housing, debt, employment, and other situations — can we increase their participation in this legal help system to resolve the problem and move forward with their life?

Parallels in A2J innovation from California to Italy

Professor Palmirani’s group just launched a project with very similar themes, in another jurisdiction’s context. They have launched a 5-year research project on digital participation in government. This focus aligns with ours at the Legal Design Lab — and it turns out our past projects have as well.

Building data standards for justice systems

The Bologna group has already established infrastructure around legislation and NLP, through their data standards of Akoma Ntoso & Legal Document ML to capture legislation in standardized notation.

This parallels our Stanford’s group focus on data standards:

It turns out that in our different regional contexts, both of our research groups have made data standards infrastructure projects a central part of our work. These standards project lay the ground for more groups to develop new solutions & intelligent applications.

That said, there’s another — less technical, more design — theme that we also have both aligned on in Bologna & California.

Legal Design in the Courts for User Empowerment

Professor Palmirani’s group in Bologna has turned to legal design as another theme for innovation and research. Their group has partnered with judges in Sicily, to do user research, create new designs, and evaluate them. The challenge they’re tackling through legal design is this:

  • There is new legislation regionally, that creates opportunities for people struggling with debt.
  • Many people do not necessarily know about this new policy and related programs, that could help them pay their debts down & get relief.
  • How can the courts increase awareness of this new set of rights and services? And how can they empower more people to navigate this system strategically, to find relief?
  • Can this intervention, if it helps people Engage -> Motivate -> Act on the law, ultimately get people to better outcomes? The hypothetical chain goes as follows: People use the law to relieve their debt, because the guide has helped them find and use the legal system→ They are cleared of significant financial stress → They get stabilized with their house, car, family, and job → They have better physical health, mental health, and quality of life — as does their family.
The judges’ challenge to the R&D group: can you make the law clear for citizens?

This project in Bologna/Siciliy parallels our Stanford projects in which we’ve been working with courts and city governments on rental relief, eviction diversion initiatives, and moratoria. Like in the Italian example, there also have been recent roll-outs of new laws, assistance programs, and court policies. We have been working on the outreach and service design, with similar goals to our European counterparts.

The Bologna group has created several design interventions that they are now going to evaluate in the Sicily context. They have created a visual explainer book, along with online videos, that onboard people to their options to deal with debt. The goals of the explainers are as follows:

  • Can they engage more members of the public to know about this law, and motivate them to take action if it’s applicable to them?
  • Can they help a person understand the 3 legal pathways they have to deal with a debt — and to make a strategic choice among the 3?
  • Can they make the most commonly applicable pathway very approachable and clear to the person? With the use of process maps, human stories, and staged information — can they keep a person engaged, with a sense of control, and a sense of dignity?

The Design Patterns & Strategies for Legal Empowerment

Their group of lawyers and designers have created visual guides that they will test.

My notes on the design patterns in use by the Bologna group, with their debt guides

The guides were created with many visual and messaging strategies, meant to increase engagement, motivation, and action:

  • Process Map and a Choice Matrix. These 2 visual patterns are commonly used in legal design, to show how a person can navigate a system, and how to weigh strategic choices against each other. The Bologna group made a color-coded procedural map that shows the steps as a timeline with simplified steps. Then a person can go from this high-level overview into detail. They can also see in tables about exactly when the law applies and when it doesn’t.
  • Representations of many kinds of local people, to show the potential users of the law that it is for them. The designers showed distinct ‘Personas’ as visual characters in the guide. This includes a variety of gender, ages, abilities, family situations, and backgrounds.
  • Messages around dignity, normalcy, and support. The language and visuals reinforce the message that debt and money problems are normal. That a person shouldn’t be ashamed or feel guilty about them.
  • Framing the legal system as a service rather than a punishment. There is also deliberate messaging that debt is not criminal. This is not a trial, and it doesn’t have to be adversarial or punitive. Rather, the focus is on collaborative service and problem-solving, with the legal system as a service rather than a punishment.
  • Visual metaphors around weight & uplift. At the same time as emphasizing ‘this is normal’, the guide also acknowledges how burdensome the situation is for a person. It literally shows people being weighed down with their debt problems. And it uses the hot-air balloon as a visual metaphor throughout the guide to communicate uplift. As a person navigates the path towards relief, the balloon lifts up.
  • Emphasizing & clarifying choices. The guide shows the 3 legal procedures a person could use for debt relief as 3 different hot air balloons. They’re colored differently, based on difficulty & accessibility. It can let a person visualize which one would be best for them to use, to take a justice journey. At the same time as the guide presents the 3 pathways, it doesn’t present them as equal. They use indicators to guide people to the most commonly relevant and the least burdensome path.
  • Remixing Cultural Symbols. The legal design team discovered that symbols from a popular card game in Sicily could be adapted for the guide. They could use these familiar, local symbols — swords, vases, spears, coins — to represent different system parts and people. They chose these symbols specifically because playing cards is a familiar experience for making strategic, careful choices. Just like in the legal system, you have to be thinking about your goals and steps. Also, these symbols help frame the lawyer as the ‘protector’ rather than the enemy. This can help let the person see the lawyer as someone who can help them, rather than someone to fear.
  • Building Familiarity with the Different Professionals. One problem to deal with is that all of the different ‘system people’ can all seem the same to a new user of a system. The guide makes a point to differentiate who all these different support and decision-maker experts are: the lawyer, the accountant, the trustee, the judge. These should lessen people’s fear of these ‘experts’, and also help them ask the right questions to the right people.
  • Messages that set expectations. Though much of the guide is emphasizing that the legal system is approachable and engaging — the designers have also realized that too much of this language might make people think that navigating the system will be easy, or they will have complete support from the professionals to do it. This might then lead to frustration & burnout when they find that they will still have to do many tasks, make hard choices, and come to high-stakes meetings, negotiations, and hearings. Even if there are people to help them, the process will still be hard. It will take effort and dedication. The guide emphasizes this along with the other, more encouraging messages above.

