The Craigslist ad filed under jobs in Hillsborough County started with a tantalizing offer: “Earn up to $125/hr. Sign up here and start working in less than a week.”
The ad’s author, a new app company called Civvl, states “there is plenty of work due to the dismal economy” and brands itself as the gig economy solution to a problem that’s top-of-mind in the coronavirus age: evictions.
“We are seeking: clean out crews, eviction crews, independent contractors, process servers,” the ad read. “Choose your own days to work.”
The ads, which were reported across the country by national news outlets, sparked outrage, with critics accusing Civvl of blatantly circling over a stressed rental market, waiting to profit off the predicted upcoming wave of evictions. The Hillsborough County ad was recently “deleted by its author,” according to the error message on the page. Ads in other cities have been similarly removed.
“Civvl exposes what has long been a violent and inhumane eviction process stacked against working-class people struggling to make ends meet,” said Alana Greer, director of the Community Justice Project, a Miami group that provides legal services for low-income clients and is also part of a larger advocacy group called the Florida Housing Justice Alliance. “Profiting off of evictions, many of which are illegal, is disgraceful.”
Civvl was created roughly five months ago, according to a company representative, who did not respond to a follow-up email asking where it’s based. In its terms of service, the company lists a Nevada address. But a LinkedIn page for the version of the app for Civvl’s workers, called Civvl Agent, lists its location as San Francisco. The domain for Civvl’s website is registered in Kentucky.
In Florida, it has raised eyebrows from housing lawyers who point out that eviction is a complex legal process that must go through the courts, and sheriff’s deputies are the only ones authorized to carry out an eviction once a case has been completed. Additionally, process servers — the people who deliver summonses for eviction cases and other court documents — must be certified and appointed by a judge or sheriff.
There’s also a national eviction moratorium in place from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, though that only applies to tenants if they submit a declaration form to their landlord swearing that they meet certain qualifications.
“The only way the landlord can legally move that tenant out is through the court, so if they are using any other actions to force someone to move out ... that’s an unlawful eviction in the state of Florida,” said Natalie Maxwell, director of advocacy and litigation at Three Rivers Legal Services, which offers free representation to low-income residents in North Florida.
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In an email, a person who identified themselves as a partner at Civvl said the company will not carry out evictions outside the court process.
“The only authorized individuals to serve evictions is sheriffs, which we accompany, then after a successful eviction (by the sheriff) that is when we go in and start the property preservation,” wrote Miki Nakajima. “This mumbo jumbo that we are forcefully evicting people is from peoples (sic) worst imagination.”
When it comes to process servers, Nakajima said anyone who applies to be a process server through the app “should already be a valid server” or they “may simply be a person that would place notices on the properties.”
Some eviction documents, like the initial warning from a landlord that the tenant has a few days to pay before they file for eviction, do not have to be delivered by certified process servers.
Delivering official court documents is an essential part of the eviction process that, if done improperly, can derail an entire case.
In an ambiguous warning, Nakajima seemed to say that the evictions were not Civvl’s fault.
“We would not exist if it weren’t for the people behind the iron curtain. We are just a pawn in the master plan….by YOUR leaders….look deeper.” Nakajima did not respond to a follow-up email seeking clarification.
St. Petersburg real estate lawyer Matt Weidner said if the app is used only within the legal boundaries, it could be a valid solution for out-of-state property owners looking to evict faraway tenants. But it doesn’t seem to be well-equipped to ensure each step of the eviction process happens legally, he said.
The company also gave him flashbacks to Craigslist ads posted by banks involving homes in foreclosure during the Great Recession.
“They would post on Craigslist: ‘We need an ‘inspection’ on 101 Main Street’ and some guy in the pickup truck would go over and do an ‘inspection,’” he said. “They’d break in and steal everything and kick people out.”
The result was several lawsuits, in which Weidner represented homeowners.
If workers on the app were to behave in ways that violated the law, at least when it comes to delivering court documents, Civvl’s terms of service appear to pass liability on to the landlords and workers using the app, according to two lawyers who reviewed the terms. The terms do not directly address liability for workers clearing out apartments.
However, about a dozen would-be workers said that they had trouble finding jobs through the app.
In reviews in the App Store, people who have tried to use Civvl to find work complained that the company charges a surprise $35 fee to sign up as the very last step of submitting their information. Several reviewers said even once they paid, there were none of the promised lucrative gigs.
“No instructions on how to get jobs. App is faulty and hardly works. This is nothing like Uber and might be a scam,” one review reads.
“No actual jobs and I can’t get my fees back," another said.
“They will take your money. This is a scam,” wrote a third.
Nakajima defended the fee, saying it’s similar to other lead-generating services, but did not respond to a follow-up email asking about these reviews.
The terms of service also say that the company will get 30 percent of the total payment to workers using the app.
As of this week, the sheriffs' offices in Hillsborough and Pinellas said they haven’t received any complaints from users of Civvl about being scammed. But Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri took a quick look at Civvl’s website and found that many of its links to sign up for jobs weren’t working, and said the company seemed “suspicious.”
“There’s nothing on here that makes any sense to me," he said. “The only thing on it that seems like it could possibly have any air of legitimacy is getting workers to help landlords to clean (apartments) up. But the other stuff, as far as process serving, they can’t authorize people to serve process.”
The Florida Attorney General’s Office similarly said it hadn’t received any complaints about Civvl as of Wednesday. But Whitney Ray, a spokesman for the office, said that in general, any online offer requiring consumers to prepay for employment help “should clearly and conspicuously disclose the costs and material terms of the purchase.”
Additionally, red flags can include vague job descriptions that don’t list any qualifications, jobs whose pay and benefits “seem too good to be true for the position” and those that are contingent upon applicants paying for access or training, Ray said in an email.
App store reviews indicate at least a few landlords have tried using the app. One wrote that workers never showed up, but they were charged for their services anyway and haven’t been refunded.
Another successfully hired people to clean out a unit, though the landlord said the workers were “unprofessional and damaged the door way (sic)” and when the landlord tried to get reimbursed, the automated help line hung up. “I am never using this service again,” the reviewer wrote.
Nakajima declined to say how many property owners or workers have signed up to use the app. But housing lawyers said they don’t have reason to believe it’s being widely used.
Civvl doesn’t plan to stay small, however.
“We are building a database of ready-to-go contractors for the upcoming work when the moratorium ends in the next couple of months because there WILL be a tsunami of evictions and we plan to be the go-to service when that happens,” Nakajima wrote. “Just wait. It may be all the work anyone can find come 2021.”
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