Living through lockdown in New York City, renters chose to fixate on what they could control — their apartments.
One tenant decorated her bathroom in an homage to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Another obsessively focused on exterminating the roaches nesting in her stove.
And hundreds of thousands of housebound New Yorkers took to the Internet to dish on the pros and peeves of living situations they had previously been too busy to notice. A handful of landlord and building review sites that cropped up in the late 2010s suddenly flooded with tenant takes.
“We saw probably the highest number of reviews during the pandemic,” said Brandon Procak, founder of review site RentCity, which saw engagement more than double from 2019 to 2020. “And people were writing a lot because I think they just had the time.”
Even as New York has reopened, site founders say traffic has continued to grow and landlords are starting to notice.
Balance of Power
The folks behind startups like Whose Your Landlord or OpenIgloo see review sites as proptech with the potential to alter the tenant-landlord relationship — outfitting renters with knowledge and demanding accountability from property owners.
Even five years ago, getting a read on a prospective landlord called for a mini-research project.
City property owners frequently operate behind a host of LLCs that make it difficult for tenants to suss out who owns their building, let alone the state their landlord keeps it in.
As a result, renters often sign lease agreements with fingers crossed, then spend the next year wishing they hadn’t. A 2017 HotPads survey Procak cited, found that two out of every three tenants experience renters’ remorse.
“You can get ratings and reviews on everything from your driver to your sandwich to your pencil, but you can’t get them on your homes,” said Procak. “That’s just crazy.”
Helping Future Renters
To fill that need, Procak, alongside a few other disgruntled renters, built out review sites and apps that sought to center the renter experience so that future apartment hunters would have more information to inform their housing choices.
Most of the sites work similarly, culling tenant reviews and rankings, city data on building violations and 311 calls, and third-party awards to produce a numbered score for each building or building owner.
A shared goal among founders was to avoid the common downfall of Yelp and Google — the devastation wrought by a one-star review.
“Let’s say your fridge breaks for a couple of weeks,” said Ofo Ezeugwu, founder of Whose Your Landlord, which launched in 2017.
“That’s a tough experience, right? You’ve got to throw your groceries out. Maintenance might be a little bit slow in getting around to fixing it. But at the same time, that’s not always indicative of your entire experience.”
Ezeugwu has tenants answer a seven-question survey that rates building owners on responsiveness and respect and the apartment on pests and safety to deliver a more holistic review.
OpenIgloo, a site that launched last summer, uses a similar format and includes questions like “Did you get your security deposit back?” or “Would you recommend this apartment to a friend?”
“Instead of someone ranting for eight paragraphs on Yelp about something that’s really specific to them, we’re asking questions that would be helpful to everyone,” said OpenIgloo’s founder Allia Mohamed. As the pandemic wore on, the site added a question about whether landlords had offered their tenants a flexible payment arrangement — an average 19 percent of renters under the age of 25 said yes.
Each site does allow tenants to write out a review. And a cursory glance of written submissions reveals ticked-off tenants leaving one-star ratings have found their way to landlord review sites, as well.
Still, site founders say the renter-specific details included on their platforms hold their own against a few hot takes. Plus, the reviews submitted throughout the pandemic were, surprisingly, overwhelmingly positive, they said.
“There is such a predisposition to being anti-landlord if you’re a tenant that if you actually get a wonderful experience I think you’re really happy about that and you’re very willing to recommend him or her to other people,” said Julian Felch, founder of building review site bitResi and a 15-year veteran of the multifamily industry.
With rising engagement — OpenIgloo pulled 110,000 new users in a year; RentCity has added 135,000 in the same period — site executives say landlords have begun to tune in to what their tenants are saying about their buildings.
“These formerly kind of opaque landlords are beginning to wake up and say okay, this is the new game,” Felch said. “In order to compete, we have to be customer forward, customer-centric and that’s what we’re gonna do “
Felch said some owners have used feedback to more accurately price an apartment when a tenant vacates or, instead of throwing the kitchen sink at a remodel, decided to target the repairs tenants noted in reviews.
There are still plenty of old-school operators, he said, who want nothing to do with the new platforms, preferring to shield themself from any bad feedback. But Felch is unsure how much longer that lack of accountability will fly.
The aspect of building management tenants prized most? Owner responsiveness.
“Oh my goodness, communication is key,” said Ezeugwu.
“Renters, especially in New York, can tolerate a lot — the occasional cockroach or loud street noise,” said Mohamed. “But not having management or an owner respond to a dozen emails when something goes wrong will sour even the most luxurious rental experience.”
Among sites willing to share data, here’s how the city’s landlords stacked up. Review sites have only been operational for 1-4 years, so data does not encompass all of New York City’s landlords. Those using the platforms also tend to skew younger and are majority millennials. Largely, rankings do not include reviews of mom-and-pop landlords.
Analyzed data from 80 residential portfolios of at least 500 units. Each landlord listed below ranked in the 90th percentile for building ratings, recommendation rates and city violations. The five landlords below have an average rating of 4.1/5 compared to the city average of 3.2
Portfolio: 3,416 units
Pros: Building amenities
Boroughs: Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens
Portfolio: 7,500 units
Pros: Friendly building staff
Portfolio: 8,000 units
Pros: Responsive management
Portfolio: 5,000 units
Pros: Affordable; attentive management
Portfolio: 2,000+ units
Pros: Friendly building staff, spacious apartments
Whose Your Landlord
The site ranks landlords on a scale of five for responsiveness, respect, information, apartment conditions, pests, safety and guest policies. All top-four companies scored highest in the condition category.
1. Verco Properties
Portfolio: 30 properties
Boroughs: Manhattan, Bronx
Reviews received: 57
Pros: Offered concessions during Covid
2. Building Equity Management
Boroughs: Manhattan, Brooklyn
Portfolio: 50 properties
Reviews received: 19
Pros: Responsive and repairs addressed quickly
Reviews received: 57
Pros: Offers short-term, furnished rentals
4. Avalon Morningside Park
Parent company: Avalon Communities
Portfolio: 295 units
Reviews received: 14
Pros: New, clean, pet friendly
Boroughs: Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, Bronx
Portfolio: 150+ buildings
Pros: Clean, friendly building staff, fast with repairs