This Justice Innovation Work Can Be Networked

This effort in Sicily has been amazing to watch. The Bologna group will have more to report about the effectiveness of their Engage -> Motivate -> Act theory of change.

In the meantime, there is much to learn for other folks (myself included) who are working on the research & design of new justice system interventions, meant for legal empowerment. Like the Bologna group, my Lab has also been busy working on new guides, websites, outreach fliers, and maps to help institutions better engage & empower the public. When I talked with Professor Palmirani and her team, I realized that we had been working in a parallel way but had much to learn from each other.

In particular, there is an opportunity for the law school labs, court innovation groups, legal tech entrepreneurs, and others focused on ‘justice innovation’ to be creating some standard ways of working. These would not be hard-and-fast data standards. Rather it would be a collection of best practices, strategies, and instruments that we can share.

In particular, we could be spreading & scaling our ways of working, including:

  • The visual design patterns, messages, and strategies that work. Each cultural context may need different symbols, content, and messages. But as we learn what engages people to take on hard tasks around their money, housing, family, and employment problems — it’s worth it to share these strategies explicitly with each other. That may mean sharing the actual visuals being used, or the strategies underlying them. We might replicate these successful models in different jurisdictions.
  • The design process to use to create effective interventions. This would include how to get the right mix of stakeholders, involve them in the creation and testing of the interventions, and ensure that there is equitable, lively participation. How do we check for blind spots, missing participants,
  • The metrics & evaluation instruments we use to measure outcomes. How do we know whether a new legal help design works? And what are the protocols we can use to measure this performance — in the lab or in the field? We need more discussion and collaboration across our R&D groups about evaluation. Most groups don’t have the luxury to run gold-standard randomized control trials because of how burdensome they are to establish, and partners who are unwilling to randomize who gets the new intervention. So we must create other experimental and quasi-experimental research designs that can still help us understand if a justice intervention is worthwhile — -or if it should be changed or discontinued.

I’m excited to build more of these ‘design standards’ for our group in Stanford and to spread and edit them while we collaborate with groups like Professor Palmirani’s group in Italy, and other labs and research teams around the world.

Please feel free to share your own best practices on developing & evaluating ‘justice interventions’ in the comments!

Current Projects

Making Good Legal Design the Law

Margaret Hagan, Jan 13, 2022

We have been talking and working on the importance of the justice system’s user experience — as have many others in other public interest sectors.

We have been talking and working on the importance of the justice system’s user experience — as have many others in other public interest sectors.

These civic services should be usable, useful, and engaging. It should be easy for all different types of people to find their options for courts, benefits, taxes, government documents, and other key government tasks. The processes should be as simple as possible, with the fewest time and money burdens, and with an emphasis on a supportive, dignified experience.

Now we are seeing these goals become legal mandates.

The White House issued an Executive Order in December 2021 setting out explicit rules about good design of federal government services. It sets out human-centered design as an official obligation for federal agencies.

Here’s a quote of their policy intent with this order:

“ The Federal Government must design and deliver services in a manner that people of all abilities can navigate. We must use technology to modernize Government and implement services that are simple to use, accessible, equitable, protective, transparent, and responsive for all people of the United States.”

It also uses the UX-oriented concept of administrative burdens to set out metrics. The order requires that these agencies be measuring the quality of the design and user experience.

“It is the policy of the United States that, in a Government of the people, by the people, and for the people, improving service delivery and customer experience should be fundamental priorities. The Government’s performance must be measured empirically and by on-the-ground results for the people of the United States, especially for their experiences with services delivered.”

The Order sets out staffing, agenda-setting, and other required actions to make these policy goals real. In some in cases, the Order calls out specific websites, services, and forms/applications that need good civic design overhauls. It mandates that government staff centralize and simplify processes, and then create more user-friendly platforms and tools so that people can find and use them.

One other possible legal design policy is happening in New York City. (Hat tip to a colleague at the Racial Justice office of the city for alerting me to this).

