Some renters may savor the convenience of “smart home” technologies like keyless entry and internet-connected doorbell cameras. But tech companies are increasingly selling these solutions to landlords for a more nefarious purpose: spying on tenants in order to evict them or raise their rent.
“You CAN raise rents in NYC!” reads the headline of one promotional email sent to landlords. It was a sales pitch from Teman, a tech company that makes surveillance systems for apartment buildings.
Teman’s sales pitch proposes a solution to a frustration for many New York City landlords, who have tenants living in older apartments that are protected by a myriad of rent control and stabilization laws. The company’s email suggests a workaround: “3 Simple Steps to Re-Regulate a Unit.” First, use one of Teman’s automated products to catch a tenant breaking a law or violating their lease, such as by having unapproved subletters or loud parties. Then, “vacate” them and merge their former apartment with one next door or above or below, creating a “new” unit that’s not eligible for rent protections. “Combine a $950/mo studio and $1400/mo one-bedroom into a $4200/mo DEREGULATED two-bedroom,” the email enticed.
Teman’s surveillance systems can even “help you identify which units are most-likely open to moving out (or being evicted!).”
Housing advocates and surveillance experts say the practice of adopting surveillance technologies against renters has become increasingly common at a time when Black and Latino renters are disproportionately displaced by gentrification and overrepresented in eviction courts.
“No one has exact numbers, but we've seen growing amounts of surveillance on buildings big and small,” Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP), told Motherboard. Cahn says that some examples include facial recognition and biometrics, automated noise and gunshot detection devices, and other systems that attempt to measure activity or movement inside private residences. “For me, it’s really alarming, because when you see the sales pitch for some of these products, it’s far more invasive than just seeing who's at the front door,” he said.
Erin McElroy, a professor of American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin who tracks eviction trends, also says that digital surveillance of residential buildings is increasing, particularly in New York City, which she calls the “landlord tech epicenter.”
“We definitely saw an uptick in [this] during the pandemic,” McElroy told Motherboard, “but it’s really the categories of facial recognition and illegal sublet detection systems that are more overtly problematic.”
Any camera system can document possibly eviction-worthy behavior, but McElroy identified two companies, Teman and Reliant Safety, that use the biometrics of tenants with the explicit goal of facilitating evictions.
These companies are part of an expanding industry known as “proptech,” encompassing all the technology used for acquiring and managing real estate. A report by Future Market Insights predicts that proptech will quadruple its current value, becoming a $86.5 billion industry by 2023. It is also sprouting start-ups to ease all aspects of the business—including the unsavory ones.
“We have EVICTED OVER 600 STABILIZED TENANTS in the last 2 years”
As told by its founder, the origin story for Teman goes like this: Ari Teman, author, painter, entrepreneur, and stand-up comedian, rented out his Chelsea apartment on Airbnb. He returned to find an orgy of naked “overweight” people who caused $67,000 in damage, including mystery liquids on his furniture. It was a small viral story in 2014. The Airbnb renter denied Teman’s account in an interview with the New York Post.
Inspired, Teman partnered with Israeli makers of “advanced military technology and artificial intelligence” to create a surveillance system to spot unauthorized entrants. The company’s suite of products includes GateGuard, a “virtual concierge doorman” that can use facial recognition as an entry key, and “SubletSpy,” which uses much of the same backend technology to “catch, monitor [and] evict short term [sic] sublets like Airbnb,” according to the company’s website. In 2019, Teman stated that its technology is in use in 1,000 buildings.
In his appeals to landlords, Teman has broadened the scope of tenants targetable through his products. In a 2018 LinkedIn post, the possibly eviction-worthy activities detected included “subletting,” “living elsewhere most of the year,” “hav[ing] too many occupants” and “hosting parties or businesses.”
He has explicitly suggested surveilling rent-stabilized apartments. “We have EVICTED OVER 600 STABILIZED TENANTS in the last 2 years,” the same post stated.
He also claims facial recognition can prevent inheritance claims, in which some rent protections are passed to family members who lived with a tenant. “That old lady might be gone in a few years,” Teman wrote, “but if you cannot prove her grandkid didn’t live with her, he’ll get the apartment and its $600 rent!”
