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Zillow Group sued for being inaccessible to the visually impaired

(REAL ESTATE) Zillow has been sued for their numerous sites being inaccessible by popular screen readers – what do the Plaintiffs want the company to do next?

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Two visually impaired Massachusetts women have banded together to sue Zillow for their sites allegedly being inaccessible to the blind and visually impaired.

Filed in the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts, the lawsuit claims that Zillow Group is in violation of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), asserting that their sites are not compatible with the most common computer screen reader programs, which the visually impaired rely upon in order to access information online.

Court documents sate that this failing “deprives blind and visually-impaired individuals the benefits of its online goods, content, and services — all benefits it affords nondisabled individuals — thereby increasing the sense of isolation and stigma among these Americans that Title III was meant to redress.”

The Plaintiffs cite tools utilized to attempt to use the sites – Apple’s VoiceOver technology, JAWS and NVDA software. Accessibility experts tell us that JAWS and NVDA are the two most common tools in America used for this purpose.

The core of the problem is readability – for example, if a button is an image (of say a search icon) but has no text or alt text, the screen readers cannot read them, therefore the visually impaired cannot use that feature.

Image source: court documents.

Further, the Plaintiffs assert that Zillow Group “has long known” that these screen reader technologies are necessary and that they are legally responsible for providing them, but offers no evidence that the company “has long known,” aside from the fact that Title III isn’t a new law.

The lawsuit did not acknowledge possible attempts to use any other real estate search site, nor their existence.

What do the Plaintiffs want?

Their list is long and fascinating. Aside from the standard request for payment of “actual, statutory, and punitive damages as the court deems proper,” along with attorneys fees and court costs, they demand that Zillow Group do the following:

  • Hire a Web Accessibility Consultant (WAC) and incorporate all of the recommendations within 60 days of receiving them.
  • Train certain staff on accessibility.
  • Submit to a quarterly usability test and a period audit.
  • Create a web accessibility policy, provide that policy to certain staff.
  • Make a public statement on the policy, with an accessible contact form and feedback option.
  • Immediately escalate all usability calls to properly trained staff.
  • Submit to a two year monitoring period.
  • It remains unknown if the Plaintiffs intend on pursuing action against any other websites (real estate search portals, brokers, and the like), and as of publication, Plaintiff’s representatives have not responded to our request for comment.

Lani is the Chief Operating Officer at The American Genius - she has co-authored a book, co-founded BASHH and Austin Digital Jobs, and is a seasoned business writer and editorialist with a penchant for the irreverent.

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Real Estate Corporate

REX Homes has second round of layoffs, closes NY and CHI markets, plans to join MLSs

(CORPORATE) REX Homes has just concluded a second round of layoffs and has indicated they will be joining MLSs as part of their restructure.

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REX Homes yesterday initiated a second round of layoffs in the past two months, has now shut down operations in Chicago and all of New York as part of a company restructuring, and intends on testing out joining local MLSs.

Layoffs are a common part of startup life, and REX Co-Founder, President, and COO, Lynley Sides assured remaining employees in a company-wide call that they are “done with downsizing efforts,” which they say they did their best to do “respectfully,” and the new goal is to move forward, focusing on the customer experience, on profitable markets, and on “winning” now that the company has “the right plan.”

The first round of layoffs was in late August and eliminated roughly 60 positions (a number which has not yet been verified by REX). No severance was paid, but the company offered resume coaching and allowed impacted staff to retain all company technology as a “creative” move, Sides said on the call.

The company has earned several rounds of private equity funding and is not publicly traded. They had not closed their Series D round of funding in August, but did shortly thereafter.

The second round of layoffs was Thursday, October 7th and impacted 34 employees who did receive severance and were also allowed to keep company technology.

Because of the timing of the Series D closing, Sides told staff on the call that they would be revisiting severance with employees cut in the first round.

She also noted that they would have preferred one round of layoffs and had hoped that would suffice, but instead took measures to cut “all costs,” including reducing marketing spends “notably,” addressing overhead, negotiating with vendors, and even subleasing some of their space to “reduce the impact of the second wave.”

It is unclear what markets they continue to serve as their website still allows users to select New York, but not Chicago, and several past and current staff say the number of areas they service have been drastically reduced in this calendar year but none agree on the actual number. Sides noted a shift toward focusing exclusively on the most profitable markets.

Sides also said on the call that REX would be “trying to join a few MLSs which is the right thing to do for our business and our customers” as they focus on the “customer experience.”

The pilot test is notable given the company’s lawsuit against NAR and Zillow, alleging a cartel surrounding MLSs and commission structures. Although a recent court ruling urged the company to not use the term ‘cartel,” the lawsuit stands.

Also fascinating is that the real estate tech startup was able to avoid all news coverage of the layoffs, market closings, or a shift toward joining any MLS.

Regardless, Sides concluded her portion of the call by assuring her teams that she remains “incredibly optimistic about REX’s future,” a sentiment others on the call echoed.

We have reached out to REX Homes for comment, as we don’t know the precise number of employees dismissed in August, the size or date of their Series D round of funding, or what markets they still serve.

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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

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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