On the Upper West Side of Manhattan, what appears to be a beautiful old brownstone building has an apartment available for rent on the fourth floor. But would-be renters don’t have any idea that the building has had safety, water, fire code, heat, and hot water violations in the past several years.
Rentlogic, a startup trying to give renters the real story about their apartments, has recently released a browser extension that tells renters the grade–A, B, C, or F–of the building they’re looking at. That building on the Upper West Side, for instance, gets an F because of the number of violations verified by New York City inspectors that have accumulated over the years. The extension works across every major rental listings site in New York City.
“The idea of creating this plugin is that we don’t really care where you find your apartment, if you go on StreetEasy, Craigslist, Zillow, or if you just call a broker, we just want you to look up the rating before you sign the lease,” says Yale Fox, the company’s founder and CEO.
Fox has been burned before when renting an apartment. He survived living in a building whose landlord was Steven Croman, a man recently sentenced to prison for 20 felonies committed against his tenants. One of his previous rentals had toxic mold–his dog, Ellie, got sick as a result. Around that time, Fox says that New York City released data on building inspections. So when he took his landlord to court, Fox decided to make a chart that would show just how bad his landlord was compared to all the other landlords in New York. “The judge laughed,” Fox says. “He said, ‘You should build an app.'”
Rentlogic was born in 2013 with a lookup site where anyone could enter their address and see the grade of their building. It progressed to a full listings site in 2015, and now the startup has launched an extension to make it as easy as possible to check the history of your building. Fox says that the number of buildings people looked up reached 75,000 in the 48 hours previous to when we spoke, the most they’ve had so quickly. “Even if you’re not looking for an apartment, install it,” Fox says. “Otherwise you’ll forget.”
How are buildings rated? Rentlogic uses an algorithm that takes into account all violations that have been confirmed by the city, weighted by severity. A broken doorknob, for instance, isn’t as bad as an entire building roach infestation. “We’re trying to push everybody through a RentLogic filter which will eventually create higher demand for the As, which will cause supply to decrease, and that’s how landlords get rewarded,” Fox says. “It’ll increase their rents.”
It’s not a perfect system, though–I looked up my building on Rentlogic and was shocked to find it was graded an “F.” While my landlord is sometimes slow to respond to maintenance requests, he has always fixed everything I needed. Turns out the last violations–10 of them, all from the same apartment–were from a year and a half ago, before I moved in. I may have thought twice about signing my lease if I’d seen the grade beforehand, but Rentlogic’s rating hasn’t matched my experience. I asked Fox about it, and he told me that there’s a process in beta right now for landlords to give RentLogic more information to improve their grade.
That isn’t something Rentlogic will ever charge for because it would dilute their ratings’ credibility. But Fox says the company, which has been funded by investors, is currently profitable due to tools that RentLogic sells to landlords to help them understand their buildings and how to lease them faster and for more money.
Fox says he tries to keep the ratings as fair as possible by consulting with large landlords and renters’ associations to make sure both sides are happy with his system. It’s for that reason that unverified complaints aren’t included in calculating the rating (though they do show up on the building’s RentLogic profile). And not every building is like mine, where there might be some negligence but it’s hardly premeditated–there are landlords who are truly exploiting their tenants, like Steven Croman. Ultimately, Rentlogic might be able to reward those doing good work while holding landlords accountable.