The NYC Racial Justice Commission has some Ballot Proposals for 2022 — one of which (Proposal 2) would establish a Racial Equity Office in the City. Part of this office would include a mandate for good civic design, language access design, and overall human-centered service design.

Proposed policies to add to the NYC Charter, that would make good civic design law

These proposals are linking racial equity with good design. It’s baking in key design principles of empathetic, non-paternalistic respect for community members — and a commitment to inclusion through better government design. If passed, this Citywide Access Design project would be a leader in ensuring that diverse community members can access the government services they need.

Do you have other examples of government agencies recognizing the importance of good legal and civic design? And how it was established as a law, rule, or policy? Please share!

Current Projects

What does a user-centered eviction court summons look like?

Margaret Hagan, Sep 14, 2021

If you are sued by your landlord to evict you from your home, how would you like to find out?

The papers you get from the court — the Summons to the eviction trial, and the Complaint from your landlord about why they’re suing from you — most often are dense, legalistic documents.

These pieces of paper can set the tone for the eviction legal process. And they can communicate: is the court for you? If you show up to the eviction trial, are you going to be able to protect yourself, and get your voice heard? Or is this going to be so intimidating & confusing that it’s not even worth it to show up?

And even more fundamentally: can you even understand these documents? Is it clear that:

  • you have been sued
  • that you have rights and groups who can help you
  • that if you don’t come to your court hearing that you could be evicted by a sheriff?

Our Legal Design Lab has collaborated with the Hamilton County Municipal Court in Ohio to reimagine how people

We took the current court eviction summons and did a series of multi-stakeholder workshops to reimagine its look, feel, and content to make it more user-centered. We created and refined a new summons, and have been piloting it in the court to see if we can increase tenants’ participation in the court process and use of legal services.

Here is how the traditional court summons looks like, and what we found in our workshops that needed to be fixed.

Design review of traditional eviction summons, with user feedback annotated on

We then had brainstorming and prototyping workshops in Cincinnati to create a new eviction summons design. We had plain language and visual design principles front of mind. And we also had tenants, landlords, advocates, and court officials contribute their preferences (as well as legal and statutory requirements).

Here is our finalized new summons design.

Our new Eviction Summons design, with annotations of reasons and principles for our choices

We will have study results about whether the new summons resulted in more people attending their hearing & using legal aid services. Preliminary results indicate that the new summons did increase the participation rate/decrease the default rate (though COVID has been a confounder!).

We do have some design principles for user-centered court documents, notifications, and summons that other groups can use.

Design Principles for Effective Court Notices & Summons

Each new design should be driven by local stakeholders & their needs. But these principles can help your court or legal design team create court documents that people will be more likely to read — and take action with.

Current Projects Uncategorized

Legal Design Lab’s 2021 Year in Review

Margaret Hagan, Dec 22, 2021

Greetings from the Legal Design Lab! Our team has been busy throughout this year on both emergency projects and long-standing research & development work.

We wanted to say hello, send our holiday wishes, and give you a few updates on what we have been working on. Hope you had a great 2021, and that 2022 will be even better.

Our big themes — much like in past years — are

  1. Eviction prevention and, more broadly, access to justice innovation,
  2. Imagining new and more accessible Virtual Legal Systems, and
  3. Making a Better Legal Internet that can connect people to good legal help.

We’d like to share some of our work in 2021 on these themes!

Eviction Prevention policy lab classes

We have taught two rounds of our Policy Lab Justice by Design: Eviction, with the NAACP as our partner. Our team has worked with the NAACP on the service design, outreach, tech strategies, and court roundtables, for their innovative new Community Navigator and eviction diversion programs in South Carolina.

Eviction Prevention multi-city cohort

The Lab partnered with the National League of Cities to create a cross-USA cohort of city leaders who wanted to develop, pilot, and evaluate new models to prevent evictions in their jurisdiction. This work was motivated by recent research on the role of evictions in exacerbating families’ financial, health, educational, and security problems. Many cities were interested in trying new technologies, eviction diversion programs, mediation services, right to counsel in housing court, collaborative court arrangements, and data-driven outreach in order to get more resources and knowledge to people at risk of eviction.

The Lab and NLC recruited 5 cities, Richmond, Norfolk, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Grand Rapids, as part of the first cohort. We organized one in-person kickoff meeting in March 2020. Then all subsequent sessions were virtual. We ran learning sessions, gave technical assistance with program design and evaluation tools, connected cities with peer cities that had already rolled out similar programs, and facilitated city teams in the design and roll-out of new programs.

You can read our report on our initial 5-city Eviction Prevention cohort. At this website, you can also find more details on our work, and the outcomes that have resulted in each of the cities.

Based on the first pilot version with 5 cities, the Lab and NLC have now expanded to a 30-city cohort. Our new Eviction Prevention Learning Lab is an 18-month program that again coordinates cities committed to housing justice and eviction prevention, with best practices, technical assistance, and peer learning.

More about our expanded program is here: We are now working with many cities on effective implementation of rent relief programs, developing eviction diversion programs, and establishing court and government data collectives.

