Any renter knows that it’s often in the days after signing a lease that an apartment’s unsavory surprises are revealed — the pest infestation, stubbornly broken bathroom plumbing, black mold in the kitchen, and so on. Insight into ongoing safety issues in the building, as well as the landlord’s responsiveness to maintenance issues, can help renters make an informed decision before signing a lease and handing over a security deposit and first month’s rent.
Enter Rentlogic. The start-up operates in New York City — home to well over a million multi-family, residential properties — and assigns each of the city’s residential rental buildings an A through F letter grade. Rentlogic uses data from government agencies as well as on-record building violations, and a ratings formula, to determine these grades. As the company’s website explains, “The rating is a normalized measure of a building’s condition in terms of safety and level of maintenance, ranked in relation to all buildings in NYC.”
We spoke with Rentlogic’s CEO, Yale Fox, to find out more about how the company is leveraging New York City’s open data to provide objective, empowering information to the city’s renters.
Socrata: Why did you found the company?
Yale Fox: When I knew I would be moving to New York City, I did what most people do: scour Craigslist and rental sites for a place to live, knowing full well that what I found might not be as advertised. Sure enough, soon after finding a place in the West Village, I discovered mold in the unit, which the landlord refused to address. I ultimately called 311, which resulted in an inspection that confirmed the mold and a fine for the landlord.
“…there needs to be more information available to prospective tenants and a way to hold landlords accountable for the condition of their properties.” —Yale Fox, Rentlogic CEO
This frustrating experience led to the belief that there needs to be more information available to prospective tenants and a way to hold landlords accountable for the condition of their properties. There are a lot of bad actors out there — but also a lot of responsible, responsive landlords. After speaking with several landlords, I learned that many actually want a standard to hold themselves responsible to provide the best home for their tenants. That’s why I started Rentlogic, which addresses the problem of a severe lack of transparency in the rental market, from low income housing to luxury buildings. Rentlogic not only offers tenants deep insight into properties throughout New York City, it also helps landlords get recognized for doing a good job and maintaining an adequate standard of living for their tenants. This results in higher acquisition and retention rates and ultimately increases the value of the property.
Socrata: How does Rentlogic use data to assign the buildings rankings?
Fox: Rentlogic prioritizes fairness and objectivity based on real data as opposed to opinion. We rely on millions of reports and analytics from government resources such as the Dept. of Buildings and the Dept. of Housing, and Preservation & Development, to name a few. In New York City, there are over 4,000 complaints reported per week, but not all of these complaints result in confirmed violations. In fairness to the landlords, we only consider confirmed violations in our rankings process, and are only concerned with the last five years of behavior. We are constantly seeking new, credible information sources that can be worked into our platform.
Socrata: What’s next for the site?
Fox: We are a mission-driven company focused on improving transparency and equity in the rental market. We are taking a proactive approach to issues surrounding machine bias in algorithms and are always looking to improve our systems. We have also partnered with Blackstone, the biggest landlord in the world who owns the StuyTown community which has over 11,000 units housing 30,000 residents. Every building has been certified with an A-rating.
Socrata: What’s behind the rubric for the buildings’ letter grades?
Fox: We graphed the data and used a non-arbitrary, statistical process to determine the cut off points for each letter grade. Landlord responsiveness is a built-in factor of the rating in order to give them a chance to address issues in a timely fashion without being penalized with a lower grade. Each building listing on our site offers a high-level building summary for prospective tenants to review, and those who wish to dig deeper can click the data tab linked to each rating for a full scope of the building’s history, including specific violations.
Socrata: How have landlords and renters responded to the site?
Fox: Response so far has been great, and we are seeing landlords address issues we’ve brought to their attention. We are also developing processes to work with landlords who disagree with their rating so we can independently fact-check the information publicly available.
“Rentlogic’s standards are based solely on facts and we have listened to all stakeholders to ensure our process is balanced and data-driven.” —Yale Fox, Rentlogic CEO
Rentlogic’s standards are based solely on facts and we have listened to all stakeholders to ensure our process is balanced and data-driven. Therefore, we have opted not to allow a review/comment section to keep our information fact-based. Later this year we’re excited to announce new measurement tools and practices to further strengthen our rating system, ensuring accurate, unbiased and fair grades.
Socrata: What’s your most surprising finding from the data?
“All of us complain about our apartments, but surprisingly the majority of buildings earn an A or B rating, which demonstrates that landlords are diligent in maintaining their properties.” —Yale Fox, Rentlogic CEO
Fox: All of us complain about our apartments, but surprisingly the majority of buildings earn an A or B rating, which demonstrates that landlords are diligent in maintaining their properties. It’s also been interesting to uncover how some landlords manipulate the affordable housing system in their benefit — for example, measuring those who get tax breaks for creating affordable housing against eviction rates. The few bad actors out there are why the larger industry gets a bad rap. It just shows how personal a home can be and why there’s a tremendous need for an independent, data-driven platform like Rentlogic.
Socrata: Tell us about the #HackHousing event. Are you involved with any other civic hacking events?
Fox: #HackHousing is an annual event we throw with the New York City Mayor’s office. It is a free event that connects housing advocates and nonprofits with folks from the tech sector to provide them with resources and strategies to help improve housing equity. Traditionally, nonprofits and advocates in this space lack resources and technical know-how, and this event is designed to bridge those gaps.