Keeping an Eye on Landlord Tech

The landlord tech industry, while alive and well prior to COVID-19, has ramped up in the past year to develop new ways to accumulate wealth at the expense of tenants. 

image shows surveillance camera to illustrate landlord tech
Photo by Flickr user Xomiele

Most renters know too well that COVID-19 has exacerbated racialized housing injustice, despite the powerful organizing efforts of an ever-growing housing justice movement. While numerous eviction moratoriums have passed in the U.S., these protections are weak and place the burden of proof on tenants. Most have only deferred rent debt, evictions, and houselessness. Currently, 17 million Americans are not up to date on rent payments, and 33 percent face eviction or foreclosure over the next two months. Even in cities with strong protections, landlords have been harassing and evicting tenants throughout the pandemic, instilling fear in an already confusing and shifting legislative landscape. As was the case prior to the pandemic, Black tenants have been hardest hit by evictions and eviction threats

As tenants struggle to pay their rent, and housing prices drop and vacancy rates rise in high-cost cities such as San Francisco and New York City, landlords have repeatedly complained about losing revenue. And yet, the real estate industry appears to have plenty of money at its disposal as it spent almost $100 million in California to defeat a 2020 ballot initiative that would have limited unfair rent increases and preserved affordable housing. Furthermore, large landlords have also engaged in new forms of real estate speculation to capitalize upon the COVID-19 moment, such as investing in rent debt and exurban properties.

At the same time, an array of new real estate-oriented tech startups has emerged with tools to help landlords evict unruly or non-paying tenants. These technologies make up part of what the real estate industry describes as “property technology,” or “proptech,” and what we, as researchers with the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project and the AI Now Institute, in collaboration with people.power.media and the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Tenants Association, describe as “landlord technology.” The landlord tech industry, while alive and well prior to COVID-19, has ramped up in the past year to develop new ways to accumulate wealth at the expense of tenants. 

Landlord Tech

What exactly is landlord tech, or proptech? This is a difficult question to answer thoroughly, in part because the industry is very secretive, but we can identify many examples. According to the real estate industry, it emerges from a combination of traditional real estate, big tech, venture capital, smart home systems, and financial technology. Manifestations of landlord tech can include tenant screening services, app-based short-term rental platforms, biometric facial recognition, and tools for real estate speculation.

Many date proptech’s origins to the 2008 financial crisis, when the real estate industry sought to implement emerging technologies to “disrupt” industry sluggishness, and when Airbnb and the “sharing” economy emerged. That period resulted in a large-scale shift to corporate ownership of housing, as investment companies and their shell company limited liability companies (LLCs) and limited partnerships (LPs) bought everything in sight. Proptech was used to facilitate this shift, by automating property management and asset acquisition.   

We studied hundreds of companies, platforms, and their effects, and found that there are two distinct yet often overlapping categories of landlord tech being deployed: surveillance and speculation. Surveillance tech encompasses technology that is designed to give landlords more personal information about their tenants, more control over what they can do with their housing, and more automation and efficiency in landlord-tenant relationships. Surveillance tech includes technologies for tenant screening, biometric entry systems, app-based rental payments, automated eviction notices, and utility monitoring. We also include neighborhood surveillance systems into this category, from outward facing security cameras to automated license plate readers to neighborhood watch apps, all of which have been known to disproportionately target tenants and unhoused neighbors of color.

The data collected from these surveillance technologies about residents and communities also feeds into landlord speculation technologies. Speculation tech includes new predictive technologies built on tenant data used by landlords, real estate developers, and investment firms, augmenting the real estate industry’s ability to accumulate and flip properties in ways that extract value. It also includes new modes of housing financialization, membership-based housing platforms, short term and intermediary length rental infrastructure, tech-owned housing, and more—all of which diminishes tenant rights and protections. Speculation tech serves to automate housing financialization, mechanizing processes of housing being made an asset rather than a space of shelter and community.

While both speculation tech and surveillance tech are interconnected, here we will focus on our research around how newer surveillance technologies are transforming housing and neighborhoods. More examples of speculation tech and its associated harms are offered on our Landlord Tech Watch website for those interested in learning more. Also included are illustrations of both surveillance and speculation technologies and example companies.