Eviction Innovations website

With the support of the Hewlett Foundation, our team has built a central website to gather best practices and case studies of eviction prevention services, technologies, and policies. We have used this website in our cohort and also shared it widely with policy-makers and service-providers as they develop new anti-eviction plans of action:

This website has had thousands of visitors, to learn about how to establish eviction diversion programs, court mediation, housing navigators, data collectives, record masking, and other key strategies to improve people’s outcomes when faced with an eviction.

Legal Help FAQ website on Emergency Eviction laws

Back in the middle of 2020, we launched a new website with the support of the Pew Charitable Trusts, Legal FAQ: It has state-by-state legal information for what renters have during the pandemic, including eviction moratoria, rent relief, utility bill relief, and other special protections. It also has state-by-state resource links to legal, financial, and other social service help. Our team drafted all of the content for the site, and then assembled a network of legal aid lawyers across the country to check and improve our content.

We have approximately 800–1000 visitors per day, with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and 211 (among other providers) referring many users to us. This site connects people with local, actionable, plain language help if they are behind on rent or facing an eviction lawsuit.

Better Design of Court Documents

We launched our study with Cincinnati courts on a new court summons design. Could we get more tenants to come to their eviction hearing if the court summons was clearer, more action-oriented, and with stronger referrals to self-help and legal aid? We are gathering the data now.

We’re also working with several jurisdictions in Montana to develop their new summons design, to run a similar study to see whether we can reduce tenants’ default rate, and increase participation in the justice system.

Text Message reminder and hotline systems

We’ve also been building texting tools to help legal aid and tenant advocacy groups get services to tenants in need. Our Wise Messenger tool (developed by Metin Eskili) allows us to work with a court or legal aid group to set up automated text message channels to communicate with clients or litigants.

This includes developing a tenant’s rights hotline with the nonprofit group Tenants Together, signup for housing navigators, online legal aid intake with Legal Aid Society of San Bernardino and Legal Services of Northern Virginia, and court reminders. We are studying if we can improve people’s uptake of legal help resources and attendance of court hearings through text message channels.

Policy Leadership

In addition to our design and tech work, we have also been focused on policy by design to prevent evictions. Margaret has become the interim director of the ABA Task Force on Evictions, Housing Stability, and Equity. This diverse group of people from across the country is setting an agenda of legal reforms for eviction laws. We are also working on data standards, shared resources, and a shortlist of due process reforms to be made. Several student research assistants including KC Shah and Roda Nour have been working on the Task Force as well.

Our team has been presenting and facilitating workshops on the national stage on topics like eviction prevention & housing stability policy. This has included working with the White House, HUD, Department of Treasury, and other groups who are developing new strategies to mitigate the harms of eviction.

Nora has been leading the Virtual Legal Systems track! This has included classes, repositories, and new pilots of how online, hybrid, and ‘new normal’ courts may be after the many lessons learned during the early days of Covid.

New Spaces of Justice classes: She worked with the path-breaking designer Virgil Abloh and architect Oana Stanescu to create & launch two classes on this topic at MIT and the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

These classes, Blueprints of Justice and New Spaces of Justice, included partnerships with Massachusetts and Utah court systems to understand what was happening as courts quickly transitioned to online services during Covid — and what opportunities exist to make a fairer, more dignified, more accessible online space for justice.

The classes paired law, architecture, and design students on teams to learn from court experts, architects, designers, and people with lived experience to set an agenda on human-centered online spaces of justice. Student teams proposed pilots to make online hearings more understandable, to bridge the tech divide for people who don’t have their own devices, to protect the privacy of vulnerable people, and other challenges.

The first pilots from the classes are rolling out and evaluations will be shared in the new year.

The Court Observation Hub: This new website is a starting point for groups who want to do online court watching. The Lab team of Nora, Marina DeFrates, Eli Shi, and Roda Nour, built the Court Observation Hub in order to track where you can access online courts & what existing court watch programs you might volunteer with.

Better Legal Internet has continued as one of our major themes. We’re working on a few tracks: setting up better, common tech infrastructure; building new tools; and spreading best

Legal Help Online Cohort: This year, we have been very excited to kick off the Legal Help Online Cohort. With the support of the Pew Charitable Trusts, we have recruited and coordinated this national network of legal help website managers.

In the Cohort, we are developing standards, metrics & audit tools for the quality of their Content, Technology, Design, and Authority/SEO. Then we work through group meetings, technical assistance, and peer learning to help website owners improve in all 4 of these areas.

We will continue to work on this, including more dashboards, out-of-the-box tool kits, and resources in the coming years. We want to see every single jurisdiction in the US have a user-friendly, free-to-use website that can help them understand & get started with the most common legal problems.

Legal Help Infrastructure & taxonomies: When someone searches on Google, Yahoo, Reddit, or other places about a legal problem they’re having (help, I’m getting evicted — or, someone is calling me about a debt ), what do they see? Our work on internet infrastructure improvements can help more legal aid and court websites, with public interest information, to appear more prominently — and to have a higher quality technical and design experience to improve how people can use their online tools.

