Who Should Be Monitoring the Rise of “Landlord Tech”?

Live in one of the big built-to-rent apartment complexes around Dublin and you may have to touch-in with a key fob, pay rent through an app, or log maintenance requests through an online system.

As Urbeo, a build-to-rent developer, has rolled out more complexes, it has created a smartphone app for tenants to pay rent, organise events, and request maintenance for its homes. They’re not the only ones to have done so.

Vogue Living, property managers for the co-living development at Cork Street, has an app.

As does SQRE Living, property managers for the proposed co-living spaces at Hill Street in Dublin 1 and at the Phibsboro Shopping Centre.

“Advanced analytics allow us to assess usage and constantly improve the resident experience,” says its website.

When developers of the big rental complexes that are planned for the city put in for planning permission, they include details of how they’re going to manage the buildings in “building management plans”.

When should the tech that they plan to use, and any related data-privacy issues, be looked at? Should it be at the planning stage, or should it be looked at later – or is it too late then?

Neither Urbeo nor Vogue Living responded to queries about how their smartphone apps function.

A Different Remit

The use of tech to manage buildings is becoming more integral to building design, says Pat Nestor, the head of building control at Dublin City Council’s Planning and Property Development Department.

“These systems, as part of a good facilities-management regime, manage everything from footfall in a building, to even the number of times a toilet has been used,” he says.

This helps to optimise things like energy management, planned maintenance, building security and cleaning, and to minimise waste, says Nestor.

Building-management plans, submitted as part of planning applications, cover everything from tenant and visitor access, to CCTV and other security measures, to cleaning, checking in and out, and visitor access.

In the management plan for Cork Street Shared Living, property managers Vogue Living outline the different uses the app will have for the management of the building. These include checking in new residents, scheduling viewings, booking events, managing payments, and managing guest access.

Measures to mitigate against risks to data privacy are not currently submitted alongside the use of new technologies within the management plans.

While SQRE Living says digital technology will be a key part of their co-living plans in Phibsboro and Hill Street, there is little detail in the management plans about what this might look like, how it will work, and how tenants’ data will be processed.

According to a spokesperson for SQRE Living, it is still working out the details of how its proprietary app will work and how exactly technology will improve things for residents.

In An Bord Pleanála’s inspector’s report for the rejected planning application for turning the Hendrons Building in Broadstone into a co-living complex called Western Way, the inspector said: “The document states that with proper management the development poses a relatively low risk of operational risk.”

It didn’t address any risk to residents’ privacy from the proposed use of thermal-imaging for the management of Covid-19.

“Management plans can be a matter for post planning decisions,” said a spokesperson for An Bord Pleanála.

“Many of the points you raise cross over into enforcement and possibly into building regulations territory,” they said, in response to queries about how the management plans and role of new technologies are evaluated.

Anything to do with data protection comes under the control of the Data Protection Commissioner, they said.

Nestor, of Dublin City Council, said that “Planning is about the regulation of the development of the environment and built environment.”

Typically the deployment of systems such as key fobs, security cameras and so on, are part of the tenant’s relationship with the building owner and are dealt with through different regulations, such as the GDPR, he says.

“The power to give or withhold that consent is with the tenants,” says Nestor, adding that this role is beyond the council’s planning-application process.

The council does not have criteria for assessing building-management systems, he said.

Data Concerns

Currently, the processing of tenants’ personal data is a matter for the organisations themselves through a data controller, says a spokesperson for the Data Protection Commission (DPC).

“Where such technologies are to be incorporated in new-build developments, the principle of data protection by design (Article 25 GDPR) requires data controllers to make these considerations at an early stage in the process,” they said.

This should be done, they said, through identifying the privacy risks through a Data Protection Impact Assessment in order to reduce the risks to the privacy and data protection rights of individuals.

The Data Protection Commission does not review planning applications, the spokesperson said. It acts once a complaint is made about a potential breach of data privacy, but it is not currently dealing with any cases that relate to privacy and tech in homes, the spokesperson said.

The challenge with any of these types of systems is that they collect data about individual people who have rights, says Olga Cronin, policy officer on surveillance and human rights with the Irish Council for Civil Liberties.

“The controllers of these systems have to respect these rights, including the right to privacy,” she says.

While it’s an interesting idea for planning authorities to be more aware of sophisticated surveillance systems cropping up in new builds, the onus to be compliant with GDPR rests on the data controller, says Cronin.

In other words, the person, public authority, agency or other body who determines the purposes and means of processing personal data.

“Having said that, the increased prevalence of these systems should create open, robust and public discussions at a local authority level about how we want to live and go about our lives, at a time considered by many to be the ‘golden age of surveillance’,” says Cronin.

A Shifting Relationship

Erin McElroy, an organiser with the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project in the US, does research into the use of tech in property management.

“One of the big things we are finding is that it’s really emboldened a really large abstract system of landlordism which privileges corporations,” they said.

They prefer the term “landlord tech” over “proptech” as the latter term further shifts the balance of power in favour of landlords, they said.

Landlord tech has subcategories, they said. “We on our website have divided it between surveillance and speculation but there’s a lot of overlap between the two.”

Surveillance includes industries like tenant screening, virtual property management, and home surveillance through smart tech, according to the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project’s website.

Speculation tech includes technology that’s used by the property industry to facilitate the accumulation of property by corporate landlords.

“[Landlord tech] makes it a lot harder for tenants to have a one-on-one relationship with their landlord which then can often lead to new forms of surveillance,” says McElroy.

It can also automate much of the relationship, including evictions, further separating the tenant from their landlord, they said.

At the moment there’s nothing monitoring the creeping use of proptech, bar the broad scope of GDPR, says Mitch Hamilton, communications officer with Community Action Tenants Union (CATU).

“In regards to technology that enables landlords to hold more personal information of a tenant, there’s obviously a power imbalance,” says Hamilton.

There’s a level of connection to tenants that’s not a two-way street.

Landlords get more information on tenants’ lives, Hamilton says. “Yet tenants are not granted the same information about their landlord.”

Although, having a centralised system where tenants pay rent isn’t in itself a bad idea, Hamilton says. It can improve transparency and increase trust when it comes to things like payments and deposits.

But “This isn’t being executed to increase trust and transparency,” he says. “It’s essentially being used as a snooping exercise.”

What oversight is needed to ensure such new technologies are not furthering the imbalance between landlords and tenants?

“Frankly the best solution may well be a ban on these unnecessary, invasive technologies presented as nothing but benign convenience until either such an independent regulatory body has been created or an independent assessment of the impact on tenant privacy can be completed,” says Hamilton.

The DPC working with the Housing Minister to create a hybrid body for oversight might be the best long-term solution, he says.

Normalising Surveillance

The build-to-rent developments at the former Dulux Paint Factory at Davitt Road, Dublin 12, will use fob access for the resident areas of the building including the lounge, gym and terrace, according to its management plan.

“The entire building will operate under a unified security plan with restricted access control,” it states. “This system will include access key fobs for residents and staff that allow access to certain parts of the building.”

The use of fobs also crops up at the new build-to-rent scheme at Swiss Cottages in Santry, and the Cork Street Shared Living scheme (where tenants can also use their smartphones to access the building).

For Cronin, it’s important to recognise that the presence of more sophisticated forms of surveillance both in public and private places normalises surveillance.

“We should be very careful and mindful about that and continuously ask ourselves what kind of world we want to live in and assess the impact of these technologies. Do we want our every move recorded?” she says. “Do we need our every move recorded?”

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Sean Finnan: Sean Finnan is a freelance journalist. You can reach him at [email protected]

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