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Did rental companies take too much advantage of COVID evictions?

(REAL ESTATE CORPORATE) With the convulsing housing market forcing people out of their apartment, massive rental companies are partnering with AirBNB to make up lost profit, and then some.

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As national lockdowns have left Americans feeling confined, the demand for short term rentals remains strong—despite the rampant rental crisis. It’s mighty convenient for corporate landlords and rental companies dealing with a backload of vacancies from recent waves of evictions.

ABC reports that the largest apartment landlord in the country, Greystar Real Estate, is gaining infamy for subletting their vacant apartments online. They manage over 500,000 rental units in the US.

One tenant, interviewed by Eyewitness News, stated they had found their apartment complex on the site, as well as 570 other Greystar properties across the country under the same host. Their landlord hadn’t disclosed these postings to them, either.

Most standard statewide rental contracts strictly forbid tenants from subletting to others through websites like AirBNB. But they don’t necessarily keep landlords from doing the same thing.

And in the absence of rent control laws, nothing stops them from rent gouging to drive their permanent tenants out.

Short term renters who apply for an apartment through AirBNB don’t agree to the same terms as long term renters. The actual residents of these buildings are ultimately held to a stricter standard, and potentially have to put up with more grief.

For example, if the property manager doesn’t intervene when disruptive behavior occurs in an STR, permanent residents are forced to put up with whatever trouble these guests might bring, from noise violations to dangerous activities. Anyone unfortunate enough to be stuck in a lease there is effectively trapped in a would-be hotel with no oversight. Over time, it creates a living environment that drives regular tenants out (meaning more space for overpriced Airbnb units.)

The practice puts disproportionate pressure on tenants that share complexes with temporary renters. And it’s not just unfair—this creates a potential health hazard, too.

Tenants in these buildings are rightfully concerned with the potential health risks of people constantly moving in and out of their building during a pandemic. Each new person passing through could potentially expose the rest of the building to the coronavirus (which is currently raging harder than ever, pushing hospitals to capacity across the country.)

All this stinks suspiciously like a potential violation of the Fair Housing Act to us. Renting an apartment through AirBNB or other rental companies would allow someone to potentially skirt the criteria that a regular applicant would otherwise be held to, and possibly rejected for.

In fairness, there are hosts doing their best to use their resources to help people, too.

Still, taking advantage of people’s desperation in the middle of an unprecedented economic depression is shameful—and AirBNB must take accountability for their role, too.

Desmond Meagley is an award-winning writer, graphic artist and cultural commentator in D.C. A proud YR Media alumn, Desmond's writing and illustrations have been featured in the SF Chronicle, HuffPost, Teen Vogue, The Daily Cal, and NPR among others. In their spare time, Desmond enjoys vegetarian cooking and vigorous bike rides.

Real Estate Corporate

Zillow: This HUGE patent grab has us asking, what’s left?

(REAL ESTATE CORPORATE) Zillow’s latest patent bid is terrifyingly broad and will likely lead to a real estate monopoly, if it’s granted.

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Man reviewing paperwork from Zillow listing with couple looking to buy

Zillow is no stranger to controversy, largely due to their propensity for acquiring obscenely broad patents. These patents often expand Zillow’s privileges while limiting the mobility of competing real estate companies’ websites and apps, elevating Zillow’s position in the market along the way. Now, Zillow is applying for a monster of a patent—one that, if granted, would effectively bar every other real estate service from the market.

We’ve written extensively about Zillow’s overzealous acquisition of patents that, by and large, demonstrate a desire to complicate the daily operations of competing real estate services. Those patents have included the presentation of photos on real estate sites and how information is formatted, the commonality being that Zillow’s patent requests have been so vaguely worded that competing businesses are forced to alter significantly their practices.

For example, their patent regarding photo use prevents anyone other than Zillow from portraying photos, panoramas, or videos in such a way that they “simulate movement” through a house. This basically means that other real estate services will be forced to arrange their photos in a nonsensical way, thus reducing site usability and increasing the likelihood that former users will migrate to Zillow.

The real estate monolith has also sued competitors for copyright infringement, most notably going after Trulia for having the audacity to tailor search results based on “input” from a user.
This most recent patent request makes it clear that Zillow has no intention of stopping their rampage—at least, not without achieving a literal monopoly in the process. In summary, the patent would afford Zillow complete control over “validation and optimization in an online marketing platform for home sellers.”

In simple terms, the patent refers to any technology or tools used to support the process of real estate searches.

The patent summary corroborates this interpretation: “In some embodiments, the disclosed technology provides a validation tool for users of the online marketing platform to quality check the users’ home feeds in real-time through a graphical user interface of the online marketing platform. In some embodiments, the disclosed technology provides an optimizer tool for the users to optimize the users’ home feeds through a graphical user interface…”

This summary concludes with, “The users of the online marketing platform can be home sellers, which can include, for example, home builders, brokers, and their agents,” describing what one would reasonably assume comprises all possible real estate clients.