Our work here includes building a markup tool that lets public interest websites improve how Google finds and presents their website to the public (, and a taxonomy of codes for all legal help problems people might have (

These ‘standards’ tools help make sure that various jurisdictions are encoding their online legal help information with standard terms, codes, and markup. This makes it easier for search engines to know how to present their information to the public, and it makes it easier to refer visitors across jurisdictions.

Legal Internet Steering Committee: Our group has also assembled a working group, the Legal Internet Steering Committee, which has 30 leaders across the world to review these infrastructure projects, suggest new ones, and work on more coordination of online legal help.

Let’s go!

What does 2022 hold for us?

We will continue working on our themes — but with a conscious turn to move away from our past 2 years’ “emergency focus” and back to our pre-Covid practices of more community interviews, pop-up user testing, hands-on workshops, and policy roundtables. We have many classes coming up in early 2022, including on:

  • How do we get courts to include more people with lived experience in their policy-making, as they create new eviction diversion programs, online courts, and post-pandemic improvements?
  • How can we make computable contracts that empower consumers, so they can understand and use the insurance contracts they have to wrestle with?
  • Can courts collaborate to develop & roll out tech infrastructure, that allows more non-profit and for-profit technology groups to develop SRL-friendly innovations?

We don’t know when we’ll be able to get back to fully in-person classes, design sessions, and convenings, but we can’t wait to see you all soon when it does happen!

Thank you so much for your interest and support in the Legal Design Lab! Please stay tuned for upcoming announcements about our work! And have a wonderful holiday season.

Current Projects

Lessons from the Pandemic on Keeping People Housed in a Crisis and Beyond

Margaret Hagan, Mar 30, 2021

Notes from a multi-city eviction prevention cohort

Our Stanford Legal Design Lab has spent the past several years working to develop new solutions to address the eviction crisis. We’ve been redesigning the documents that courts send out to tenants who are being sued for eviction. We’ve built new websites to help tenants know their rights and possible defenses to use in court. We’ve helped tenant advocacy groups create text message hotlines for people facing a housing crisis.

But in the middle of 2019, when we reflected on our work aiming to prevent evictions, we were struck by one major observation: Despite momentum by city leaders around the country to develop innovative solutions to the eviction crisis, most of this work was happening in city or regional bubbles. A county in Arizona, for example, may launch a new tenant help initiative, but leaders in Buffalo, Richmond, Minneapolis, or San Francisco wouldn’t know about it. Each city group had to figure out what the landscape of possible initiatives might be to respond to their local eviction crisis and then try to build, fund, and evaluate these initiatives, all on their own.

Envisioning a cross-country

What if city leaders working on local eviction prevention were talking to each other? What if they could share their program designs, evaluation results, data strategies, funding plans, community outreach, and legislation drafting? What if initiatives piloted in one area could be replicated in others, saving resources, speeding up implementation, and achieving larger impact?

These were the driving ideas between our Lab’s initial discussions in 2019 with the National League of Cities. We had read about coordinated cohorts working on new policy initiatives like basic income programs. We thought that we might be able to build from this cohort model by working with a group like NLC that has a strong network of local leaders and aligned public interest priorities. We began to discuss how we might bring together a cohort of cities to work on eviction prevention in a coordinated way. Rather than focusing only on developing individual interventions in single locations, we wanted to see if we could drive a more scaled-up and strategic network of change-makers.

Now, at the conclusion of our first Eviction Prevention Cohort, we have seen the many policy, service, and technology innovations that have emerged in 2020. Many of these initiatives were spurred by the growing eviction crisis related to the COVID-19 emergency, but they also leveraged past years’ work by local task forces, government agencies, and civil society. (Read the full report about the cohort here.)

So, what have we learned about how evictions might be prevented? And what are the best practices to help tenants gain stable housing? In our discussions with local leaders, we’ve gleaned insights about effective eviction programs.

Our goal now is to amplify what we have learned to help cities and communities across the country improve programs that will help ensure stable housing for residents who are most at risk of eviction.

From Emergency Interventions to Permanent Programs

The pandemic catalyzed many emergency initiatives to address housing instability. Cities and communities stood up new rental assistance programs, passed temporary laws, implemented new policies, and built partnerships between providers both within and outside local governments. The emergency pushed action to address tenants’ needs so that many who otherwise would face eviction for unpaid rent were able to stay in their homes.

But how these programs will continue into 2021 is an open question. Cities and local governments do not typically have long-term resources or funding to continue offering robust rental assistance, mediation and diversion programs, or other emergency initiatives. How can communities fund and staff these and other new programs?

