On a recent afternoon, I toured two available apartments on opposite ends of New York City, one in Prospect–Lefferts Gardens and one in Hell’s Kitchen, in the span of three hours. I checked the strength of the water pressure, the number and location of outlets, and how the light filtered in on a cloudy day. Except I wasn’t actually checking anything; I was sitting on my couch, miles away in Fort Greene, watching a guy named Tim do the apartment tour on Zoom via a start-up called Gander.
The premise of Gander, which launched last year, is simple. A client — who could be in Omaha or Singapore or Boston or stuck at work in midtown — schedules an apartment tour via a regular listing site or agent. Then they forward the information to Gander, which, for $49, dispatches one of its “locals” to attend on the customer’s behalf. At the time of the tour, all you have to do is click a link. (Grace Kim, Gander’s CEO, describes her company as “the Uber of apartment touring.”) It is only one of a slate of new businesses cropping up to meet the wildest demands of our broken housing market.
The need Gander is filling has only gotten greater in the past year: These days, a prospective tenant’s ability to go on a tour (and even make a decision) not just within a few days of a listing going live but in a matter of hours can make or break their chances of getting an apartment. Horror-inducing TikToks of winding lines outside open houses abound. For a rush of out-of-town students, post-grads, tech workers, and other young professionals moving to New York in a late-pandemic boom, scammers are everywhere, shilling crappy units for prices far beyond their value or attempting to get payments and deposits before a renter can even establish whether or not a unit is real. Some brokers don’t even show up to viewing appointments. Gander promises the opportunity to work around such limitations.
It can’t, however, save renters from the financial tactics being deployed by landlords and brokers, which can vary from the exploitative to the illegal: During the Hell’s Kitchen apartment tour that was conducted by Kim, the Gander owner, the broker said he would solicit a $500 “good-faith deposit” from me in order to take the unit off the market in addition to a $20 application fee. “Really?” Kim asked him. “That much?” In the past, she said, some of her clients had been scared away by the idea of putting down such a large amount so quickly. “I’ve been doing this for 15 years,” the broker responded, saying that it was a very “normal” request. I doubted that the typical Gander renter would know that soliciting a $500 deposit is actually a dubious practice that is in potential violation of Fair Housing laws, and Gander tour guides are not tenants’-rights experts.
Then there are the companies that are emerging to finance the astronomical costs associated with securing an apartment once you get approved for one. Rhino promises “rent made modern”: “We’re solving renters’ biggest financial problems, starting with the dreaded cash security deposit,” its website reads. A $2,000-a-month apartment would typically require a security deposit of one month’s rent; Rhino, should your landlord accept this, will let you pay with a few hundred dollars up front, then $11 a month. Rhino will also act as a guarantor for renters who don’t meet lease requirements or have someone making hundreds of thousands of dollars in their life willing to co-sign. But Rhino technically indemnifies the landlord, not renters — not only is the sum a renter pays up front and per month nonrefundable, but if your landlord files a claim against you, Rhino will pay them out, then hold you responsible for the cost, and disputes can be hard to settle. And because Rhino is technically selling a bond rather than a security deposit, the amount is not subject to laws that specifically limit how much a landlord can require — instead of one month’s rent (the limit in New York), a renter could end up on the hook for a much larger amount. The security-deposit-and-guarantor space has become a sort of cottage industry over the past few years, with other companies, like Obligo, Jetty, and LeaseLock, raising millions in venture-capital funding.
These businesses themselves aren’t really the problem, but they do offer the illusion that the cutthroat, absurd rental market can be tamed at all. Another tier of exclusivity has been created for people who can afford extra services, a tiny consolation for having to offer cuck money and grovel for an apartment in the first place. And as things get worse, they will continue to proliferate. It is not hard to imagine a start-up that helps renters finance New York’s specific brand of broker fees, or one that helps automate rental applications so users can apply even faster, or a company that sends “locals” who are actually empowered to bid above asking right away at an apartment tour. Meanwhile, a start-up called Fernish recently sent me a PR email titled “The ‘Forever Home’ Dream Is Dead.” It offered temporary designer furniture paid for in installments, in response — in the company’s own marketing language — to “the insane housing and rental market, rising inflation prices, remote work being here to stay, and massive supply chain issues.” The implication seems to be that, yes, my landlord might dramatically raise my rent soon, and, yes, I might be forced to move out. But that shouldn’t stop me from temporarily owning the perfect mid-century armchair.