Restricting the act of searching for real estate to Zillow alone would prevent competition, full stop. With the power to sue anyone who allowed their real estate listings to be browsed or searched, Zillow would control the entire real estate market for all parties, including home builders. Obviously, this is a problem for several reasons.

The most glaring problem here is that any monopoly is cause for alarm, and the current housing market does not seem poised to benefit from a lack of variety in listing agencies—especially in the wake of COVID and the turmoil we can feasibly expect for years to come.

The patent also fails to take into consideration that Zillow, for all their innovation, did not create the features to which they’re staking their claim. While they may have used search engines with a level of effectiveness heretofore unchallenged by competitors, the fact remains that this patent’s contents cannot, in good conscience, be attributed wholly to Zillow.

Zillow’s justification alleges that homeowners who list their properties on multiple different sites face a “steep learning curve” that can hinder their progress since not all sites use the same listing process and selling tools, but the irony of this faux-concern couldn’t be clearer: By manipulating patents to purposely obfuscate listings on competitors’ sites, Zillow has created the very problem they claim to want to solve.

As this situation develops, bear in mind that Zillow’s predatory patent-trolling may dictate the course of this country’s real estate market for decades to come if they are allowed to continue expanding unchecked.

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Real Estate Corporate

Zillow continues to build their patent collection – looking back, is anyone surprised?

(REAL ESTATE CORPORATIONS) The real estate giant Zillow continues the trend of the last decade and even adds another four patents to their ever growing patent collection.

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Overhead of farm home on Zillow, where a patent may be held.

In 2006 Zillow, the online real estate marketplace company, hit the world scene. Little did we know that this little website would explode over the last 15 years into the massive business venture it is now. Total assets in 2019 reached up to $6.1 billion. The founders, Rich Barton & Lloyd Frink, have been building this company from the ground up, pulling in new acquisitions and pursuing new avenues of revenue. Always adventuring into the next frontier of real-estate, and taking a patent or four along the way.

In a new move that surprised real-estate moguls around the country, Zillow Mobile was developed and they began creating mobile applications (listed below). However, I don’t think anyone expected what this would lead to in 2018.

  • April 29th, 2009 – iPhone Application
  • March 18th, 2010 – Android Application
  • April 2nd, 2010 – iPad Application
  • March 31st, 2011 – Blackberry Application
  • July 13th, 2012 – Windows Phone Application
  • November 27th, 2013 – Windows 8.1 Application
  • November 2015 – Apple TV Application

Once these apps were in place Zillow announced some news that would rock the real-estate world, Zillow Offers. The app provides a unique position for the company to directly purchase a seller’s home from them and do all the work to sell. Completely eliminating the go between aspect of the job. In the first year of this and leading into 2020, the company took a massive hit to their revenue because of the front end of purchasing all of this property.

Zillow 2.0 is still holding strong however. The current CEO Rich Barton is not worried about the downswing. He has been molded in the world of business over the years, having learned about the benefits of “risk that is tempered” while he founded/co-founded Expedia and Glassdoor. This business guru is a force to be reckoned with.

These highly aggressive tactics don’t just stop at the purchasing arena either. Over the last 15 years the business has acquired 21 patents. The patents in recent years are starting hedge competitors into a tight spot. Listed below are some of the more recent patents that have been cleared.

1. “Automated Control of Image Acquisition Via Use of Mobile Device User Interface” – Filing Date 8/21/2020

  • Techniques are described for using computing devices to perform automated operations to control acquisition of images in a defined area, including obtaining and using data from one or more hardware sensors on a mobile device that is acquiring the images, analyzing the sensor data (e.g., in a real-time manner) to determine the geometric orientation of the mobile device in three-dimensional (3D) space, and using that determined orientation to control the acquisition of further images by the mobile device. In some situations, the determined orientation information may be used in part to automatically generate and display a corresponding GUI (graphical user interface) that is overlaid on and augments displayed images of the environment surrounding the mobile device during the image acquisition process, so as to control the mobile device’s geometric orientation in 3D space.

2. “Estimating the value of property in a manner sensitive to nearby value-affecting geographic features” – Filing Date 7/7/2014

  • A facility for determining an estimated value of a home is described. The facility applies a first valuation model that is insensitive to value-affecting geographic features near the home to obtain a first valuation. The facility applies a second valuation model that is sensitive to value-affecting geographic features near the home to obtain a second valuation. The facility combines the first and second valuations to obtain an estimated value of the home.

3. “Automatically determining a current value for a real estate property, such as a home, that is tailored to input from a human user, such as its owner Utility Patent Grant (B2)” – Filing Date 9/4/2015

  • A facility procuring information about a distinguished property from a user knowledgeable about the distinguished property that is usable to refine an automatic valuation of the distinguished property is described. The facility displays information about the distinguished property used in the automatic valuation of the distinguished property. The facility obtains user input from of the user adjusting at least one aspect of information about the distinguished property used in the automatic valuation of the distinguished property. On a later the day, facility displays to the user a refined valuation of the distinguished property that is based on the adjustment of the obtained user input.

