COVID-19 Crisis Capitalism Comes to Real Estate
Proptech is leading to new forms of housing injustice in ways that increase the power of landlords and further disempower tenants and those seeking shelter.
May 7, 2020
May 7, 2020
15 Min read time
Proptech is leading to new forms of housing injustice in ways that increase the power of landlords and further disempower tenants and those seeking shelter.
As millions worry about sickness, layoffs, and paying rent on the first of the month, tech companies are positioning themselves to profit. Some are rapidly spinning up new technologies, while others are repurposing old ideas, taking a page from the disaster capitalism playbook with slogans like “through crises, there are opportunities.”
Many tech companies are positioning surveillance and tracking as public health interventions capable of addressing the COVID-19 crisis. The same trend extends to the real estate sector.
Facial recognition surveillance firm Clearview AI, for example—the subject of a New York Times profile in January—is turning its attention to contact tracing, offering to help governments build out health surveillance programs. When asked by NBC reporter Jacob Ward whether agencies would use their technology to amass “a repository that includes my identity and my health information and my whereabouts over the last few months in a way that we’re all going to be uncomfortable with,” Clearview’s CEO responded: “It’s really up to those agencies how they put these programs together, all we do is provide the identification part of the process.”
For its part, Palantir, a company that provides tracking and surveillance infrastructure to the U.S. military, Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE), and local police departments, is reportedly working with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to provide COVID-19 tracking systems that would have access to detailed data about test results, hospital capacity, and much more. Another company, Draganfly, is even marketing COVID-19 drones, claiming without evidence that their drones can detect fever and diagnose people with COVID-19 based on the sound of a cough.
These tech companies are among many positioning surveillance and tracking as public health interventions capable of addressing the COVID-19 crisis. Though it is less widely reported, the same trend extends to the real estate sector. As anxious landlords contend with tenant rent strikes, eviction moratoriums, and remote property management, property technology (proptech) companies are also pushing surveillance and data-driven tracking technologies as an effective way to deal with these concerns, going so far as promising to suppress rent strikes and to prevent COVID-19 from entering a building. In the process, these companies are working to expand and centralize the power of landlords to surveil and classify tenants, creating an interconnected regime of surveillance and oversight that disempowers tenants and conditions access to shelter on much more than the ability to pay rent. And all of this transpires with very little public scrutiny or transparency, generally consisting of contracts between companies and landlords that are announced to tenants only after they’re finalized.
By proptech we mean technical products and platforms that have facilitated the merging of the technology and real estate industries in novel ways. For the most part, proptech has celebrated the “disruption” of the real estate industry with new technology and data infrastructures. In the residential market, this includes new forms of tenant screening, smart housing, facial recognition, roommate matching, and more. Often such proptech exacerbates housing inequality and gentrification. As urban studies scholar Desiree Fields puts it, “Without an explicit focus on housing justice, proptech is likely to serve the interests of people and places already benefiting from property-led accumulation, undermining the interests of propertyless subjects and marginalized places.” We are particularly worried that proptech is leading to new forms of housing injustice in the wake of COVID-19—expanding surveillance, data accumulation, and algorithmic means testing—in ways that increase the power of landlords and further disempower tenants and those seeking shelter.
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The proptech industry ballooned following the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis, when racist lending practices and government response dispossessed hundreds of thousands of mainly black and Latinx property owners. This era saw over 240,000 black residents lose their homes, erasing most of the gains made since the 1968 passing of the civil rights era Fair Housing Act. Wall Street investment firms such as Blackstone, Invitation Homes, Colony, Waypoint, and Starwood—which have all now consolidated into one mega-firm—swept in to purchase foreclosed homes at auction, ushering in the age of the corporate landlord. Today the conglomerate of Blackstone comprises the largest landowning firm globally and is the biggest landlord in the United States. Hundreds of large investment companies followed Blackstone’s lead, forming massive landlord monopolies in various cities and regions across the United States. These mega-landlords generally acquire new properties through limited partnership (LPs) and limited liability company (LLCs) shell companies, a practice that makes it difficult for tenants to know who their landlords really are, and thus serves to stymie tenant organizing and collective action.
