“Change your apartment, change the world”, What Does That Even Mean?

I’m sure by now most of you have seen the commercial that Apartments.com did with Jeff Goldblum around the time of the Superbowl.  (in case you missed it) The commercial features a cheeky reference to the sitcom, The Jeffersons with the theme song about their move from a working class neighborhood to an affluent neighborhood.

For those that do not know The Jeffersons, the show was about a working class minority couple that accumulated wealth and moved to the upper east side of Manhattan. The show was a spinoff of All in the Family, about a white working class patriarch and his family. The show tackled controversial issues with what John Roleke (2014) refers to as undercurrents of racism that prompted “white flight” in predominantly white working-class neighborhoods like that of All in the Family.

The Jeffersons reference is an interesting frame for Apartments.com to debut their new apartment selection tools. The new tool allows renters to go beyond identifying the neighborhood where they would like to reside, enabling people to exclude areas right down to the street, or section of a neighborhood.

The commercial has already caught some heat for endorsing subtle racism, (take a look at this post by Moira Keihm) but I’m going to suggest that it goes much deeper than that.

Let’s discuss the new apartment selection tool debuted in the commercial in the frame of disparate impact. According to the National Fair Housing Alliance disparate impact refers to a practice that could be considered discriminatory if it has a disproportionate “adverse impact” on a protected class. This means that whether intentional or not, any industry, or policy that negatively impacts an area by allowing discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability, and/or familial status, has broken the law.

So what does all this have to do with apartments.com? Among housing advocates and those that study housing policy, it is known that planning and zoning practices have built in discriminatory biases. These biases impact where cities and towns sit low-income housing, most often resulting in reduced access to community assets such as quality schools, job centers, grocery stores, and transportation systems. You can read my research paper on federal housing policy here.

Because the new selection tool allows you to define your search by drawing a polygon, it goes beyond the traditional filters of price, size, pets, and route, allowing users the ability to cut out areas that may be characterized as “bad parts of town.” Often people identify these “bad” parts of town as low-income areas, those that border low-income areas, or areas characterized by a group of people that are “different” from you. “Bad” neighborhoods can also be areas where there is no public transit, grocery, or parks. However, the  apartments.com tool simply states “find apartments in the area you select” allowing people a seemingly innocuous way to narrow down their apartment search.

On its face, the tool looks like just another apartment selection tool. However, given the ability to cut out areas perceived as “bad” parts of a neighborhood based on perception, it becomes a quintessential example of disparate impact. It can also be compared to past subtle steering practices that landlords and real estate agents have used to “guide” people into housing options “appropriate” for their race, gender, handicap, familial status, etc.

This is not about the end user. Should you want to be discriminatory in your choice of housing that is your right.  This is about apartments.com, an industry endorsed site, that is required to uphold the Fair Housing laws. They should not facilitate discrimination in any form, whether intentional or not, and allow the continued impact to be felt in depressed neighborhoods. These communities already find themselves at the confluence of reduced access to paid advertising in places like apartments.com and at the mercy of city zoning practices that make them unattractive to renters and investors. Neighborhoods on the fringe continue to experience decline without mixed incomes, and development of community assets.

At any rate, what does the slogan “Change your apartment, change the world” mean? How is changing your apartment going to change the world especially in the context of “moving on up” as in the Jeffersons example used in the commercial? It is a subtle suggestion that you should move up to a nicer rental than the one you have now. However, this was precisely one of the reasons the new tool was created for apartments.com after it was acquired by CoStar Group in 2014. In their research, they found that people scour the rental sites in search of deals, specials, and recently reduced rents.  These reduced rents and specials are often designed by apartment communities as a lure to increase occupancy or compete in an escalating housing market. The communities plan to recoup the reduced rates with increases at renewal, add on services, and large lease break penalties. This desire to “keep up with the Joneses” puts many households in a state of instability in a place they cannot afford.

The real driving force behind the CoStar redesign of sites like apartments.com I am sure was not to give people tools to discriminate, or to suggest that they have to chase after a luxury rental. It is to increase site users in an effort to increase leads to advertisers. Changing your apartment does not change the world, it changes the world for the people making money from the advertising.



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Read the Fine Print!

Did you know that many lease agreements come with stiff penalties for breaking them? Did you know you can be charged for liquidated damages even if you never occupy the premises (aka two month’s rent plus a lost deposit)?

Did you agree to an increase in sub-metered utility payments payable to your landlord at anytime during your contract?

Did you sign away your right to sue, even if the property owners negligence causes you harm? Some leases also contain language forcing you to sign away your right to jury trial. (Which is an illegal practice I believe).

Parents, and other co-signers – check out your responsibility before you sign the lease!

Lets talk about a couple of scenarios:
You pre-lease an apartment and 6 months before you move-in a change in circumstances requires you to move somewhere else. If you signed the lease and plunked down the security deposit, you have lost the deposit.  Some landlords go as far as charging the lease termination fees as well.

