For millions of Americans, the coronavirus’s devastating economic impact has meant struggling to keep a roof over their head. But for one new “gig economy” app, the historic crash means something else: a business opportunity.
The company behind the app, which is called Civvl, offers workers a chance to “join the eviction crew,” noting that many people are falling behind on their rent or mortgage. Users can also work as a process server, a job that involves serving a variety of legal papers to people.
“Work on your own schedule,” Civvl says on its website, where users can apply for gigs in “property preservation” and “debris removal.”
In dozens of Craisglist ads posted in August and September, Civvl advertises earnings of “up to $125 an hour” or $2,800 a week. “Unemployment is at a record high and many cannot or simply are not paying rent and mortgages,” reads a typical ad.
Ads for Civvl appear on Craigslist boards in cities including Atlanta, Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York, St. Louis and San Francisco.
“We are being contracted by frustrated property owners and banks to secure foreclosed residential properties. There is plenty of work due to the dismal economy.”
In 17 cities tracked by Princeton’s Eviction Lab, landlords have filed for 48,000 evictions since the start of the pandemic. While the number of evictions in 2020 is not up sharply over previous years, as many as 40 million renters could be vulnerable, according to a recent Aspen Institute study.
The app charges workers $35 a month to use the service on top of a 30% cut of their earnings, according to its terms of service. The terms also ask users to give up their rights to sue the company and agree to resolve any disputes in arbitration — requirements that typically raise concerns among labor experts.
Workers hired through Civvl are classified as independent contractors and are required to have their own car and liability insurance, among other things.
A spokesman for the company emphasized that Civvl is not actually carrying out evictions, but rather connecting independent junk haulers or contractors with opportunities to clear out property.
“It’s basically like a job center,” the spokesman said. “This is no different than you going on Monster.com.”
He added of Civvl agents, “They’re not evicting anyone — they’re just the help.”
Reviews for Civvl are mixed. On Google Play and in the Apple App Store, several people accused it of being a scam that collects people’s information but doesn’t provide job leads in exchange for its monthly fee. After Vice first reported about Civvl on Monday, the Google Play store was flooded with one-star reviews by people accusing the app of human rights violations.
Civvl “Pits struggling people working for the app, against struggling people who are being evicted. Housing is a human right whether or not the US government recognizes it,” one user wrote. “Attempting to profit off of human suffering is pure evil, especially during a global pandemic,” wrote another.
The company behind Civvl is OnQall, a gig-economy app that lets people post listings for jobs like house painting, car maintenance, yard work or photography.
The startup’s spokesman declined to say how many users Civvl has, where the company is based, or the typical earnings of its contractors. He claimed the app was used by “a lot of banks,” attorneys and physicians.
“We can’t believe people are making a big stink about this,” the spokesman said, noting that the company records all its calls.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has ordered a halt on some evictions through the end of the year, but it’s up to renters to find out if they meet the federal criteria and to enforce their rights. Some states and cities also have established moratoriums on evictions, although some landlords have ignored those protections and moved to evict tenants.
Housing advocates note that none of the policies designed to protect renters actually relieve their rent burden, meaning that when protections expire, renter could find themselves on the hook for several months’ worth of rent all at once, potentially with late fees tacked on. That’s precisely the situation Civvl predicts.
“This is just an issue that we didn’t cause, but we are needed,” the spokesman said. “This is something that has to be done. Listen, if someone is killed on the street, someone needs to go pick their body up.”
Video: Some Landlords Refusing To Accept Pandemic Government Rental Assistance Money (CBS Dallas)