Landlord tech companies have been around for a while. Tenant screening, for instance, emerged in the 1970s and virtual property management companies such as Yardi formed in the 1980s. Today’s contemporary landlord tech companies utilize algorithms, apps, smart home technology, and more. Contemporary landlord tech, in the words of Joseph Smooke and Dyan Ruiz of people.power.media, disrupts traditional real estate services “to make everything from buying and selling property to installing security systems to collecting rent, easier and better. But the real disruption these businesses cause is to capture, utilize, and monopolize data, using algorithms to collect and analyze all this data to their profitable advantage.”

Despite our research and that of our colleagues, it is difficult to know how widely distributed landlord tech is geographically. This is in part because of the industry’s lack of transparency, and because of a general deficit of deployment regulation. Because of this, the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project embedded a survey and map on our Landlord Tech Watch site to document landlord tech deployment and to provide political education regarding its harms. Here we outline some of what we’ve discovered about how landlord tech has been deployed to enact new forms of surveillance in the wake of COVID-19 and the uprisings for Black lives. 

Automating Evictions/Homelessness

Over the last decade, landlord tech surveillance systems such as facial recognition “digital doorman” cameras have been implemented in the name of tenant “safety,” but also lease violation detection. These systems are known to target and often misidentify tenants of color. While tenants of color, particularly Black tenants, are overrepresented in facial recognition targeting and eviction, white and wealthier tenants often see facial recognition apps as amenities. Knowing this, corporate landlords often install cameras and the related programs as part of an effort to increase the percentage of white and higher income tenants in their buildings. 

In COVID-19 times, some forms of landlord tech have been deployed as punitive measures for rental nonpayment. For instance, the tenant screening company Naborly saw COVID as an opportunity to grow a tenant database to help landlords “blacklist” tenants who had been unable to pay rent. Blasting emails to potential landlord customers, Naborly urged customers to “quickly and compliantly report both positive and negative tenant feedback to our central tenant information system” which “helps other landlords know in the future if a tenant has been delinquent in the past, while also helping Naborly continue to deliver the most accurate and up-to-date tenant screening services in the market . . . Paid or unpaid, we want to know.” 

While there is nothing new about screening and blacklisting tenants, and while various lawsuits, such as a recent one against CoreLogic have proven the screening industry’s racist tendencies, Naborly laid bare the new trend of the industry capitalizing upon COVID-19. If the previous administration’s September 2020 rule weakening the disparate impact standard stands (which is, at least, looking unlikely), it would make landlords and property management companies immune to discrimination charges resultant from predictive third-party algorithms if such algorithms were used for profit.

During this time, we have also seen rental debt collection tools gain traction. For instance, the American Apartment Owners Association (AAOA), which sells tenant screening packages, has produced webinars for landlords interested in “How COVID-19 may affect your collection practices,” “Actions you can take even if you can’t evict a tenant,” and “Strategies you can implement now to help with future nonpayment of rent.” AAOA is partnered with Rent Recovery Service, and they encourage landlords to employ subscription based debt collection tech, boasting that they’ve recovered up to $135 million in rent debt to date. These systems are not new, but rather they are being newly marketed to landlords worried about losing revenue during COVID.

Landlord tech companies are also automating eviction processes for tenants unable to pay rent. The company Civvl (another ironic name, like Naborly), for example, has created a TaskRabbit-esque gig economy platform for evicting tenants. As Civvl advertised on its website over a photo of Black men packing up boxes, “SINCE COVID-19 MANY AMERICANS FELL BEHIND IN ALL ASPECTS: BE HIRED AS EVICTION CREW.” They also suggest that “thousands of process servers are needed in the coming months” to serve notices to defendants “due [to] courts being backed up in judgments.” In response to push back from tenants and housing organizers, Civvl claimed that it is landlords, not Civvl, who “pull the trigger.” Their technology merely facilitates displacement.

Meanwhile, SueYa emerged in Los Angeles in 2016, founded by “Chief Executive Optimist” Takashi Cheng to automate lawsuits, judgment collections, and evictions. As the company advertises, for $179.99, it is “now easier than ever to get a pesky tenant out of your property.”

With property management and rent collection also increasingly automated, today, many tenants have no idea who their landlords actually are or how to communicate with them, making little space for negotiation regarding COVID-19 hardships to forestall evictions before or during these automated eviction processes.