Proptech companies are marketing tracking technologies as effective ways to deal with rent strikes, eviction moratoriums, and remote property management, going so far as promising to suppress rent strikes and to prevent COVID-19 from entering buildings.
While corporate landlords have little personal connection to their large network of tenants, they often have vast troves of intimate information about them, thanks in large part to proptech. After large investment firms acquired thousands of residential properties post-2008, they needed to manage them—to ensure rents were paid, properties inspected, and problems fixed. Landlording at this scale called for new tools, and proptech companies entered to fill the void across residential, commercial, and industrial sectors. In doing so they also implemented new housing paradigms. In the residential real estate market, this includes tenant screening services, biometric keyless entry systems, automated rent payment sites, digital property management dashboards, tenant matching services, short-term vacation rental platforms (recall that Airbnb was also a 2008 phenomenon), smart home development, speculation forecasting, and even automated eviction processes. Like algorithmic systems across other sectors, proptech also encodes and naturalizes legacies of bias and discrimination, while expanding surveillance and tracking into formerly “private” domains.
While proptech and its problems are not new, companies today are using new and deceptive COVID-19 marketing tactics to expand the reach of these technologies. These are, by and large, unregulated and of dubious efficacy. In their pivot to offer proptech as a solution for COVID-19 woes, proptech companies are pulling the curtain back on a vision of the world in which landlords and owners have increasing power over and insight into the lives of tenants, and in which surveillance and monitoring regimes are extended to make access to shelter and housing contingent on factors well beyond the payment of monthly rents. But proptech’s creep into our domestic lives isn’t happening without resistance. New movements in the housing justice world are pushing back against these incursions, connecting housing justice with organized resistance against technologies of surveillance and social control beyond proptech. There are also many efforts engaged in creating and using data and technology to fight displacement, surveillance, and gentrification. Some of the more nefarious examples of proptech in this COVID-19 moment include neighborhood surveillance systems, facial recognition entry systems, virtual landlords, e-carceration technologies, and tenant screening apps.
Flock Safety is a proptech surveillance company that claims to distinguish between those who belong in a neighborhood, or on a street, and those who don’t. The company provides artificial intelligence–powered license plate surveillance that matches license plate numbers to vehicle ownership information, allowing neighborhood associations and others to track which vehicles enter their gates. “Do you want a stolen vehicle driving through your neighborhood? Neither do we,” the company proclaims. Flock Safety is among many firms marketing its surveillance as a COVID solution, claiming to allow its customers to “[solve] crime while not compromising social distancing needs.”
Flock Safety’s technology could result in racist targeting similar to incidents that have been reported with Amazon’s Ring Surveillance doorbell, another proptech surveillance system. People who “don’t look like they belong” according to the perceptions of owners and landlords are reported to the police, resulting in dangerous encounters for service personnel, delivery workers, and residents. Indeed, in the case of Amazon Ring, these police reports could happen automatically, since Amazon has partnered with over 600 of police departments in the United States, giving them unfettered access to Ring surveillance footage. Amazon Ring is also reportedly planning to add a “neighborhood watch list” feature, which would use facial recognition to automatically identify “suspicious” people, and send notifications to property owners and potentially the police. Both Amazon Ring and Flock Safety’s technology automate and amplify existing understandings of who belongs and who doesn’t, who looks like a threat and who looks safe—classifications that too often involve racist stereotypes and result in racist action with sometimes deadly consequences.
Facial recognition entry systems
Bioconnect and Stonelock also promise to distinguish those who are allowed from those who aren’t. These companies sell biometric access controls, including facial recognition systems that only admit people whose face matches a database of “permitted” faceprints. While the companies claim that facial recognition technologies provide extra security and even virus reduction, these claims are not backed by evidence. Even so, both are using COVID-19 to push these claims. “The virus has the ability to infect through a single direct and non-direct touch, and without proper security, it’s very easy for someone who has the virus to enter a building and infect hundreds of previously healthy people,” Bioconnect states on its website. It goes on to claim that “identity assurance is key in ensuring this virus does not intentionally enter restricted access buildings.” For its part, Stonelock implies: “We view this [COVID] as the beginning of a new way of interacting professionally. . . . Over the next few weeks we’ll be reaching out to discuss the benefits of frictionless access control.”