Securing sustainable funding is primary to ensure that cities are able to maintain the innovative interventions of the pandemic era. Along with securing sustainable funding are many lessons from these new initiatives to better serve renters, landlords, and broader communities. The Stanford-NLC 2020 Cohort surfaced key metrics that cities should aim toward:

  1. Speed of Service: How quickly do renters receive responses after they apply for rental aid or eviction diversion programs? How quickly can a rental payment be calculated and then given to the person in need?
  2. Ease of Use: How easy is it for a tenant or landlord to find a service or program, or to learn about a law or policy? Are these laws, policies, and programs easy to comprehend? And once a tenant or landlord knows of them, how easy is it to apply, hear back, and follow through?
  3. Coordination of the Local Network: Do the community organizations, legal aid providers, government agencies, and courts have coordinated systems, at least from the point of view of the citizens? Are there warm and clear hand-offs between the different organizations? Are there streamlined programs with a single point of entry, or are programs dispersed, siloed, and disconnected from each other?
  4. Ideally, 2021 will see both funding and improvements to the new range of eviction prevention programs serving communities nationwide.

The Eviction Diversion Model Ramps Up — and May Be Improved

Eviction diversion or prevention pilot programs have become more common in the past several years. With the pandemic, many more regions launched eviction diversion programs of their own — and quickly. The eviction diversion model generally follows the following pathway:

  1. When a landlord files an eviction lawsuit against a tenant, either party can sign up to participate in an eviction diversion program (and the other must agree).
  2. The court or legal services agency hosts the program. Once the parties agree to participate, then they process their application to confirm they’re eligible.
  3. The diversion program staff helps the landlord and tenant through a mediation session to agree on a payment plan and possible other terms in a settlement agreement that will let the tenant stay in the home.
  4. The diversion program connects the tenant to other social services that might help them with their financial, employment, schooling, health, and housing situations.
  5. The landlord receives funds from the program to compensate for some or all of the unpaid rent.
  6. The court case is dropped, meaning that there is no official eviction judgment against the tenant in the court records. This prevention of a judgment may benefit the tenant down the road in credit reports, tenant screening, and other risk assessments.
  7. The tenant is allowed to stay in the home as long as the terms of the payment plan and agreement are met.
  8. Ideally, the tenant’s financial situation improves and they are able to continue living in the home, the landlord maintains the property, and the relationship follows the rules set out in the lease. Alternatively, the tenant is given more time to make plans to move to a new, more affordable home.

Cities across the country are beginning these programs in order to prevent eviction judgments, keep people in their homes, and repair tenant-landlord relationships. Some discussions from our cohort also point to ways that this basic model can be improved, made more effective, see greater participation, and achieve better outcomes, including:

  • Earlier Intervention. Diversion programs may produce better outcomes if they are available before landlords file lawsuits in court. What if tenants and landlords were eligible for the mediation, rental assistance, and other services at the point when their problems begin to escalate? If the diversion program is available to them around the time of the ‘warning notice’ (sometimes called Notice to Pay or Quit), then they could receive services before a lawsuit is filed. This would save landlords the costs of filing and hiring a lawyer. It would free up court dockets. And it would protect tenants from having a court action against them that may impact their future housing opportunities.
  • Navigators for the unrepresented parties. Even with a diversion program in place, tenants and landlords without lawyers may have trouble navigating the program, the court process, and the other available services. Having ‘legal navigators’ can help tenants and landlords stay on track during the process and give them a sense of control and empowerment so that they may take full advantage of the services offered.
  • Court rule changes to accompany new services. States like Michigan not only implemented eviction diversion programs but also worked with courts to change the procedural rules to encourage more mediation between landlords and tenants. By requiring the parties to explore possible settlements before going to an eviction trial, the court can encourage and oversee more mutually beneficial, out-of-court settlements that can prevent eviction judgments against tenants and help landlords receive compensation.
  • Community outreach — especially to landlords. How can we make more tenants and landlords aware of eviction diversion programs? Ideally, people would be aware of the program before their lawsuit, or early in the process. They’d know how it works, whether they’re eligible for it, and how it might benefit them. Right now, many programs use fliers to advertise. How can communities enhance their outreach efforts through online sources, in community hubs, and through trusted networks?
  • Outreach to landlords and property managers is particularly important. This is the case for eviction diversion programs, as well as for other initiatives such as landlord academies (like Rent Ready Norfolk) and rental assistance programs. These programs rely on landlord participation and agreement. If there is not effective outreach to explain existing supports and the importance of preventing evictions, programs may underperform because landlords — like tenants — are not fully informed and do not buy-in.
A constant question that emerged in our design work: reaching out to and gaining the trust of landlords


Cities and public interest organizations may deploy a wide range of initiatives to help prevent evictions. We are cataloging profiles of such initiatives on the Eviction Innovations site. We have also documented many details in a recent paper, Approaches to Eviction Prevention (July 2020), which describes new policies, technologies, and services that might improve outcomes.

Now there is a need for ongoing implementation and evaluation of these new initiatives. The emergency period drove many new policy and service innovations. It also meant that resources were diverted away from larger movements toward Right to Counsel or systemic reform of the eviction system. In 2021, even as some of the eviction protections expire, there is increasing awareness of the importance of housing stability — and how interlinked it is with public health and children’s ability to thrive.

