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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’s new patent: Determining regional rate of return on home improvements

(CORPORATE NEWS) Zillow has been granted dozens of patents of late, threatening any tech or real estate brand using the broad ideas they’ve laid claim to.

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Zillow is back on our radar after acquiring the latest in a long list of vague, over-reaching patents (that our government continues to grant to them). This time, they’re going after data – specifically regional rates of return on home improvements.

The patent in question describes a “facility” (later described as a “computer-readable hardware device”) that can estimate housing prices in a given geographic area, but the real crux of the patent is the home improvement feature. The aforementioned facility can be used to determine how much of a financial return will be present upon completion or categorization of work done on a specific property within that same geographic framework.

Sales estimates generated by this facility will also take into account “type[s]” of home improvement, thus further streamlining Zillow’s notorious “Zestimate” feature.

The way this process works is also mentioned in the patent. According to the abstract, the facility takes regional data regarding homes’ “attribute values” and then compares that data to any available home improvement information. An analysis involving that information along with the difference between the sale price of a property and Zillow’s automatic valuation generates an estimate of the rate of return on the home improvements in question.

As far as Zillow patent grabs go, it’s worth noting that this one has a high degree of specificity in its description – something that was missing from many of the other patent applications they’ve filed in the last decade or so – though some aspects of the patent lapse into Zillow’s aloof rambling of late.

For example, the background on the patent says that “…the facility may use a wide variety of modeling techniques, house attributes, and/or data sources. The facility may display or otherwise present its home improvement rates of return in a variety of ways.” That isn’t particularly specific to a style of data representation, freeing up the real estate giant to enforce this patent on a more general level.

And the problem with the remaining specificity is that it details everything from the natural flow of data and the process of comparison to the physical configuration of the hardware used to process that data – which may make it difficult for many technologists in the space to generate similar data without falling into the dangerous zone of violating the patent simply by using common sense.

This is the M.O. over at Zillow Group. Unfortunately, the patent was just granted, which means smaller real estate ventures will need to keep an eye on the way they process regional data pertaining to home improvement values.

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Real Estate Corporate

Viva – the startup that gives renters equity as they rent

(TECHNOLOGY) Viva launched as a pretty brilliant model – give renters back equity as they rent, foster future buyers, and build a property portfolio.

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Renting often feels like a necessary evil, one which is compounded by the fact that renters are unable to build equity – through no fault of their own. A company called Viva thinks they have a solution for this systemic issue: third-party equity.

Viva is a startup with the main goal of allowing renters to earn a certain amount of equity per month.

The process itself is fairly straightforward: Renters in Viva-managed properties have the opportunity to earn up to eight percent of their rent back in equity per month. This equity is stored in the form of a rebate that can be reclaimed once the renter’s lease is up.

I say “up to” eight percent because, according to Viva, certain tasks–mild, “unskilled” maintenance and general upkeep of the property–are assumed to be the renter’s responsibility (unless otherwise dictated elsewhere); failure to maintain a presentable property can result in a lower percentage of rent going to your equity.

While that sounds like it opens the door for picky landlords to dock renters for arbitrary issues, Viva assures them that they “expect the vast majority of all tenants to earn the full 8% every month.”

That equity can be tracked via Viva’s online portal and payment receipts from each month of rent.

Once a renter’s lease expires, they can request their equity in the form of a rebate; it can also come in the form of a housing credit should the renter want to put it toward their next property.

On the landlord side, Viva charges a relatively high 16 percent for management: eight percent for renter equity, and eight percent for general management fees.

While this sum is higher than the average 10 percent cited on Viva’s FAQ, they point out that their eight percent covers more things (maintenance and “community engagement”) than a usual maintenance fee.

Viva also posits that people who live in properties they manage will be more dedicated to maintaining those properties, thus cutting down on long-term costs.

Viva’s goal of creating a third viable option that nestles between renting and buying couldn’t come at a better time in terms of the housing market. Both renters and landlords will want to keep an eye on this venture as they develop.

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Real Estate Corporate

This Zillow patent application is WILD, threatens entire real estate industry

(NEWS) Zillow has applied for another patent on their mission to outgun the entire real estate industry – will the government grant them yet another win?

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Zillow has added yet another crippling entry to their long list of patent grabs, this time focusing on a computation model that emphasizes 360-degree videos’ role in creating floor maps.

The patent, if granted, would give Zillow domain over the process of recording, analyzing, and presenting such videos in conjunction with real estate services.

The official title of the patent is “Generating Floor Maps For Buildings From Automated Analysis Of Visual Data Of The Buildings’ Interiors,” leaving little to the imagination: The respective processes of creating, analyzing, and sharing those floor maps all fall under the heading of the patent.

The patent also specifies “automated operations” in the abstract, implying that the method of capture all the way through analysis and sharing could be performed automatically via the aforementioned “computing devices.”

Zillow clearly intends to use the results of this process for both further development of their automation (“controlling navigation of devices”) and for customer use while viewing properties virtually (“display on client devices in corresponding GUIs”).

The videos themselves can be “continuous” in that they are recorded by a camera moving seamlessly through the house from room to room; similarly, the videos may be “acquired without obtaining any other information about a depth from the path to any surfaces in the house,” resulting in what one might identify as the modern equivalent of a virtual tour.

The end result of such a video, at least for clients, is the ability to view and control an uninterrupted sequence of movement through a property. At any given time, the client could theoretically pause and “look around” using the 360-degree controls; this process would, ultimately, simulate actual movement through the home.

Naturally, this patent is worrying for the same reason Zillow’s past patents have been problematic: It’s too broad.

360-degree video is an obvious choice for real estate services looking to create a virtual experience that is interchangeable with an in-person tour, and–between accessibility issues and social distancing protocols of the last year–it’s an increasingly necessary option for real estate providers who want to stay afloat.

If Zillow is able to secure this patent, competitors will have to find another way to create their virtual tours–one that, in the ever-tightening web of options not proprietary to Zillow, is sure to drive even the most loyal clients into Zillow’s patent-snatching arms.

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