While proptech and its problems are not new, companies today are using new and deceptive COVID-19 marketing tactics to expand the reach of these technologies.
Unspoken in the marketing is the vast network of interconnected surveillance that would be required to make good on these promises. The vision is of a world where a person’s body and biometric identifiers serve to make their health status legible to large proptech firms and the landlords they serve. Companies like Bioconnect would have access to a database of “infected” and “uninfected” people, which would need to be frequently updated in near real-time to allow the company to update its access policies, revising its lists of “safe” and “infectious” people. Perhaps the company is imagining an integration with contact tracing surveillance systems? Or perhaps they imagine that landlords would begin demanding tenants submit health information as a condition of tenancy? Their marketing leaves the matter unclear.
Looking across the proptech horizon we see companies edging closer to this integrated vision. Yardi is one of the biggest “virtual landlord” services, offering products from building monitoring to automated rent collection that enable large corporate landlords to “oversee” multiple units. Yardi not only manages property for Blackstone but also helps manage a range of specialized properties, from nursing homes to student housing to senior living centers. In response to COVID-19 the company is offering communication services meant to allow families to check on loved ones in nursing home facilities while remaining socially distanced. Using its services, the company states, “family members can view the latest records about their residents, including vital signs, diagnoses and medication orders. This data is shared from Yardi EHR [electronic health records] in real time.” Here again we see a window into the expansive ambitions of one of the largest virtual landlord firms: extending proptech’s reach into personal health data and even electronic health records.
With the help of proptech company marketing, it is not a far step to imagine these technologies—from Bioconnect to Yardi’s health monitoring services to Flock Safety’s and Amazon’s neighborhood surveillance—linked to immunity passports, quarantine enforcement, and other COVID-19 management regimes. Such a move would further connect proptech with so-called “e-carceration” technologies, which employ ankle monitors, mobile apps, and other forms of surveillance to enforce house arrest to control people’s movements, associations, and access to the world. The move to e-carceration has extended the reach of the carceral state. And advocates make the case that such monitoring already includes the use of surveillance networks that weren’t necessarily constructed for criminal justice purposes, from facial recognition databases to license plate readers.
Tenant screening apps
Bioconnect, Stonelock, and Amazon Ring, and Flock Safety offer proptech to delimit those who “belong” in buildings or on streets from those who don’t. Tenant screening companies are creating technologies that classify people along the same lines but less visibly. In both cases these classifications are created with owners’ and landlords’ perspectives in mind. Tenant screening firms are also using the COVID-19 moment to implement new classification techniques and define new categories of tenants who “don’t belong” and thus don’t deserve access to shelter.
In the United States, the tenant screening company Naborly is explicitly advertising its services to landlords interested in evicting rent striking tenants during COVID-19. According to a recent article in Reclaim the Net, Naborly sees the crisis as an opportunity to expand its tenant database, which compiles a “delinquent” tenants “blacklist” that landlords who use the service can employ when considering rental applicants. In an email sent to landlords the company urges them to “quickly and compliantly report both positive and negative tenant feedback to our central tenant information system,” emphasizing that landlords should report whether or not their tenants paid April rent: “Paid or unpaid, we want to know.” They argue that this information “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.” Naborly goes on to promise landlords that their tenants will never learn if they have been reported to this landlords’ credit bureau.
Naborly is among many proptech companies using COVID-19 to increase the centralized power of landlords and to employ surveillance and AI technologies to divide people into those “worthy” of housing, access, and resources, and those who are unprofitable, and thus “unworthy.” Yet this program is carried out in the name of the public good. “At Naborly,” they write, “we believe that housing issues can be solved by doing what is right for the collective.”