2021 should be a year of maintaining momentum in programs that reduce the number of people facing eviction lawsuits; it should be a year of increasing the financial and legal assistance available to resolve landlord-tenant problems; and it should be a year to identify systemic reforms to keep people in affordable, stable housing. The emergency of 2020 has shown how quickly new protections and services can be stood up. Now we need to do more research to refine and improve approaches to building more meaningful and long-term solutions to America’s housing crisis.

Read the Eviction Prevention Cohort Report

Learn more about the 2020 Eviction Prevention Cohort and explore key findings from the report, The Eviction Prevention Cohort: Highlights from the Five-City Pilot.

This article was originally published on the National League of Cities blog at

Current Projects

How do we assess whether a pilot increases Access to Justice?

Rachel Wang, Oct 12, 2021

A spotlight on Hugh McDonald’s law review piece “Assessing A2J”

Hugh McDonald published Assessing Access to Justice: How Much ‘Legal’ Do People Need and How Can We Know? in the UC Irvine Law Review earlier this year.The article helps us operationalize two terms that we use in legal design & policymaking: access to justice and legal capability.

It’s a useful read for those working on legal design, tech, and research efforts to make the justice system more equitable and human-centered. I have summarized some of the key points here — and encourage you to read the whole article.

If we can improve legal capability, then we can increase access to justice. Drawing by Margaret Hagan

‘Access to Justice’ is the goal of much of our work in legal reform and design. In practice, access to justice would exist if a person is able to use the legal system to resolve their problems around family, home, work, housing, money, and personal security.

There would be ‘access to justice’ if a person knows the legal system exists, if they’re able to understand how to use it, and they’re able to use it without high burdens, costs, or other barriers. It would be procedurally just (transparent, straightforward, and respectful) and substantively just (producing a fair outcome for the problem or dispute).

Most of our work focuses on increasing access to justice — and dealing with all the barriers to it. Why aren’t people able to use the legal system to solve their problems? And how do we make it easier to know about it and use it?

This is where the notion of Legal Capability is so key to Access to Justice efforts.

McDonald defines the term ‘Legal Capability’ as the personal characteristics or competencies required to effectively and purposefully function in the legal sphere, including purposeful use of law and legal institutions. It encapsulates the ability to perceive potentially justiciable issues, access or obtain appropriate legal information and assistance, apply the law to their circumstances, assess available options, and take appropriate steps to assert and defend rights.

What does Legal Capability look like?

Following this, Pleasence, Balmer, and others have established a way to operationalize legal capability along a few ability markers. If someone has Legal Capability, then they should be able to perform these actions:

  1. Issue-Spotting: the ability to ‘perceive and characterize’ the legal,
  2. Help-Seeking: the ability to ‘seek and obtain appropriate help or assistance,’ and
  3. Help-Using: the ability to apply and use help or assistance.

What makes a person have Legal Capability?

To actually accomplish these legal capability tasks, McDonald goes through the literature to find the concrete factors that go into whether a person can or cannot do them. These Legal Capability factors include:

  • Knowledge, about the law, rights, obligations, assistance, information, and processes,
  • Skills, like around recognition of issues, “information literacy,” “communication,” decision-making, problem-solving, and “digital literacy”,
  • Behavioral attributes, including “self-awareness,” “persistence,” “confidence,” and “attitudes”, and
  • Resources, including money, time, social capital, availability of services, and simple processes.

Researchers can be measuring legal capability as a part of measuring access to justice. This could be before & after a new intervention. Does your policy, tech, or design increase people’s legal capability? Does it make them more knowledgeable, skillful, confident, or resourceful?

What are the data sources we can use to define the state of Access to Justice?

In the article, McDonald highlights 3 main sources of empirical information to assess whether access to justice exists in a jurisdiction, and to what degree.

These 3 are legal needs surveys, administrative and operational justice system data, and evaluative studies.

Legal needs surveys evaluate the public understanding of law and legal needs, while investigating knowledge, attitudes, experiences, and handling of justiciable problems from the bottom-up perspective of those who face them, rather than from the top-down perspective of justice system professionals and institutions.

Administrative and Operational justice system data encompass the wide range of information about justice institutions, operations, and users. For example, legal matter type, party type, level of legal assistance, legal representation status, number of pending matters, filing fees received and waived, staffing, use of interpreters, matter duration, case backlogs, adjournments, mediations, finalizations, file integrity, disposal method and stage, matter outcome, final orders, and expenditure are some measures that may be available from justice system administrative and operational data.

Lastly, evaluative studies examine what ‘works,’ of course keeping in mind that defining desired outcomes is an inherently political task and that views as to ‘success’ are likely to be contested.