Evictions in the U.S. have always relied upon the combination of white supremacy, private property, and state violence. Today’s evictions reproduce this history, and result in widespread health crises, houselessness, loss of community, root shock, and at times, death. Landlord tech is the latest weapon in the arsenal.

Neighborhood Surveillance

Landlord tech, deployed by both landlords and homeowners, often exacerbates police violence. This is particularly true for Black residents and neighbors, and for houseless people, both long targeted by law enforcement and the carceral state.

Houseless people, for instance, often find themselves caught up in the legal system after being snitched on by housed neighbors through digital neighborhood watch platforms such as Nextdoor merely for visibly existing. This enables what Rahim Kurwa calls “digitally gated communities,” and what Chris Herring describes as “complaint-oriented policing.” This is not to obviate the role that the police state has in this role, but rather to note, following the work of scholars such as Simone Browne, that new technologies embolden a long history of white property owners using policing technologies to uphold the value of private property.

For instance, in our survey, one unhoused resident wrote that during the pandemic, “Many people on Nextdoor were using the app to describe [the respondent] and other unhoused folks as criminals, drug users, and more.” While this was going on before COVID, the respondent noted a huge increase during the pandemic with their housed neighbors staying at home and surveilling their properties more than usual. Rather than putting money and resources into creating shelter and resources for those unhoused, we have seen cities pour resources into increased policing.

Landlord tech companies have also seen the uptick in home delivery services like Amazon, spawned by the pandemic, as an opportunity to rebrand home security systems in the name of safe package delivery and contactless delivery. Companies such as Vivant Smart Home have released hardware like Doorbell Camera Pro, which uses machine vision to survey the faces of those who deliver and retrieve packages, collecting anonymized data from doorbells to improve package detection algorithms, but the data is also used for gatekeeping. These systems utilize built in algorithms built with biases against darker skin even before users get involved, thereby exacerbating anti-Blackness and creating false positives.

Video surveillance gathered from Amazon Ring doorbells and the Amazon Ring Neighbors app have been used to monitor and “catch” BLM protesters, tenants, and neighbors alike. Police departments gain access to video and audio footage from massive numbers of deployed Ring doorbells and cameras, which have the technological prowess to identify individual passersby. As Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) researchers observe, “Amazon built this surveillance infrastructure through tight-knit partnerships with police departments, including officers hawking Ring’s cameras to residents, and Ring telling officers how to better pressure residents to share their videos.” Amazon boasted in early June 2020 about placing a moratorium on the use of their facial recognition software by police in light of ongoing protests for racial justice, but turned around and signed over 29 additional police contracts in that month alone. Amazon currently maintains relationships with at least 1,300 police departments nationally, offering a real-time platform for residents and law enforcement alike to determine who “belongs” in their neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, according to one Landlord Tech Watch respondent, DISH TV began contacting its property owner subscribers, suggesting that they purchase a Google Nest facial recognition camera at reduced cost so that they could better protect their buildings from these “dangerous looters.” The respondent now has a Google Nest camera with facial recognition and audio detection capacity hanging outside of their bedroom window, placed there by their landlord. DISH apparently forged a relationship with Google in 2018, so that Google Assistant could control its receivers. In late 2019, it announced that its receivers could support the Google Nest Hello Video doorbell, so that when the doorbell rings, customers see notifications on their television screens, and now the company also installs Nest cameras. Google Nest, like Amazon Ring, has been known to hand data over to law enforcement. All of this takes place in a moment in which police too have installed more surveillance cameras in public areas to access real-time footage of BLM protesters

Amazon and Google are not alone in this practice. Flock Safety, for instance, has grown its automatic license plate readers (ALPRs) nationally to include cameras in 700 cities. They appeal to homeowners associations across the U.S., billing their products as neighborhood watch tools to monitor “suspicious” passersby. But data collected this way finds its way into the hands not only of neighbors, but also of Flock employees and local police, and through its new Total Analytics Law Officers Network (TALON) program, data links to 400 police departments nationally. As the EFF found in 2015, Black and Latinx residents are disproportionately targeted by ALPRs, as with an August 2020 false alert from an ALPR that resulted in police stopping a Black family in Aurora, Colorado.