Housing and data justice
While proptech companies are using COVID-19 to further integrate surveillance systems into our domestic spaces, this encroachment is not inevitable. We can look to templates of successful resistance for inspiration, drawing on past tenant organizing efforts, along with broader organizing that has resisted surveillance and technological forms of worker and social control. For example, in 2019 when a landlord attempted to install Stonelock biometric facial recognition system in the Atlantic Plaza Towers in Brownsville, Brooklyn, he was met with fierce tenant opposition. Tenants were told that they had to exchange their keyfobs used to enter their building and instead enroll in facial recognition access. The landlord claimed this would ensure “safety” and “frictionless” access.
A future where shelter and community accessibility are available to all may seem remote in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are many groups working to create more liveable and just housing worlds.
Yet as tenants in the rent-stabilized 718-unit buildings argued, safety and frictionlessness were not their concerns, and indeed they had reason to believe that the Stonelock system would make their lives less safe. After all, it relied upon algorithmic systems known to misrecognize and falsely identify people of color—something of much concern to the building’s residents, who are predominantly black. This new technology, they argued, was only being implemented to surveil them and potentially contribute data that could be used to evict them. Tenant organizer Tranae Moran put it bluntly: “I’m afraid of [this data] being shared with third-party agencies. I’m afraid of it being shared with the police. I’m afraid of it being shared with anyone—advertising companies, just everyone. It’s just very sensitive information that I feel our landlord should not have.”
Instead of a technology of safety, tenants identified Stonelock as a technology of gentrification, used by the landlord to help to push existing tenants out and to pave room for whiter, wealthier tenants yet to arrive. Because the building’s tenant association had already been organizing for some time before the landlord unveiled his Stonelock plans, the tenants were able to build upon a pre-existenting base and successfully organize against it. Not only were they victorious in preventing the implementation of Stonelock’s technology, but they also inspired legislation in New York and have shared their organizing tactics in solidarity with other campaigns against residential biometric surveillance.
While a future where shelter and community accessibility are available to all may seem remote in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the corresponding push for proptech tenant surveillance regimes, there are many groups like the Atlantic Plaza Tenants Association working to create more liveable and just housing worlds. This work transpires through both tenant organizing and housing justice data work. On a policy level, throughout the United States and beyond, states have been pushed by organizers to implement eviction moratoriums, protecting tenants from being thrown out during COVID-19 due to inability to pay rent. Local and national campaigns to #CancelRent, driven by movement-based housing organizations, coalitions, and networks, are also surging. And rent strikes are percolating internationally, as the Beyond Recovery campaign led by the Right to the City Coalition and Homes For All demand: “Immediately Cancel Rent, Mortgage and Utility Payments, No New Debts. We want a future with safe, dignified and cage-free shelter, sanctuary and homes for all.” As they imply, housing justice is antithetical to what Jackie Wang describes as carceral capitalism, or the political economy of fees, finds, and algorithmic policing.
While landlords are working to obscure their identities and chill organizing through LLCs, housing justice collectives are building databases to make clear who owns particular buildings and which companies are conducting problematic evictions. With more data about ownership, tenants can connect across cities and buildings to organize collectively against companies in the same ownership network. Groups such as the Housing Data Coalition, the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, the Mapping Action Collective, JustFix.nyc, and Urban Praxis, to name a few, have been engaged in this work for some time, and are adapting their efforts to meet current organizing needs.
Their efforts turn proptech’s logic on its head: just as proptech companies aggregate tenant data to consolidate their power over tenants, tenant organizers can compile data on landlords and speculators to embolden the work of housing justice organizing. With an increasing number of tenants around the world unable to pay their rents, we need to see more organizing against proptech data collection, connecting pushback against surveillance and data-centric tenant control with the global movement for housing justice.
Authors’ Note: The authors would like to thank Deborah Raji, a technology fellow at the AI Now Institute at New York University, who contributed research to this piece.
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May 07, 2020
15 Min read time