Unlock NYC is a tech nonprofit majority-led by women who have experienced housing discrimination due to having rental assistance vouchers. Our free mobile tools help New Yorkers record phone calls and create a paper trail when landlords illegally turn them away. We connect them to government agencies and other resources so they can exercise their rights and find housing. Our data enables advocates, attorneys, and the city to understand trends, develop policies that protect tenants, and open doors for more New Yorkers.
Read our 2022 Annual Impact Report to learn about our programs!
We’re a small and dedicated team that deeply believes in every human’s right to housing and in recognizing the long histories of race, class, and gender-based oppression that have created the housing crisis we face today. We operate through consensus and have a deep commitment to horizontal, distributed decision-making. Collectively, we hold experiences in participatory design, software engineering, political and tenant organizing, and direct experiences of housing discrimination and navigating the housing voucher system.
Founding Leadership Collective Member
Elizabeth Byrd is a mother of six and a founding member of Unlock's NYC Leadership Collective. Her experience as a housing voucher holder spans over 17 years. She has a passion for housing equity, having experienced housing insecurity alongside her children. As a result, she is now advocating for the rights of other mothers and children. Through her work with voucher holders and the organizations that support them, she is dedicated to building relationships in the community. As part of her most recent work, Elizabeth worked with the administration of Mayor Eric Adams. By invitation of the administration, New Yorkers with lived experience participated in roundtable discussions on housing. Tenants were encouraged to share their stories and provide input during the development of the housing blueprint titled, "Housing Our Neighbors: A Blueprint for Housing and Homelessness." In her spare time, she enjoys swimming, dancing, traveling, event planning, photography, watching movies, and listening to music.
Design Research Intern
Kamilah Newton is currently a mother of two, voucher holder & full-time student in Hunter College interning with Unlock NYC to complete fieldwork qualifications for her bachelors degree in Africana Studies. She’s also an activist and former writer for Yahoo Lifestyle. Her background is in advocacy and social justice reform. She has been featured on MAKERS, CNN, Career Contessa, Miss Grass and Hello Beautiful among other publications. She participated in an Al Jazeera VR piece called “Still Here,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and went on to win numerous awards.
Founding Leadership Collective Member
Velvet Johnson Ross is a dedicated activist, a well-established performer, a women's historian and a founding member of Unlock's NYC Leadership Collective. In addition to her work with Unlock, she is on the steering committee for Housing Justice for All and a member leader at Neighbors Together. Velvet became homeless after she was illegally evicted by her landlord who refused to remediate toxic black mold and several vermin infestations in her rent stabilized apartment. This wreaked havoc on her health and led to severe health complications that still resonate today. That’s why she’s fighting to stem the tide of the homelessnesses and evictions; to make sure no one else goes through what she went through. Dedicated to serving as a bridge between Unlock NYC and other partner organizations that share our mission, Velvet is an integral part of our community. In her capacity as an advocate for single women facing housing insecurity, she facilitates the connection between women and the organizations that can provide assistance. Among her favorite pastimes are enjoying fine wines, a night out on the town, dancing, lectures and book club meetings.
Head of Product
Ashley Eberhart is a product designer and researcher who uses participatory processes to ensure that community members are central decision-makers in what challenges we address with technology, and how. As the Head of Product, Ashley works with Unlock’s team and community to design digital tools that give tenants more voice, agency, and clarity when facing housing discrimination. She also brings a decade of experience in nonprofit strategy, project management, and impact evaluation to the team, through her work as social entrepreneur and as a former strategy consultant advising major foundations, nonprofits, and academic institutions.
Head of Communications
Proud mother of three, Jessica Valencia is a Brooklyn born and bred mom. As Head of Communications at Unlock NYC, she cultivates relationships with voucher holders via online communities to inform them about their housing rights and the digital tools Unlock NYC offers. As part of her work, she collaborates with organizations and advocates that are committed to combating source of income discrimination. Her passions include implementing successful social media campaigns, leading demos and Hair Housing workshops, and facilitating the Leadership Collective, Unlock NYC's governing board. She originally discovered Unlock NYC when she found herself facing source of income discrimination while looking for a home for her family. She has made it her lifelong passion to ensure that New Yorkers have access to affordable and safe housing as a result of her housing journey. Among her goals, she is dedicated to scaling Unlock NYC's digital tools in an effort to ensure that New York City is an equitable place to live for all. The things she enjoys most in life include coffee, long walks by the ocean, messy paint sessions with her children, trying out new Thai restaurants in her neighborhood, and creating mood boards on Canva.
Head of Outreach
Leslie was born and raised in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn and currently resides in Staten Island with her children. Leslie is a certified life coach and a self-published author, but she’s most passionate about New York and quality living. Leslie feels that housing is a natural right and should be equal and fulfilling, and wants to strive to make certain that the quality of life is a wonderful experience for all. To the Unlock NYC team, Leslie brings her vast knowledge of how vouchers work, her wide network of resources, and her compassion for those around her to both provide a listening ear and to connect Unlock NYC's community to resources that can help address the challenges they're facing.
Madeline Blount works as a technologist, researcher, and artist. She has worked as a software engineer, coding and designing immersive websites, chatbots, and communications systems; conducted ethnographic fieldwork on border systems and migration; served as an organizer on political campaigns and movements; and has performed and presented work at festivals, hackathons, theatres, and classrooms around the world.
Head of Data & Advocacy
Manon Vergerio is an organizer and a critical urbanist whose work centers on developing research and multimedia tools that put power into the hands of communities most impacted by urban injustice. She brings 7+ years of experience researching and organizing around housing issues in New York, San Francisco, and Paris to the team, including co-founding the NYC chapter of the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, a data visualization and storytelling collective documenting the eviction crisis.
At Unlock NYC, we know New York City’s housing crisis will not be solved through a single intervention; it will take a mass, people-powered movement to win transformative change. That’s why take our cues from New Yorkers directly impacted by homelessness and from member-led organizations that mobilize for power and transformative change towards the right to housing. We support the #HomelessCantStayHome and VALUE in Housing campaigns, and look forward to continuing to build with our partners, collaborators, and allies in the future.
We couldn’t do this work without the hundreds of New Yorkers who’ve shared their stories and insights with us through interviews, surveys, participatory design sessions, and more. We’re committed to continue to co-design our tools with New Yorkers and grassroots advocates to ensure that everything we build is useful, relevant, and responds to the priorities of people most affected by housing injustice in our city.
You can see our press coverage for more about our work.
Our founding team met through Blue Ridge Labs @ Robin Hood, a social impact incubator that brings together technologists, designers, and communities to address challenges important to low-income New Yorkers. During our research, we heard stories from dozens of New Yorkers who were repeatedly and unlawfully denied access to a home, simply because they received government assistance to pay for rent. Whether they were staying in a family shelter, doubled-up with friends or relatives, or trying to leave a precarious living arrangement, they would call an apartment listing to schedule a viewing and hear the same thing again and again: “No programs,” “The landlord prefers a working professional,” or “We don’t take your type of voucher here."
These practices, officially called "source of income discrimination" and commonly known as "voucher discrimination," have been illegal in NYC since 2008, but still impact thousands of New Yorkers with housing assistance vouchers or subsidies, including CityFHEPS, FHEPS, Section 8, HASA, and more. Often hiding in plain sight, discrimination happens in a split second over the phone, and can be tough to recognize, let alone document. As a result, countless New Yorkers remain homeless or in unsafe housing situations for months, if not years, and those who discriminate routinely benefit from breaking the law.