"SINCE COVID-19 MANY AMERICANS FELL BEHIND IN ALL ASPECTS," reads the website copy. The button below this statement is not for a GoFundMe, or a petition for calling for rent relief. Instead, it is the following call to action, from a company called Civvl: "Be hired as eviction crew."
During a time of great economic and general hardship, Civvl aims to be, essentially, Uber, but for evicting people. Seizing on a pandemic-driven nosedive in employment and huge uptick in number-of-people-who-can't-pay-their-rent, Civvl aims to make it easy for landlords to hire process servers and eviction agents as gig workers.
Helena Duncan, a Chicago-based paralegal who also participates in housing activism, saw a Craigslist post from Civvl while searching for jobs. The ad alarmed her.
"It's fucked up that there will be struggling working-class people who will be drawn to gigs like furniture-hauling or process-serving for a company like Civvl, evicting fellow working-class people from their homes so they themselves can make rent," she told Motherboard.
"Unemployment is at a record high and many cannot or simply are not paying rent and mortgages," the ads state. "We are being contracted by frustrated property owners and banks to secure foreclosed residential properties."
Civvl aims to marry the gig economy with the devastation of a pandemic, complete with signature gig startup language like "be your own boss," and "flexible hours," and "looking for self-motivated individuals with positive attitudes:" "FASTEST GROWING MONEY MAKING GIG DUE TO COVID-19," its website says. "Literally thousands of process servers are needed in the coming months due courts being backed up in judgements that needs to be served to defendants."
The website also featured a quote, attributed to The New York Times: "Too many people stopped paying rent and mortgages thinking they would not be evicted." A search reveals this phrase hasn't appeared in the Times. The company did not respond to requests for comment or a source for this quote, but the mention of the Times has since disappeared from its website.
The company, at first glance, appears to be some kind of _Nathan For You-_esque prank: siccing precarious gig jobs onto vulnerable people. But Civvl is connected to a larger—and real—gig economy company called OnQall, which describes itself as an app that provides "on-demand task services to non-urban communities beyond main city areas." OnQall is the developer behind other, more believable TaskRabbit-esque apps, like LawnFixr, CleanQwik, and MoveQwik. Given the fact that Civvl is advertising all over the country and that OnQall, though not popular, does exist, it seems as though Civvl actually is an attempt to simplify the process of evicting people who cannot pay their rent during a pandemic.
To put the business of OnQall more simply, Ice-T said in an apparent Cameo video, "It's basically Uber, for side hustle jobs. You dig it?" Ice-T's representative did not respond to a request for comment. Another vertically-shot selfie video from Omarosa Manigault Newman, offers generic words of congratulations to OnQall's CEO, Paul Francis, on his app.
"Mrs Newman is NOT associated with Civvl," A spokesperson for Omarosa told VICE. "That video is certainly a cameo and should be credited as such."
The Civvl app lacks the high-profile Cameos from Ice-T or Omarosa. In negative reviews in the Google Play and App Store, users complain about a hidden $35 enrollment fee to access the platform, and a lack of work once signed up.
At the time of writing, Civvl and OnQall did not return requests for comment, but did appear to block the author's IP address from visiting OnQall.com.
There is a federal ban on evictions, declared by the CDC, but landlords are still attempting to press on. There is a penalty for violating the ban, which can include a combination of fines and jail time. Civvl did not respond to a question about how the company ensures evictions are legal, though based on the Terms of Service, it appears to pass all risk onto the companies using its platform, stating that it simply "provides lead generation to independent contractors," and does not actually carry out the work itself.
A recent CNN report showed the heartbreaking reality of working in evictions. Francisco Muñez, a mover for a landlord in Houston, cries as he empties an elderly woman's apartment. "Maybe today it's her. Tomorrow it's me," he told the reporter.
The Metropolitan Tenants Organization in Chicago operates a hotline to support tenants dealing with difficulty in paying rent, as well as landlords illegally locking them out of their apartments.
"We've seen more than double the amount of calls to our hotline since the beginning of March, than we did during the same time period last year," Philip DeVon, an eviction prevention specialist at MTO, told VICE. They've received over four hundred calls regarding illegal lockouts alone.
"It's very dishonest," DeVon said of Civvl. "It's like, 'Oh, don't call us a hitman. We don't pull the trigger! We just connect you with someone who's willing to.'"
Even though there is a moratorium from the CDC on evictions, DeVon said, tenants may not be aware they need to sign a declaration form to prevent this. There are many ways, he explained, that landlords will use legalese or a lack of information to take advantage of tenants. In general, he recommends documenting all interactions with the landlord, and if they did not occur on email or text message, to write them down, and then send them to the landlord to confirm that's what happened.
"One thing we know just from experience, especially with housing: just because something is technically legal, doesn't by any stretch mean that it's right, ethically speaking," DeVon said. "With this particular company, it sounds like they're doing what landlords often do, which is prey upon a lack of knowledge and information about people's rights."
"Legal court evictions are on hold," Javier Ruiz, a counselor on the Tenants' Rights hotline for MTO, told VICE. "But most of these management companies, they're not necessarily evicting people through courts. They're just evicting people through pressure. So that's why I see a company like [Civvl] would be coming in."
The Autonomous Tenants Union, another Chicago-based organization, provided a statement to VICE. The statement noted a surge since March with requests for help from renters, some who are dealing with illegal eviction threats, and others facing legal eviction due to the loopholes in both local and federal eviction bans.
"Civvl's marketing language that portrays underwater tenants and homeowners as scammers looking for an excuse to skip out on their obligations is not only factually inaccurate, but plays into a general victim-blaming PR myth perpetuated by the real estate industry to justify their exploitative business practices."
For a company like Civvl to merely exist, the ATU said, is "a frank admission that our housing system is predicated on violence."