REBNY’s Technical Win in Proptech

The trade group has the potential to play a major incubator role in the space, VCs say

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The nearly 126-year-old Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) has a fairly short relationship with technology. It’s launching a consumer-facing residential listings service this year, about 20 years after the first ones, such as Craigslist, Redfin, StreetEasy and Trulia, rolled out on the web. Its tech committee dates from 2017. 

Its relationship with property technology — or, proptech and the booming industry behind it — is even shorter. But REBNY’s influence and reach mean that it could end up playing a kingmaker role in proptech, interpreting technological trends for its members and bridging the divide between those members and the proptech industry.

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“REBNY has the opportunity to shine a light on the opportunities for improvement,” said Casey Berman, co-founder and managing partner of venture capital firm Camber Creek. “As an organization, one of the hardest parts for real estate groups is to identify the most valuable opportunities to improve. It’s one thing to have a great idea, it’s another thing to build a great company, but you still need to get the buy-in from the real estate world. And that’s where REBNY can help the whole entire industry.” 

One way is through proptech ideas and services for the wider real estate industry, VCs say. 

“What REBNY could do is set up a permanent venue as a proptech incubator — we’re missing that in the city,” said Zach Aarons, co-founder and general partner of real estate venture capital firm MetaProp. “A tech hackathon once or twice a year sure is great, but I think the city is missing a place where people can gather and work on [research and development]  together.”

REBNY has since 2017 hosted what it calls PropTech Challenge, a kind of showcase for technical challenges the industry faces and the solutions that might be on offer. This year’s PropTech Challenge theme will be sustainability, given the rollout of New York’s Local Law 97, a set of rules aimed to curb carbon emissions from buildings; fines for violations start in 2024.

“That’s a real challenge,” Sandy Jacolow, PropTech Challenge’s co-founder and the chief information officer at DLP Capital, a private investment group, said of Local Law 97. “New construction can handle [the carbon emission cut] a little bit easier. One of the biggest challenges is retrofitting a lot of our old buildings, and we need innovation to really get there.”

It’s that role as an interpreter where VCs and proptech pros see the most potential for REBNY when it comes to proptech. 

“I think on the residential side, REBNY has always been pro-technology. Their listing feeds are always accessible, always happy to let the new entrants play within the rules,” said L.D. Salmanson, CEO of real estate data platform Cherre. “On the commercial side, the board’s care and work are a little more focused on the lobby, I think they can do a little bit more to support technology.”

REBNY is aware institutionally of its potential in the proptech space. John Gilbert chairs that REBNY tech committee and is the COO of major landlord Rudin Management. He said the trade group can educate proptech firms about the challenges that REBNY members want their products and services to address. That, in turn, can lead to innovation. 

“So it’s this merger of problems and solutions that we’re trying to bring together,” Gilbert said. “This is really what we’ve tried to focus on at the REBNY tech community: What are the problems the industry needs to solve? And who are the smart technologists out there that are bringing those solutions to the fore? That’s what we’re about.”

Most recently, in October 2021, REBNY announced a partnership with the real estate search portal Homesnap to create the first-ever, consumer-facing search website and mobile app for its in-house Residential Listing Service (RLS). Citysnap is expected to include the most complete inventory of residential real estate listings in New York City when launched in the second quarter of 2022.

“The RLS has been a very important feature, but you do want to get to the end user,” REBNY President James Whelan said. “So Citysnap will try to ensure that the listings get in front of the consumer so that both consumers and brokers have another option. We believe it’ll be another powerful option to seek opportunities to live and invest in New York City.” 

So how does REBNY plan to bring real estate and technology together? According to Gilbert, the first step is to educate the proptech community as to the current and relevant industry problems, then identify the proptech companies that are actually solving them, and then bring solutions to the table. “So it’s this merger of problems and solutions that we’re trying to bring together,” Gilbert said. 

There are many pressing topics in today’s proptech industry from operation and wellness to cybersecurity to IT staffing shortages. “Some of the certificate programs that are out there really aren’t teaching the tools that they need to learn,” PropTech Challenge’s Jacolow said. “The way REBNY wants to support proptech and support the industry is through educating our members. It’s about making that connection.”

Emily Fu can be reached at: efu@commercialobserver.com.

UPDATED: This article has been updated from an earlier draft not intended for publication.