ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Join The Huge Story publication to obtain tales like this one in your inbox.
On a summer season day final yr, a gaggle of actual property tech executives gathered at a convention corridor in Nashville to boast about considered one of their firm’s signature merchandise: software program that makes use of a mysterious algorithm to assist landlords push the best attainable rents on tenants.
“By no means earlier than have we seen these numbers,” stated Jay Parsons, a vice chairman of RealPage, as conventiongoers wandered by. Residence rents had lately shot up by as a lot as 14.5 %, he stated in a video touting the corporate’s providers. Turning to his colleague, Parsons requested: What position had the software program performed?
“I feel it’s driving it, fairly actually,” answered Andrew Bowen, one other RealPage govt. “As a property supervisor, only a few of us could be keen to truly elevate rents double digits inside a single month by doing it manually.”
The celebratory remarks have been greater than swagger. For years, RealPage has bought software program that makes use of knowledge analytics to counsel each day costs for open items. Property managers throughout the US have gushed about how the corporate’s algorithm boosts income.
“The fantastic thing about YieldStar is that it pushes you to go locations that you simply wouldn’t have gone in the event you weren’t utilizing it,” stated Kortney Balas, director of income administration at JVM Realty, referring to RealPage’s software program in a testimonial video on the corporate’s web site.
The nation’s largest property administration agency, Greystar, discovered that even in a single downturn, its buildings utilizing YieldStar “outperformed their markets by 4.8 %,” a big premium above rivals, RealPage stated in supplies on its web site. Greystar makes use of RealPage’s software program to cost tens of hundreds of residences.
RealPage turned the nation’s dominant supplier of such rent-setting software program after federal regulators permitted a controversial merger in 2017, a ProPublica investigation discovered, tremendously increasing the corporate’s affect over residence costs. The transfer helped the Texas-based firm push the shopper base for its array of actual property tech providers previous 31,700 prospects.
The impression is stark in some markets.
In a single neighborhood in Seattle, ProPublica discovered, 70 % of residences have been overseen by simply 10 property managers, each single considered one of which used pricing software program bought by RealPage.
To reach at a really helpful hire, the software program deploys an algorithm—a set of mathematical guidelines—to research a trove of information RealPage gathers from purchasers, together with non-public info on what close by rivals cost.
For tenants, the system upends the observe of negotiating with residence constructing workers. RealPage discourages bargaining with renters and has even really helpful that landlords in some circumstances settle for a decrease occupancy price with a view to elevate rents and earn more money.
One of many algorithm’s builders advised ProPublica that leasing brokers had “an excessive amount of empathy” in comparison with computer-generated pricing.
Residence managers can reject the software program’s options, however as many as 90 % are adopted, in response to former RealPage staff.
The software program’s design and rising attain have raised questions amongst actual property and authorized specialists about whether or not RealPage has birthed a brand new type of cartel that permits the nation’s largest landlords to not directly coordinate pricing, doubtlessly in violation of federal regulation.
Specialists say RealPage and its purchasers invite scrutiny from antitrust enforcers for a number of causes, together with their use of personal knowledge on what rivals cost in hire. Specifically, RealPage’s creation of labor teams that meet privately and embody landlords who’re in any other case rivals may very well be a pink flag of potential collusion, a former federal prosecutor stated.
At a minimal, critics stated, the software program’s algorithm could also be artificially inflating rents and stifling competitors.
“Machines shortly be taught the one method to win is to push costs above aggressive ranges,” stated College of Tennessee regulation professor Maurice Stucke, a former prosecutor within the Justice Division’s antitrust division.
RealPage acknowledged that it feeds its purchasers’ inside hire knowledge into its pricing software program, giving landlords an aggregated, nameless have a look at what their rivals close by are charging.
An organization consultant stated in an e mail that RealPage “makes use of aggregated market knowledge from a wide range of sources in a legally compliant method.”
The corporate famous that landlords who use staff to manually set costs “sometimes” conduct telephone surveys to test rivals’ rents, which the corporate says may end in anti-competitive habits.
“RealPage’s income administration options prioritize a property’s personal inside provide/demand dynamics over exterior components comparable to rivals’ rents,” an organization assertion stated, “and subsequently assist get rid of the chance of collusion that would happen with handbook pricing.”
The assertion stated RealPage’s software program additionally helps forestall rents from reaching unaffordable ranges as a result of it detects drops in demand, like those who occur seasonally, and might reply to them by reducing rents.
RealPage didn’t make Parsons, Bowen, or the corporate’s present CEO, Dana Jones, out there for interviews. Balas and a Greystar consultant declined to touch upon the document about YieldStar. The Nationwide Multifamily Housing Council, an trade group, additionally declined to remark.
Proponents say the software program just isn’t distorting the market. RealPage’s CEO advised buyers 5 years in the past that the corporate wouldn’t be sufficiently big to hurt competitors even after the merger. The CEO of considered one of YieldStar’s earliest customers, Ric Campo of Camden Property Belief, advised ProPublica that the residence market in his firm’s residence metropolis alone is so large and various that “it could be laborious to argue there was some type of worth fixing.”