After making my way through a gilded, marble-floor lobby worthy of Home Alone 2, I found myself at Civic Hall. The techy meetup spot and educational center is where likeminded hackers convene for “labs” and shamelessly use the kind of words (“disrupt”) that have become emblems of that heady cocktail of superiority and entitlement powering controversial profit vacuums like Uber and AirBnB. I was hardly surprised to see that Pierre Omidyar’s foundation is a sponsor of Civic Hall, as is Google. Even if the #HackHousing event had been pitched as an occasion for discussing “creative ways to empower New York renters,” I was more than a little skeptical.
But I couldn’t have been farther off-base. As promised, #HackHousing actually did play out as a forum for data hackers, housing activists, and others concerned with the city’s well-documented housing crisis. Their goal was to find creative approaches to fighting back against predatory landlords, to visualize real impact, and, yes, even to empower tenants in their increasingly daunting search for stable affordable housing. Apparently, at least a few people have tapped data and analytical schemes to benefit the tenants in all this, and #HackHousing was to introduce their efforts to likeminded people and hopefully coordinate actions down the line.
Murray Cox, one of the first few speakers to present, is the soft-spoken data nerd behind Inside Airbnb, a deceptively simple home for a mechanism that mines Airbnb’s data, which just so happens to go against the company’s own rhetoric about the positive uses for their services. In looking at the work that Cox has done, it’s no surprise that Airbnb has come under so much fire from elected officials and community groups. “Data shows that the majority of Airbnb listings in most cities are entire homes,” he writes on the site. “Many of which are rented all year round– disrupting housing and communities.”
What’s really cool about Inside Airbnb is that it offers an open-source data pool. “You can download the data and use it yourself,” Cox explained. Which is exactly what has happened– as he pointed out, San Francisco’s city government used it in their housing policy analysis, and others have done the same to either make a case against the tech company or demand that they go after these “apartment hoarders,” as Cox called them. (In some cities, individuals are hoarding up to 200 apartments.)
While Airbnb itself made their data available in December 2015, which the company touted as part of their effort to build an “open and transparent community,” Cox found that they’d fabricated statistics. A report on the site actually shows “how Airbnb hid data from New York City,” Cox explained. A summary on the website explains in better detail:
This report shows that the snapshot was photoshopped: in the days leading up to November 17, Airbnb ensured a flattering picture by carrying out a one-time targeted purge of more than 1,000 listings. The company then presented November 17 as a typical day in the company’s operations and mis-represented the one-time purge as a historical trend.
Yikes. (Read more about that incident here.)
Currently, Cox is connecting housing advocates with data that sheds light on discriminatory practices by Airbnb’s renters, and is also helping out with a project called The Red Line Archive, a public art project aimed at spreading awareness about the historical practice of “redlining,” in which communities of color were targeted by real estate actors and banks who refused to grant mortgages or business loans. The practice “destroyed the possibility of investment wherever black people lived,” wrote Ta-Nehisi Coates. (In 1989 investigative journalist Bill Dedman won the Pulitzer Prize for his work on a sweeping report on redlining, The Color of Money.)
Aaron Carr, founder of the Housing Rights Initiative, might not have been as artistically inclined as some of Cox’s work proved to be, but he certainly demonstrated himself to be an artist when it came to digital presentation. I mean, if there were a Pulitzer Prize for Powerpoint presentations he’d definitely have a few by now. As Carr clicked through explosive slides– one particularly memorable slide, cloaked in fire and thermometer graphs, popped up as Carr likened landlord harassment to a military tank pointing an anti-aircraft missile directly at tenants. You might be thinking, “Whoa buddy, that might be a little much,” but, honestly, Carr had the stats to back up his fury. The object of his anger? “Finding rent fraud is like finding rain in a rainstorm,” he said.
Carr’s organization is an advocacy group that investigates rent fraud. He illustrated the process by which landlords rake in profits from affordable-housing subsidies while failing to provide affordable housing and eventually deregulated units altogether, leading to a decrease in the stock of living spaces for anyone who can’t afford sky-rocketing market rate apartments. Specifically, the J-51 tax abatement, which landlords can access when the building has been rehabbed from another use, seemed to make Carr’s blood boil. “It’s easily enforceable,” he explained. “Anyone can do this.” And yet, he says, it’s all too common for building owners to benefit from the tax abatement without providing the promised affordable housing. The problem from Carr’s perspective is that the city’s anti-harassment mechanisms relies on a “reactive enforcement model.”