In all three of these empirical sources, McDonald highlights that research can look at outcomes recorded in these data sources, across several domains. These can help us get a better profile of whether legal capability and access to justice exist:

  • Outcomes for the client (e.g., impact on clients’ legal matters, impact on broader client outcomes, impact on client experiences, etc.)
  • Outcomes for the program (e.g., impact on service appropriateness, etc.)
  • Organizational outcomes (e.g., impact on sustainability and cost, etc.)
  • Outcomes for systems (e.g., impact on justice system operations, effectiveness, and efficiency etc.).
  • We need to be tracking down what’s happening in these four different outcome areas, using a creative mix of data. Even if Legal Needs Surveys are the most established source, we as a research community can dive into the other two.

A2J Research and Design needs

McDonald calls out a short list of things that we can be working on, in the access to justice community. This includes things for researchers, practitioners, designers, and technologists.

  • Measurement of new interventions’ impact: More effective measures of the impact of advice and the cost/benefit of services
  • Defining ‘what works’: More evaluative information to identify ‘what works’ in respect of policy responses in the field of civil justice and how legal need can better be addressed through policy interventions
  • How people actually deal with legal/life problems: More specific information relating to the problem-solving behavior of individuals
  • New designs to communicate complex legal info: Understanding of how information can be effectively communicated to those with civil justice problems
  • New designs to brand/communicate legal help: Effective ways to communicate “the value of seeking legal help”
  • Different designs for different audience demographics: Data on what options to address access to justice needs are acceptable for different client groups

What can A2J Researchers be working on?

Given this, McDonald suggests options worth further research and development:

  • Development of legal capability indicators. Such indicators might be based on a combination of sociodemographic measures but must be able to be easily deployed in operational and frontline service contexts.
  • Improved ability to capture legal matter and user complexity. This metric is particularly important for gauging the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of different legal assistance service models.
  • Additional demographic measures of justice institution users. More information about what types of people do, and do not, make use of formal dispute resolution processes is needed to routinely monitor and gauge their use.
  • Follow-up methods and measures to gauge user experience and outcomes. In many other sectors it is now common to routinely follow-up on service provision to find out about users’ experiences and outcomes. Routine following of unbundled legal assistance service could help determine, for example, if the service met user needs, was helpful, and why or why not. This action would be one way to learn more about user experience and outcomes and could also potentially improve data concerning factors affecting user ability to make effective use of unbundled legal assistance services. Concern about burdens of additional data collection could be mitigated by randomly following up with a small proportion of users. The cost of not doing so includes the provision of unbundled legal assistance that, at best, risks potentially providing services that are inappropriate and ill-matched to user legal need and capability, and thus potentially waste scarce resources, and at worst, undermine access to justice, confidence in the justice system, and rule of law.

Surveys and Scales to use in A2J research

McDonald offers several existing surveys and scales from which to draw inspiration for future instruments:

Current Projects

An Equity Lens on Eviction Prevention

Housing Justice Work that gets to structural inequalities

The Stanford Legal Design Lab has been collaborating with the National League of Cities to run a 30-city cohort, the Eviction Prevention Learning Lab. We run regular meetings, technical assistance sprints, and peer-learning to spread best practices on eviction prevention. And every quarter we have a big meeting on an issue that many city leaders and communities are reckoning with.

This month our focus has been on Racial Equity & Eviction Prevention. We had a meeting with a series of speakers from across the US, and across perspectives (tenants, landlords, lawyers, policy-makers, and more) to talk about how racial justice intersects with housing justice.

You can read more about the demographics of eviction from this report from the Eviction Lab. (The page also has a look-up tool at Figure 1, in which you can type in a county to see its local demographics of eviction rates). You can also read this Harvard report on the State of the Nation’s Housing for more stats, graphs, and explanations of what’s going on.

Here are my sketched notes about some of the conversations that emerged.

Point 1: We need to reframe discussions about evictions away from one-off personal problems, to long-standing structural inequities.

This means collecting more demographic data on who is being evicted. Many cities are mapping out zip codes, racial groups, gender groups, and other identifiers to see who is most likely to be rent-burdened or face eviction. See:

Point 2: We need to build local eviction prevention & housing justice ecosystems.

This ecosystem was drawn based on Buffalo’s network of providers, community members, policy-makers, and others. To get to upstream solutions and downstream services, it takes many different kinds of people. People on the ground holding community conversations & taking direct action. People in the government agencies who are collecting data, organizing inspections, rethinking rules and processes. People in service agencies who can provide community outreach, meaningful services, and holistic support.

This kind of ecosystem is needed to deal with the direct crises around a potential eviction, and then also plan for big changes to the system of laws, processes, and informal policies that lead to inequities in housing.

Point 3: Getting to Housing Justice & Equity will be a lengthy process. It can be healthier and more likely to succeed if the right people are at the table.

This means getting more landlords involved in eviction prevention discussions.

And having more people with lived experiences as tenants, property managers, landlords, and community residents taking part in the policy-making.

We also need to create more neutral, honest spaces to solve the brewing crises between individual landlords & tenants when someone is behind on rent or facing eviction. We need to design mediation programs that can solve people’s problems early, and keep things from escalating into court cases and forcible removals.

Do you have experience working on community-driven housing justice? Or in using data to make better eviction prevention policies, that get resources to the people and communities that need it most?