JP Morgan Wants to Make Tenant Data Available to Every Landlord

Tenants get to throw away their checkbooks. Landlords learn how much to raise your rent by.
​Image: Getty Images
Image: Getty Images
This Series explores surveillance and its intersection with race and civil rights. made possible with support from Columbia University’s Ira A. Lipman Center.

On Monday, J.P. Morgan Chase announced that it was piloting a new platform called “Story,” an online real estate management that allows landlords to manage their portfolio of properties, collect rent payments, screen tenants, and view market insights including sales prices and vacancy rates.

This was framed by the banking giant as a way to modernize rent payments and to make them "stress-free" for tenants. Sam Yen, a J.P. Morgan executive, told Motherboard that this platform is specifically designed to modernize rent payment by getting rid of paper checks altogether: “Despite there being more than $500 billion of rental payments in the US annually, the vast majority of those payments are still made in paper checks. When discussing with residents, as we were interviewing them they said, 'This is the only reason I have a checkbook.'"  


While a platform like this might make it easier for tenants to pay rent, Story is actually a massive data platform that tenant organizers and privacy advocates worry will deepen the inequality between landlords and tenants and further entrench housing discrimination. 

“It's one thing to just enable tenants to submit rent payments online, those kinds of platforms are not uncommon and something that JP Morgan's platform is intended to help do. But these kinds of platforms are aimed at delivering insights to real estate management companies based on data analytics in a space where there's already an abundance of technologies that are making decisions about who gets and maintains access to housing,” Ridhi Shetty, the Policy Counsel with the Center for Democracy and Technology's Privacy & Data Project, told Motherboard.

According to a J.P. Morgan spokesperson, “Story was built for multifamily owner and operator businesses that operate on a smaller scale, where not many purpose-built solutions exist. Many of these businesses operate in a paper intensive and manual way, with competing priorities and limited support. Story can help these operators optimize the way they run their business.” Story will allow landlords to “access valuable data and insights including more than 1,500 pieces of curated and original content, and see a holistic and real-time view of their portfolio.” 


Specifically, J.P. Morgan says it will help landlords use data to screen tenants and to "analyze markets." CNBC reported that this includes helping landlords "set rent levels." It's not hard to imagine a landlord raising rent because J.P. Morgan's data suggests their market can bear it. 

“Do those analytics take into account why somebody missed a payment? For instance, somebody withheld rent because a landlord failed to make repairs or ensure habitable housing or comply with the landlord's obligations under the existing lease,” Shetty said. “Will those kinds of insights lead to the landlord making changes or improving their own practices to ensure that going forward tenants are more inclined to maintain regular payments because the landlords are meeting their obligations? Otherwise, using rental payment data, landlords can often penalize tenants without correcting any factors that have led to those incidents in the first place. There's an imbalance between who's going to benefit from that kind of data collection insights.” 

According to the State of the Nation’s 2022 Housing report put together by Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies, lower-income households and households of color are struggling as rents increase by as much as 42 percent this year. Paired with the surge in prices of gas, food, and other necessities, insufficient housing supply, and higher interest rates, many renters were priced out of their homes. The Story tool and tools like it can drive up rental prices while failing to take into account the reasons tenants may not be able to send in rent payments on time, René Moya, a tenant organizer with the Debt Collective, told Motherboard.


“As we know, nationwide, the inability to pay rent is by far the leading reason for tenants to face eviction. Landlords know and abuse that all the time and automated tools, such as the one that JP Morgan is attempting to build and release, are just another weapon in the arsenal of landlords, to weaponize that inability and difficulty to pay rent that tenants face,” Moya said. “I think that this kind of innovation, but innovation for landlords is going to simply result in even more instability in the lives of tenants, but greater returns on investments for landlords.” 