Does your lease contains the following language? “Landlord may modify the method by which utilities are furnished to the premises and/or billed to Resident during the term of this Lease Agreement, including, but not limited to sub- metering of the premises for certain utility services or billing Resident for utilities previously included within the rent”.  This means that if the landlord decides to add or increase utility charges for your unit, you are obligated to pay them.  This is true even if it occurs during the term of your lease.  It’s called an escalation clause.

Your kiddo moves into their first college apartment and they ask you to co-sign the lease.  One weekend while they are at home visiting you like the good kid they are, the other roommate decides to have a party.  The party gets out of hand, the unit gets trashed, and the other roommate moves out.  Guess who is on the hook for the other half of the rent and the damages to the unit?  Worse yet, guess what happens if the unit goes to eviction status?  Many rental agreements are whole-unit, not separate tenant.  This means that as a co-signer you are fullly responsible for what happens with the unit should either party default.

These are “big city” practices occurring all over the nation, including small towns. Your best defense? READ THE LEASE BEFORE SIGNING IT!  If you will be pressed for time at your move-in, request a blank copy to read before your move-in date.  If something is not clear, ASK QUESTIONS.

In addition to reading the lease, you should know your rights as a resident.  Every state has some form of Landlord-Tenant Act that spells out both landlord and tenant rights and responsibilities.  Under federal law your landlord also has a responsibility to uphold the Fair Housing Act which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin.  In addition, there are reasonable accommodations that can be made available to those with a disability, including the required acceptance of service animals at no charge.

I’m not an attorney, but I do have 10 years of property management experience in three states.  If I can help with any leasing questions, ask away!

-Miss B


Your Real Brand Ambassadors Are Not Who You Think

Who are your brand ambassadors? If you think it is your sales people you, my friend, are dead wrong.

Let me tell you a little story about a house renovation project. These are the things that nightmares and divorce decrees are made of. But I don’t think it is because of the reasons generally brought to mind.  It’s not really about the arguing over how to do things, different tastes/styles, or money. I think it is more about the fact that everything in a renovation takes twice as long and costs twice as much as what you planned. It is in these moments of contractors slapping you with a 50% overage on an estimate, incorrectly designed cabinets, and “crown molding costs WHAT a square foot” that you and your partner find ways look the other way during personal meltdowns. Couples that have gone through a renovation can come out the other side with a better understanding of how their partner handles stressful events and how they themselves handle their partners reaction to the stressor.

Our renovation project has been a work in progress for over a year. And now in the final 60 day window we are having a problem getting the kitchen island to look like what we thought it was going to look like. Part of the problem developed when our original sales person was let go and no one at the company contacted us. After days of not hearing anything we had to start over with a new sales person and their interpretation of our concept.  Since we had kept all the documentation and the new sales person had our file, we believed we were still on track.   But lo and behold, there was a miscommunication on the design of the island which is now costing more money and holding up the rest of the project.

Things got even more botched when the team sent to fix the island was not the original team on the cabinet job.
My thoughts on how to fix the island were communicated to the sales person, but lost in translation to the production team. When the installer showed up he did not have any concept of what we were wanting nor did he have proper materials to complete the job. This in turn meant that the counter top person could not do their job that day, and as a contractor lost a day’s pay.

And boy does it turn into the shell swapping blame game from there.  The installer, feeling like an idiot, begins trying to explain that the communication at the company is nonexistent and that it is not his fault. When this happens on a consistent basis the person on the front line ends up trashing the team because they feel resentful for being in this type of predicament. Our guy was pretty diplomatic, but it was easy to see that he was left in the dark and therefore left holding the bag when the customer was unhappy.

Proper communication between sales and production would have solved this and kept the company’s reputation intact. All too often a sales force is separated from a delivery team either by physical location or lack of interest.  Sales people have been made to feel like they rule the roost – and at times they should.  If your team doesn’t believe in your company enough to be able to close deals then your company will suffer.  That being said, having a stellar sales force doesn’t mean a damn thing if you fall down on the delivery.  Typically, your delivery takes place outside of the sales floor with an installer, an IT professional, a maintenance person, etc.  THEY are your company’s reputation.  Not the slick sales person.

That story I watched unfold in my half-complete kitchen is the same thing I have witnessed time and time again in the apartment industry.  Leasing agents deliver a slick bells and whistles show stopping pitch only to have things fall apart on the delivery either because the apartment wasn’t pristine or because it wasn’t delivered on time.  This becomes a high hurdle to jump and it adds to the anecdotes we love to tell others and post on review sites.

During my career in the housing industry what made me appear successful to upper management was my ability to connect with people and close deals. What actually made me successful is how I worked hard to develop strong relationships with my maintenance team.  I knew how to negotiate a quick move in, the time it would take to turn a trashed apartment, and how to buy time for work order completion.  I also knew that through the time and attention I devoted to understanding my maintenance team they would help me out.  In the end if I made a mistaken undeliverable promise they’d find a way to get it done or at the very least, back me up instead of trashing the company.

For me, maintenance people are the heart and soul of the operation.  They are the last person in line with the sales promise and the first person in line when the customer is unhappy. Shouldn’t the people delivering your product feel like you’ve got their back? Doesn’t your customer deserve that?