What is LandlordWatch?

LandlordWatch is a website that combines citizen-journalism, housing activism and problem solving with social technologies. LandlordWatch uses open government data provided by the City of Toronto respecting building inspections in order to create transparency in the rental housing market.

Why does LandlordWatch launch on Wednesday the 18th?

On May 19th, there will be a vote in City Hall on the issue of Landlord Licensing. LandlordWatch advocates a transparent, accessible rating system in the spirit of DineSafe, the restaurant inspection and grading system. Details of the council motion can be found below:

We are asking that people respect the press embargo and that nothing be made public until Wednesday, May 18th at 7:30AM. We built LandlordWatch to get people talking about this important issue right before council votes.

Here are two statements from Marva Burnett, President of ACORN Canada and Chair of Scarborough ACORN, on LS11.4:

“For 12 years ACORN has fought for a Landlord Licensing, program for apartment buildings which would be similar to the Dine Safe program used for the city’s restaurants. Landlord Licensing would help ensure that tenants in this city are protected. We are excited to be working with Yale Fox of Rentlogic on LandlordWatch. ACORN members are primarily low and moderate income tenants and we welcome any new tools that demonstrate and help address the problems we are experiencing. LandlordWatch will clearly show that our landlords are not doing their part and that the city's basic maintenance standards are not being met. There is a clear need for a licensing regime for landlords. Ultimately, the City of Toronto needs a proactive inspection system with real tenant engagement in order to ensure that tenants have healthy homes. LandlordWatch would provide critical information for ACORN members and tenants.”

“LandlordWatch is an important tool for tenants. It also clearly demonstrates the current system of inspections is too reliant on tenant complaints or proactive city councilors. It clearly shows a need for a rigorous pro-active inspection program through landlord licensing, with a focus on tenant engagement and outreach to let them know the City will go after bad landlords.

Having met and spoken with many tenants across Toronto, ACORN knows there are many problem buildings in Toronto that are not represented on the list due to a variety of reasons. In order to provide a clear picture of building conditions in all wards and provide safe healthy housing for tenants, city council needs to license landlords.”

What is landlord licensing?

ACORN has been fighting for better apartment standards since 2004. Landlord Licensing is a regulatory regime common in many North American cities. It allows municipalities to charge licensing fees to landlords to cover administration and inspection costs and ensure basic maintenance standards are being met. The City of Toronto is looking at a $12 - $15 fee per unit for landlords of buildings with 3 or more floors and 10 or more units and would recover costs for annual inspections of common areas.

Who is behind LandlordWatch?

Yale Fox, a TED Fellow and CEO of Rentlogic Corporation, with the help of ACORN Canada, a low and moderate family-income social justice advocacy group. Yale focuses on bringing the problem-solving power of data science to bear on housing related and civic issues. Yale’s full bio can be found here.

ACORN Canada is made up of more than 80,000 low- and moderate-income member families, democratically organized in 21 local chapters across the country. ACORN is Canada's largest grassroots community organization for low- and moderate-income families and has spearheaded many important social justice campaigns around payday lending, tenant issues, disability rights and fair banking.

A note about Rentlogic.

Rentlogic is a Canadian corporation whose mission is to level the playing field between renters and landlords. Rentlogic was launched in New York City and is expanding to Toronto this summer. Rentlogic works with the New York City Government and open data to access, analyze, and communicate relevant building and landlord information so that prospective tenants can make well-informed rental decisions.

New York City’s complex housing market has many issues related to accessibility and tenant rights that have evolved and become more pronounced over time. As Toronto continues to grow and housing costs rise we believe implementing solutions that improve transparency and accountability in the housing market will forestall many of the issues that currently plague New York City’s marketplace.

You can find out more about our company and mission here:

How did we get the data?

All data was downloaded from the City of Toronto’s open data catalogues. All inspections were conducted by third party city inspectors. There is no “yelp” or user generated review information being used to calculate these ratings.

These are step-by-step instructions that can be used to re-create the process. This information will be posted on our website:

  • 1.Download the dataset on Municipal Licensing & Standards: Investigation Activity from toronto.ca/open
    or http://www1.toronto.ca/wps/portal/contentonly?vgnextoid=2d22439c7395f210VgnVCM1000003dd60f89RCRD
  • 2.Unzip the "Addresses" file
  • 3.Try different sorts of the data and clean up any obvious typos that emerge from sorting.
  • 4.Group the addresses by street number, street name using a pivot table or a database application
  • 5.Sort from highest to lowest number of inspections per address
  • 6.Clean up addresses that are the same but are on different lines, since they have obvious typos again, that are revealed by grouping
  • 7.Find Owners for Top 100 or 1000 Buildings
    1. The only process we had was to physically go to the computers providing access to the Assessment Rolls at City Hall, and look up addresses one by one. The data entry in both systems is not an exact match so you will have to try different keywords from the street name to find matches.
    2. The computers do not have a keyboard. You have to use the mouse and the on-screen keyboard. They also run on some very old operating system. Here are some screenshots.


Additional notes

  1. In step 4, you will find a number of "IBMS Ward XYZ" which we were told is the way someone enters an inspection report into the Business Information System when the address is not available. We removed these entries in the final tally though this does add a level of uncertainty into the analysis.
  2. This is the simplest process. We had tried a couple of other analyses e.g open inspections only, inspections after a particular date only, etc. and you can try them using a database application that joins the different tables using the inspection number as a primary key. Remember the uncertainty caused by IBMS entries makes any detailed fine-grained analysis questionable. With the proposed licensing system for the City of Toronto we are recommending ways to improve the data collection and storage/release process for future open data efforts. The system can be implemented in such a way as to make future analysis much easier.
  3. As a sample check on individual line items, the city provides a database search of complete records (one at a time) at:

Will the data be publicly available?

Yes. We have cleaned the data and made it freely available online so that others can view it and independently verify it. Click here to download a copy.

Additional Information

The web application shows the worst buildings from 2014 and 2015 and the landlords associated with them. We have included a list of 2016 buildings and landlords that are on track to being the worst, but without having a full year’s worth of data on hand it’s hard to say “These are the worst landlords of 2016”. You’ll see there are repeat offenders but in order to keep things fair we will publish the 2016 list in January of 2017 (and then every year after that).

What's next?

We have included a button on the site that says “Bring LandlordWatch to your City”. We are open-sourcing everything and looking to connect with other CivicTech / OpenData / SmartCities people in different cities across North America. We’re also going to be working with ACORN to roll out LandlordWatch in other geographic regions.

Our dream would be for the public to work together in building this program and I think it would really encompass the meaning and spirit behind what we are trying to achieve. This should be publicly built, publicly contributed to, and publicly maintained. We're looking to speak with people who have code experience, knowledge of city data in their markets, UI/UX designers, graphic designers, etc that want to participate in bringing LandlordWatch to their city contact us.