When contacted by email, Teman did not respond to Motherboard’s questions about his sales pitches offering to help landlords evict tenants. Instead, he claimed the tools his company sells are built to promote safety.
“We only track entrances and do not monitor the rest of the building,” he told Motherboard. “It’s a tool so a property manager can see if a unit has an unusual amount of traffic, such as a drug den or illegal hotel or labor dorm. We help make buildings safer and more convenient for all races.”
Legal drama has followed Teman since before the start of the enterprise. Ironically, the owners of the building that was the site of the alleged orgy sued him over issues stemming from his renting it on Airbnb. The suit was later thrown out, and Teman counter-sued.
In 2020, Teman was convicted of bank fraud for allegedly taking illegal withdrawals from clients, a conviction for which Teman’s supporters in comedy and rabbinical circles appealed for a pardon from then-president Donald Trump. Teman said he is appealing the case and that it isn't relevant to the business: "We will win the appeal," he told Motherboard.
Teman emailed Motherboard a lengthy defense, making allegations of wrongdoing in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.
“Our clients trust us enough to order repeatedly,” he wrote, “and many of our clients have been with us for half a decade and recommend us to others.”
Two Faces of the Omni Organization
Reliant Safety, which claims to watch over 20,000 apartment units nationwide, has a less colorful corporate pedigree. It is owned by the Omni Organization, a private developer founded in 2004 that “acquires, rehabilitates, builds and manages quality affordable housing throughout the United States,” according to its website. The company claims it has acquired and managed more than 17,000 affordable housing units. Many of the properties it lists are in New York City.
Omni’s website features spotless apartment complexes under blue skies and boasts about sponsorship of after-school programs, food giveaways, and homeless transition programs. Reliant’s website features videos that depict various violations detected by its surveillance cameras.
The website has a page of "Lease Violations" it says its system has detected, which include things such as "pet urination in hallway," "hallway fistfight," "improper mattress disposal," "tenant slips in hallway," as well as several alleged assaults, videos of fistfights in hallways, drug sales at doorways and break-ins through smashed windows. Almost all of them show Black or brown people and almost all are labeled as being from The Bronx—where, in 2016, Omni opened a 140-unit affordable housing building at 655 Morris Avenue that boasted about “state-of-the-art facial recognition building access” running on ubiquitous cameras in common areas.
Reliant presents these as “case studies” and lists outcomes that include arrest and eviction. Part of its package of services is “illegal sublet detection” using biometrics submitted by tenants to suss out anyone not authorized to be there.
Neither Reliant nor Omni responded to requests for comment from Motherboard.
While Reliant claims its products are rooting out illegal and dangerous activity, the use of surveillance and biometrics to further extend policing into minority communities are a major cause for concern to privacy advocates.
“I feel like we hear a lot of claims that these technologies are fine, as long as you aren't doing anything wrong,” said Cahn. “We just see that disproved over and over and over again. I think that ignores the discrimination and bias that goes into how a lot of these power dynamics really play out.”
Reliant’s operations are part of a wave of high-tech security systems in low-income housing in New York, says McElory—a departure from the usual use of “smart home” features to make new or newly renovated developments more attractive to wealthier tenants.
Two affordable New York City developments made headlines when tenants successfully organized to stop their respective owners’ plans to install facial recognition systems: Atlantic Towers in Brooklyn and Knickerbocker Village in the Lower East Side.
In 2021, New York City passed the Tenant Data Privacy Act, which requires landlords who use biometric access systems to provide data retention and privacy policies, though it doesn’t require tenant consent. The law will go into effect at the start of 2023.
In her research, McElroy has compared these systems to some of the most oppressive in U.S. history. In a report for the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, she wrote, “Illegal sublet detection systems such as this reinforce anti-Black and plantation histories of landlordism in the U.S., in which landlords maintained policing power to ‘catch’ slaves and tenants breaking what had become white supremacist property law.”
She says the effect of these systems can cause an erosion or trust and comfort in one’s own home. “I think what happens is that just a lot of paranoia gets generated,” McElroy told Motherboard, “and tenants are not sure what where the data is going or how it could be used against them, whether it's to evict them or report something to law enforcement.”