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Online portals and AI background checks: How tech affects South Carolina renters

Computer technology is playing a bigger role than some might think in where (and how) you rent a place to live.
Scott Morgan
South Carolina Public Radio
Computer technology is playing a bigger role than some might think in where (and how) you rent a place to live.

In the Analog Age, getting an apartment was all about paper. You’d find an available apartment in a newspaper ad, you’d fill out a paper application to rent the place, and you’d put a paper check in a paper envelope and either mail it to a landlord with a desk that was covered in paper or drop it through a slot so that it may come to rest among other paper envelopes full of paper checks.

Today, it’s all a bunch of ones and zeroes and algorithms. Technology in the real estate space has changed how we find, get, pay for, and even get qualified for a place to live. AI programs run background checks and credit checks; online portals collect digital payments and take renter complaints.

On the positive side, all of this has cut down the risks of checks getting stolen from drop boxes or lost in the mail; expanded the pool of available rental units to someone looking for a place to live; and made it easier for property managers to collect information from and about tenants and potential tenants.

On the downside, renters are getting lost in the ether and tied up in frustrating fights over what a computer program is saying about them.

Take the story of James Wallace, a Columbia resident who paid his rent with a paper check for years. Right around 2017 (he’s not exactly sure of the date), Wallace’s apartment building on Main Street got a new property management company, and the new managers introduced an online portal for tenants to pay rent, request maintenance, and keep up with news from around the building.

Wallace didn’t really want an online portal, but he accepted that this was the new-normal-to-be and went to the site to set up his account. The trouble?

“It was saying that it was an unsecure website,” Wallace says. “So I wasn't about to link my bank account to that.”

So he kept paying with a check at the main office. Critically, he says, he wrote “paid in full” on those checks and the property managers kept cashing them – which Sue Berkowitz, director of SC Appleseed Legal Justice Center, says means the property managers accepted full payment for the month, ever month, for more than a year.

But a year-and-a-half later, Wallace found a note on his door and a message in his email inbox saying that he owed $1,800 in “ambiguous” (according to Vaughn) fees. The property managers told him that had he gone through the online portal, he would have seen that he owed the extra fees. So the company’s position was that Wallace should have gone through the portal; Wallace’s position is that the company had accepted his checks as payment in full or 18 months, and that it could have easily told him in an email that he owed money long before 18 months had passed.

His case ended up in the hands of debt collectors.

For Wallace, the entire affair is a frustrating example of what happens when landlords rely on technology to make their jobs easier. But it’s hardly the only way technology is frustrating tenants.

Mark Fessler, an attorney at SC Legal Services in Greenville says that because many of his housing clients are older and poor, they often don’t have access to the internet, nor an understanding of how to properly use it. And as corporate landlords in particular eliminate the ability to opt out of digital living, it’s causing more and more problems for residents who don’t know how to navigate online portals.

Berkowitz also says that tenants are increasingly cut off from an important resource traditionally used to discuss solutions to landlord issues: each other.

“There's something really missing when people are not able to actually be in the same room together,” she says, adding that it’s important for tenants “to be able to talk with each other … so that they can collectively work together to fix problems that they're facing.”

She says all-digital management “removes individuals from the actual managers and or owners of the property itself,” and that means everything from getting simple answers to questions to getting something fixed gets lost in cyberspace.

And, as with so many things that negatively affect a large group of people, technology’s downsides in the rental market affect people of color disproportionately.

“Especially Latinos have a lot of overlap in last names compared to other groups,” says Sophie Sahaf, a policy analyst at the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau in Washington, D.C.. “So they have a disproportionate impact.”

That disproportionate impact comes when property managers run AI-driven background checks and end up confusing two people with the same or similar names. Imagine, for example, that you have my name.

”Scott Morgan is a pretty common name,” Sahaf says (quite correctly, I assure you). “So it could be easy for another Scott Morgan or a Scotty Morgan or Scotty Morganson’s information to come into your report, whether that's an eviction or a criminal record.”

Ian Spangler, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Kentucky who has been tracking tech’s effects on the real estate market for more than two years, says one of the unintended consequences of technology on renters of color is that it doesn’t fix age-old systemic problems, it strengthens them.

“These technologies tend to reinforce existing inequities and imbalances in the housing market, rather than resolve them neutrally,” Spangler says. “And how much do you sort of think about that and reflect on it in the process of software development?”

These unintended consequences are affecting other groups too.

“Active service duty folks are known to have more identity theft problems,” Sahaf says. “That kind of issue can hurt their access to housing as well, because credit histories are a common, common component of background checks.”

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.