Housing Justice Technology

Given how much landlord surveillance platforms aid the accumulation of white propertied wealth in the era of COVID-19, we are pushing for an abolitionist approach to landlord tech. This should include dismantling the harmful technologies already implemented, along with stronger renter protections against surveillance, and stricter regulations against the use of surveillance technologies by landlords. This could include regulatory measures that insure greater transparency about what these technologies do, as well as limits on the ways that the data gathered by them can be used or sold. For us, this approach pairs well with the movement to cancel rent and rental debt, and is aligned with an abolitionist approach on landlordism and private property more broadly.

While we need to end the harmful ways that these technologies are currently being used and deployed, this does not mean adopting a neo-luddite position against all technology––there remains much that digital platforms, media, and tools can do to contribute to housing and racial justice. For instance, activists have long embraced what Steve Mann calls “sousveillance,” or “surveillance from below,” engaging in practices like recording police behavior or using cameras to prove that landlords are unlawfully evicting tenants.

Housing organizers and anti-eviction collectives have, especially during the pandemic, been developing and expanding tools to shine light upon landlord portfolios, the various properties they own through intentionally obscurely named LLCs and LCs, and evictions they have enacted. These include the AEMP’s Evictorbook, which brings together eviction data, corporate entity data, and eviction data, as well as similar tools such as JustFix.nyc’s Who Owns What, SAJE’s Own It, and the Cook County DSA’s Find My Landlord. These tools help tenants organize their buildings and others owned by their landlord into powerful multi-building tenant associations that can work to cancel rent. In this sense, they flip the landlord gaze upon tenants on its head, offering tenants important information about landlords. This work was already alive and well on the ground before these look-up tools; the tools simply attempt to abet this important tenant-led research for housing and racial justice.

Landlord Tech Watch aims to be another form of sousveillance, flipping the gaze back upon the landlord technologies often used to spy on tenants, execute evictions, and abet real estate speculation. One of our survey respondents made an interesting comment: “I thought [landlord tech] was great until I found this website.” Indeed, many property managers have been advertising these technologies as enhancing tenants’ security and convenience. However, considering who deploys such technologies and their underlying aims, we really need to focus on the power dynamics and potential harms underneath. Tenants rarely have the right to opt out of landlord tech deployment, and are rarely provided information about where data being collected about them travels and how it gets used.

By better understanding landlord tech, its geographies, and its associated harms, we can better fight back against it.

1 COMMENT

  1. This article contains lot of useful and interesting information to reflect on. As both an urban planner and ‘house hacker’ in a four-plex in a working-class neighborhood, it’s been important for me to find balance between ensuring my few tenants are treated well (with fair rent) and being able to pay the mortgage and utility bills.

    While the number of rental housing units owned by large companies dwarfs the total units owned by ‘mom and pop’ landlords, there are considerably more mom and pop landlords–many who have taken mortgages to acquire the properties and do not have the cash reserves that would enable them to cancel rent without risk of foreclosure. Regarding surveillance technology, there is clear evidence of abuse; however, legitimate desires for safety or to not have property damaged or stolen should not be ignored. Most of the worries and/or complaints I hear from other small landlords are about tenants who trash their units, break appliances or house systems (e.g. plumbing) and don’t report the problem until it becomes a bigger issue, or who aren’t considerate of their neighbors (i.e. creating higher turnover by making good tenants not want to stay). For a small landlord, these expenses can quickly deplete savings.

    My point in all of this is (1) to provide the perspective of a small landlord looking to build a better life for his family through real estate while being socially responsible and (2) to encourage a nuanced understanding of the subject–especially against characterizing landlords as one, big entity. Meaningful, lasting change to build more equitable communities requires consensus building–and that could mean engaging with small landlords non-combatively (*who vote*) rather than grouping them with multi-billion-dollar companies.

    I understand the purpose of this article is to discuss the problematic use of ‘landlord tech’ hurting renters and houseless people–especially people of color–but articles, which help shape opinions and could affect future policy recommendations, need to reflect a more nuanced understanding of the situation than ‘greedy landlords vs. victimized tenants’. Regulatory responses will likely have parallels to the discussions around regulating Big Tech companies (which are better able to handle additional regulation) without inhibiting startup competitiveness.

    All in all–good work. Thanks for sharing this information and advocating for our more vulnerable neighbors.

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