4. Providing Simulated Lighting Information for 3D Building Models – Filed Date 4/6/2020

  • Techniques are described for using computing devices to perform automated operations related to, with respect to a computer model of a house or other building’s interior, generating and displaying simulated lighting information in the model based on sunlight or other external light that is estimated to enter the building and be visible in particular rooms of the interior under specified conditions, such as using ambient occlusion and light transport matrix calculations. The computer model may be a 3D (three-dimensional) or 2.5D representation that is generated after the house is built and that shows physical components of the actual house’s interior (e.g., walls), and may be displayed to a user of a client computing device in a displayed GUI (graphical user interface) via which the user specifies conditions for which the simulated lighting display is generated.

But what do these patents do to the market? They are cornering their position as THE online real estate company. The stranglehold on any competitors is going to be hard to fight. The numerous patents typically tend to revolve around automated or multi-faceted searching and pricing on people homes. One of the newest ones actually takes images and translates into pricing.

This patent trolling technique is definitely something to take into account for other companies. This way, businesses hold their top place is to sue people into the ground with scrupulous patent lawsuits based on patent law. They throw red tape and paper on top of new competitors to drown them in fees before they can actually become competitive. Personally, I find it disgusting but from what I’ve learned, that’s capitalism at its finest. Beat them down with paper so you can stay on top.

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Real Estate Corporate

REX anti-trust lawsuit accuses Zillow, NAR of being in a ‘cartel’

(REAL ESTATE) Real Estate Exchange, Inc. (REX) is suing Zillow and NAR, alleging a cartel wherein non-MLS members like themselves are edged out of the marketplace.

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rex homes

Real Estate Exchange, Inc. (REX) has today filed an federal anti-trust lawsuit against Zillow and the National Association of Realtors (NAR).

REX accuses NAR of “non-negotiable” compensation structures baked into the MLS, an assertion that has been proven otherwise in the past.

They go on to accuse Zillow of making changes recently to their site that makes “non-MLS listings accessible only via a recessed, obscured, and deceptive tab,” leading to REX’s listings (on Zillow) losing traffic, “severely impacting REX’s reputation, its ability to execute its innovative and disruptive business model, and driving consumers away from REX and back into the MLS regime, ensuring higher commissions that benefit NAR’s members” which they say ultimately disadvantages consumers.

REX claims that Zillow (and other real estate aggregators) have helped them “to maneuver around the NAR/MLS cartel’s high commission structures” by aiding them “to reach a large audience of potentially interested buyers.”

But then Zillow went and became an ibuyer, shifting their focus from search to owning inventory, eventually joining NAR in 2020.

REX accuses Zillow of hiding non-MLS listings like theirs through their redesign. All of their homes are listed by a licensed real estate agent, but they are not NAR members and proclaim they never will be.

The crux of REX’s argument is that as a newly minted member of NAR, Zillow must follow rules set by NAR (which is done by members in committees, not the executives), and so they have joined forces to conceal non-MLS listings on Zillow’s site, thus entering into an anticompetitive posture together.

“Zillow began like so many other platforms: it served a great value to American consumers. Unfortunately, we see Zillow as backtracking on their original mission to serve consumers, instead focusing on their own profits,” said REX CEO Jack Ryan in a press release today.

In the last week of February, REX presented this case to 35 states attorneys general, leading up to their federal filing (their presentation can be found here).

The full lawsuit can be found here.

In a statement to The American Genius, Mantill Williams, NAR VP of Communications states, “This lawsuit has no legal basis, and we intend to vigorously contest it. This is an example of a brokerage trying to take benefits of the MLS system without contributing to it. It has been long recognized that the MLS system provides considerable pro-consumer, pro-competition value. REX’s lawsuit seeks to undermine that consumer value—simply for REX’s own benefit.”

Williams continues, “The MLS system levels the playing field for small businesses and allows innovation to flourish, all to the benefit of buyers and sellers. The advanced MLS technology gives publishers access to all the same information, allowing buyers to see as many properties for sale in one place as possible, while simultaneously ensuring sellers have access to the largest pool of buyers. Because of MLSs, we’re at a point in the market where we’re seeing unprecedented benefits to consumers and competition among brokers, especially when it comes to service and commission options.”

A Zillow spokesperson tells us, “We are aware of the lawsuit and believe the claims are without merit and intend to vigorously defend ourselves against it. Zillow is committed to giving consumers the most up-to-date housing information on the most amount of listings possible on a single platform. As part of our switch to MLS Internet Data Exchange (IDX) feeds and becoming formal MLS participants earlier this year, we were required to make changes to the way some listings appear on the site in order to be compliant with MLS rules. As a result, when using one of our platforms to search for homes, buyers may see two options to view their search results – “Agent listings”, and “Other listings” – which include For Sale by Owner listings or Coming Soon listings not on the MLS or, for that matter, on most other real estate sites.”

They conclude, “As part of our efforts to empower consumers, we have been actively working to update the industry rules, including those around ‘co-mingling,’ to allow a seamless search experience so we can continue to display all types of listings on our platform.”

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