As he sees it, artificially inflating rents isn’t simply overcharging people, it also limits already disadvantaged groups’ access to higher education, free time, and upward mobility. “You’re essentially stealing their lives away,” he said. Where the Housing Rights Initiative comes in is “making legal services accessible to low-income communities,” and utilizing data to measure the likelihood of fraud, so that victims of rent fraud can team up and get back the money and resources back that were taken from them. “If you start to show patterns of abuse, you can actually hold someone accountable,” he said.
While litigation is a long, drawn-out process that can seem daunting and slow-moving, Noelle Francis, the executive director at Heat Seek, presented a data-driven mechanism for documenting a surprisingly widespread problem in New York City. In 2015, there were 553,135 complaints due to heat and hot water problems. Last year, The New York Times followed up on its 2014 expose of two Crown Heights buildings where tenants had lodged more than 100 complaints for the previous two winters they’d spend without heat. Even after suing their landlord (the case was still in progress when the article was published), they were in the middle of their third straight winter without heat.
Francis clicked through a map of the city, which visualized not only how huge this problem is, but how the complaints are distributed. “It’s a problem that disproportionately effects low-income New Yorkers and New Yorkers of color,” she said. After asking everyone in the room how many of them had experienced a heat cutoff in their apartment, the vast majority of attendees (including this reporter) raised their hands. “It’s surprisingly difficult to get it turned back on,” she explained. (That’s even with various crackdowns on particularly egregious landlords.) Once again, it’s a case of flimsy means of holding landlords accountable. “HPD’s enforcement methods don’t work,” she said simply.
Not surprisingly, heat harassment is another tactic landlords use to force tenants out of their rent-stabilized units. Heat Seek, a non-profit that’s just getting started, relies on a pretty simple mechanism. Francis humbly described it as “basically a thermometer that’s connected to the internet,” but it will have enormous implications for addressing the city’s heating crisis if it can be implemented on a larger scale. (However, as Francis pointed out, Heat Seek is only two people building these things.)
After installing a little box in an apartment unit, Heat Seek tracks and wirelessly transmits temperature readings, where the numbers are compared against the city’s “heat season” requirements (in NYC it’s October 1 to May 31), when landlords must keep their units at a minimum of 68 degrees if the temperature outside is below 55 degrees (between 6 am and 10 pm), and if the outdoor temperature falls below 40 degrees, inside it needs to be at least 55 degrees. Instead of simply monitoring your own thermometer (which might be impossible to do if you have a regular job, for example) Heat Seek offers a better way to track these changes in that’s it’s reliable, accurate, and can “reveal heating violations as they occur.” It’s another example of a way to “track patterns of abuse,” so that tenants can have a stronger case against bad-acting landlords.
The event was organized by Yale Fox, founder of Rentlogic, a new site that allows you to look up stats about a building from a neutral source before you rent. Often we rely on advertisements straight from landlords on Craigslist (sketchy) or sites designed as a one-way soapbox for real-estate actors– neither of which are exactly transparent or completely reliable when it comes to an apartment’s conditions below the surface of a fresh paint job. Rentlogic, on the other hand, has created a rating system where buildings are assigned a letter grade– A through F, just like in hell– and compiles known incidents of issues ranging from rodent problems to plumbing issues and even bedbugs.
Of course, anyone who’s lived in New York City long enough knows that a brand new dishwasher or a freshly-renovated bathroom tells you absolutely nothing when it comes to understanding what it’s actually like living in that apartment. Clicking through Rentlogic, I found a recently revamped one-bedroom going for $2,775 (!) in a luxury building located near my place in Bed-Stuy, which earned itself an F for various safety violations, hot water problems, unhappy tenants, and even legal action. As Fox explained at the event, Yelp isn’t exactly the most reliable resource for restaurant reviews, and Rentlogic doesn’t base its grade-letter system on user ratings either. Instead, that F was determined by 311 complaints, DOB reports, and other public records. The site’s motto is, “Let’s level the playing field between renters and landlords.”
Even after I was pleasantly surprised to find out that #HackHousing was legit, it’s seriously disheartening to think that, despite the positive impact that tech could have on issues like the city’s housing crisis, not very many tech-able people out there are aiming their skills at them. I mean, unless you actually thought those sickly Soylent kids at Frieze are on to something with their $3 per beige slime meals.
But maybe the biggest hurdle isn’t about creating an army of civically-minded tech people, because clearly just a few could possibly institute major shifts. As Aaron Carr pointed out, “Our housing woes are campaign finance woes.” With that in mind, one of Civic Hall’s mottos can apply to both tech bros and our elected officials: “The threats we face to our collective well-being—inequality, racism, civic atrophy, and other systemic failures—are too great to continue with a model that focuses primarily on developing and utilizing technology to create outsized returns for investors.” Hear, hear y’all.