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Cities Give Housing Technology a Wary Reappraisal

Digital platforms and services have brought a mixed bag of benefits to cities — and a backlash from equity and privacy advocates. 

The problem was well known: During the pandemic, billions of dollars in federal emergency rental assistance were sitting unused, in part because struggling tenants were having trouble applying for aid. Many of the state programs tasked with distributing the relief funds were riddled with bureaucratic hurdles, leading to frustrating delays. 

For the National Fair Housing Alliance, one part of the answer is technological. At the beginning of March, the housing nonprofit launched a website called Frontdoor that allows tenants to more easily access rent aid.

This is a solution that knows what the user’s needs are, said Michael Akinwumi, NFHA’s chief tech equity officer. In 10 minutes or less, we want users to be able to be matched to the application that will make them the most likely to get relief.

Housing technology is a “new civil rights frontier,” says Akinwumi, whose work at the advocacy organization is focused on eliminating housing discrimination associated with artificial intelligence and machine learning. In recent years, technology has often been seen as an impediment rather than an aid to housing equity and access, a tendency highlighted in stories about racial bias in mortgage-approval algorithms and credit scores, and in discrimination in social media advertising around housing (the NFHA successfully pushed Facebook to change its housing listings).

But as Akinwumi says, “There’s a good side to technology,” as well.

As far as the future of housing and economic opportunities is concerned, technology is here to stay. Technology is critical to accessing opportunities.

This shifting view of tech’s impact on the urban landscape was a key thread running through a recent symposium at Harvard, ​​Bringing Digitalization Home, which explored how tech can help or hinder progress on housing affordability and discrimination. The question of technological innovation and housing has long been a topic of interest for David Luberoff, deputy director of the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies.

The conventional wisdom is that the housing sector is a place where there’s been no innovation, and modular construction has been the wave of the future for decades, Luberoff said.

He points to the “unbelievable surge of VC capital” into tech-related housing in recent years as a result, with startups seeing an opportunity to digitize a massive sector of the economy. 

A number of other events, initiatives and campaigns have been coalescing around the topic of digital equity and tech overreach. The Knight Foundation plans to invest $1 million in expanding public internet access in Miami and creating an accelerator to advance “resident-centered technology.” The Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, or S.T.O.P., recently announced the Just Cities Education Campaign, focused on informing activists, advocates and elected officials on the best ways to tap technology’s potential to provide civic equity while resisting government surveillance. 

Implicit is a sense that tech, which has sold a narrative of “algorithmic alchemy” that can solve societal problems, is also a prime cause of many of these challenges, said S.T.O.P. executive director Albert Fox Cahn.

We see this backlash because tech doesn’t fix it, and the pandemic only accelerated this disillusionment, he said. 

Big Tech’s seismic impact on cities has assumed many forms. New surveillance technology — whether it’s the ability to track drivers via license plate readers or monitor the neighbors with doorbell cameras — promises to both fight crime and stoke fears of discrimination. Short-term rental platforms have transformed local tourism economies and exacerbated housing affordability and gentrification. Shared mobility apps and delivery services have brought a similar mix of positive and ill effects, providing a lifeline for urban residents during the pandemic but also snarling traffic and adding vehicle emission as they undergird a low-paying gig economy. 

Perhaps the backlash can best be traced through the arc of disillusionment around the “smart city,” both the vision of more advanced urban environments augmented by next-generation devices and the spate of ground-up cities of the future pushed by tech moguls. Sidewalk Labs’ Toronto waterfront project, a multibillion-dollar multi-use development, was scuttled after significant pushback from civic groups around surveillance concerns. 

This is definitely a response to a lot of the magical thinking being sold by tech companies and surveillance vendors, that if you just collect more data, and install more sensors, that suddenly the algorithms will solve seemingly intractable problems, said S.T.O.P.’s Cahn. In truth, it’s often failing to live up to the promise, and create more harm, creating these risk factors that lawmakers didn’t even know about.

Big data, and the potential created by machine learning and AI, is a big part of the story, said Luberoff. There’s a play for efficiency, whether it’s iBuying or home appraisals or city management; the question, he says, is who stands to benefit. The stakes will only get higher as more money flows into funding this technology; according to the Center for Real Estate Technology & Innovation, between 2019 and 2021, almost $90 billion in venture capital funding flooded into this sector, substantially more than the five years prior.

There are a whole bunch of interesting ways tech has made it easier to find, buy and manage properties — and investors can use it to squeeze renters, said Luberoff. But as a renter, tech also gives me more access to many places to live, and to see them, and to communicate with my landlord. It can make my life easier. This is clearly a case where the devil is in the details. 

Civic tech may not be new, but these initiatives speak to a larger reckoning. Municipal bans on facial recognition and regulatory crackdowns on delivery apps and short-term rental platforms reflect the efforts many cities have made to rein in the ill effects of new services and devices. In February, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden introduced the Algorithmic Accountability Act, a Senate bill aimed at beefing up oversight of companies that rely on automated decision-making. In a statement announcing the proposed legislation, Wyden said that “if someone decides not to rent you a house because of the color of your skin, that’s flat-out illegal discrimination.”

One of the larger questions is how technology can better be utilized by cities. The rise in tech-focused city staff and departments of innovation suggests local governments are investing more in digital skills and talent — and becoming more sophisticated, taking a “tech-as-needed” instead of a “tech-first” approach. Among advocacy groups, a number of new efforts, such as the new NFHA website, have focused on housing justice. New York City’s Housing Data Coalition, for example, has created platforms and tools like Who Owns What, which demystifies property ownership, and Justfix.nyc to support tenants’ rights. San Francisco’s Anti-Eviction Mapping Project has helped highlight the impacts of eviction in numerous cities, while Desegregate Connecticut used an online zoning atlas to help reform laws around accessory dwelling units.

Cahn says simple, even seemingly mundane advances — like bus stops that tell riders when the next bus is arriving — offer small but meaningful advances without requiring a tradeoff in personal data. 

The public sector is almost certainly a little behind the history of technological innovation, said Luberoff. If you learn nothing else, the policy response comes after the innovation, as we begin to grapple with fundamental questions about what kinds of data are being collected and what we can do with it.

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