The insights that Story is hoping to provide are not new for landlords. ProPublica recently investigated a software called YieldStar by RealPage, which helps landlords set prices for apartments across the US. RealPage, whose clients include some of the largest property managers in the country, was criticized for feeding “its clients’ internal rent data into its software, giving landlords an aggregated, anonymous look at what their competitors nearby are charging.” Its algorithm, ProPublica found, was driving rents higher and the company encouraged landlords to leave some apartments vacant in order to raise rent and be more profitable. These tools, therefore, can be used to prioritize landlord revenue, while exacerbating housing unaffordability and inequality. 


The problem with Story and tools like it is that the power to use them is solely in the hands of landlords, and the overwhelming majority of the benefits go to the landlord, as well (meanwhile, tenants get the vaguely marginal benefit of being able to pay their rent online).

“What all of these kinds of technology do is bring a ton of clarity and transparency to landlords, but there's nothing comparable for tenants. Tenants don't have the kind of capacity that landlords have to be able to see what the real state of the rental housing market is. They don't even know who the actual ultimate owners of the buildings that they live in are,” Moya said.

In this sense, Story and tools like it are quasi-surveillance tools where tenants get a modicum of convenience while giving up a large amount of data that can ultimately be used against them or aggregated with other people's data to harm renters as a whole.

“If we could use very basic forms of technology to show who ultimately owns buildings, what the nominal rents in those buildings are, if there had been code violations in the past, all of these kinds of things would help tenants determine for themselves whether the building that they want to potentially rent in is good enough. More importantly, it would help if our city officials in different parts of the country were able to check and see what kind of abuses are happening at the ground level in our buildings. But there's no transparent, clear-cut way for tenants to be able to either report that or show that to city officials,” Moya said. 


Another tool that Story provides landlords is a discount on tenant screening through TransUnion's SmartMove, which Story says will enable landlords to "proactively manage risk." SmartMove uses credit reports, criminal records, and eviction histories in its reports. This type of screening can be most harmful to Black and Latino communities, which are overrepresented in the criminal legal system and more likely to be evicted than other demographic groups. SmartMove also creates a "ResidentScore," which is a score intended to predict the reliability of a prospective tenant. 

Multiple cities have considered banning this sort of algorithm; last year, Washington D.C. introduced legislation that "would make it illegal for companies and organizations to use discriminatory algorithms to make decisions about key areas of life opportunity, including education, employment, housing, and public accommodations and services like credit, health care, and insurance." Researchers at Dartmouth and Georgetown Law School, meanwhile, noted that ResidentScore "may perpetuate on-the-ground inequalities."

“The Department of Housing and Urban Development has cautioned against using arrest records and eviction records, the former because an arrest is not necessarily indicative of a conviction or a reliable predictor of criminal behavior, and eviction records often can result from nuisance calls that are made to law enforcement against people who are experiencing domestic violence,” Shetty said. “In those cases, using just the arrest record for the eviction records without that context will penalize tenants and prospective tenants without taking into account factors that have contributed to that kind of data being developed. And that has continued to result in people being denied opportunities to access housing based on race, based on disabilities, and also based on gender identity. All that data without knowing the context in which it was generated is going to lead to adverse decisions about actual and prospective tenants.” 

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development issued guidance in 2016 that declared that it was against federal law to refuse to rent or renew a lease based on an individual’s criminal history. In August, a bill was introduced in New York City that would restrict landlords’ ability to vet applicants’ criminal histories. If this bill is passed, NYC would join a number of cities including San Francisco and Chicago to curtail landlords from screening applicants’ criminal records. Yet, Story continues to list these reports as part of its offerings to landlords

“There are ways in which technology could be leveraged to better improve the lives of renters,” Moya said. “Instead, what we're seeing is technology being leveraged to automate inequality for tenants, especially in a moment when their cost of living is being squeezed by massive rent increases.” 

This article is part of State of Surveillance, made possible with the support of a grant from Columbia University’s Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights in conjunction with Arnold Ventures. The series will explore the development, deployment, and effects of surveillance and its intersection with race and civil rights.