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Planning Theory & Practice
ISSN: 1464-9357 (Print) 1470-000X (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rptp20
Planning, Land and Housing in the Digital Data
Revolution/The Politics of Digital Transformations
of Housing/Digital Innovations, PropTech and
Housing – the View from Melbourne/Digital
Housing and Renters: Disrupting the Australian
Rental Bond System and Tenant Advocacy/
Prospects for an Intelligent Planning System/
What are the Prospects for a Politically Intelligent
Libby Porter, Desiree Fields, Ani Landau-Ward, Dallas Rogers, Jathan
Sadowski, Sophia Maalsen, Rob Kitchin, Oliver Dawkins, Gareth Young & Lisa
To cite this article: Libby Porter, Desiree Fields, Ani Landau-Ward, Dallas Rogers, Jathan
Sadowski, Sophia Maalsen, Rob Kitchin, Oliver Dawkins, Gareth Young & Lisa K Bates (2019):
Planning, Land and Housing in the Digital Data Revolution/The Politics of Digital Transformations
of Housing/Digital Innovations, PropTech and Housing – the View from Melbourne/Digital Housing
and Renters: Disrupting the Australian Rental Bond System and Tenant Advocacy/Prospects for an
Intelligent Planning System/What are the Prospects for a Politically Intelligent Planning System?,
Planning Theory & Practice, DOI: 10.1080/14649357.2019.1651997
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/14649357.2019.1651997
Published online: 02 Sep 2019. Submit your article to this journal
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Wachsmuth, D., Chaney, D., Kerrigan, D., & Shililo, A. (2018). The high cost of short-term rentals in New York
City. School of Urban Planning, McGill University, Retrieved from https://davidwachsmuth.com/2018/02/
Digital Innovations, PropTech and Housing –the View from
Ani Landau-Ward and Libby Porter
Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia
The collection, digitisation and use of housing information in Australia has increased exponen-
tially in the past decade. This brings signiﬁcant implications for land and housing law and
governance. The move from ‘analogue’to digital, then to big data and Artiﬁcial Intelligence (Ai)
not only speeds up existing social, economic and political relations, but fuels new and diﬀerent
dynamics (Kitchin 2014, pp. 19–20) just as innovations such as the printing press or telephone
did in the past. As such, emerging digital and informational geographies and politics demand
renewed critical attention (Dalton, Taylor, & Thatcher, 2016).
As in many other cities, the proliferation of these technologies is occurring in a context of
housing crisis where land prices are escalating and producing signiﬁcant housing unaﬀordabil-
ity. The conﬂuence of these factors highlights the importance of examining the urban govern-
ance implications of the emergence of what is often termed ‘Prop-Tech’(Shaw 2018)–new
technological applications in real estate. Greater understanding of PropTech is vital to sharpen
the legal and policy response to the emergent urban governance aspects of digitisation. In this
essay, we present results from an initial scoping study into the proliferation of these technol-
ogies in Melbourne, Australia.
Three aspects are important for considering the governance implications of PropTech. First,
PropTech increases the sheer amount of recorded information about land, housing, and
property. Second, data digitisation has speciﬁceﬀects, such as the emergence of digital data
as assets with value in and of themselves, and as data amenable to algorithmic analysis. Third,
PropTech brings new actors, products, and services into housing and real-estate sectors. Most
land registers in Australia have, in the past two decades, been fully digitised and many are now
either partially or fully privatised (on Victoria’s recent sale see Willingham, 2018). A move to
e-conveyancing has digitised the entire legal process of sale and transfer of land. This is
supported by a Federal Government initiative to secure a national (and privatised) system of
property transfer termed ‘Property Exchange Australia’(PEXA) which is now also a listed com-
pany owned by, among others, two major banks (Duran, 2018; PEXA, 2019). Alongside these
increasingly privatised stores of property-related information are other spatial datasets, such as
those oﬀered by the Australian Urban Research Infrastructure Network (AURIN), who make
available an ever increasing range of ﬁne grained information about land, property, and housing
trends and behaviours, available to governments, private industry, researchers, students, and the
public (AURIN, 2019).
The Housing Context in Melbourne
Melbourne is experiencing signiﬁcant population increase and urban densiﬁcation, in relation to
its history as a dispersed, low-density city. It is also, according to one popular cost of living
index, in the top 100 of the most expensive cities to live in in the world (Numbeo, 2019). The
landscape of housing in Melbourne is dominated by private ownership and freehold title. Yet
this is now shifting from the predominant form of dwelling in privately owned detached homes
with aﬀordable mortgages, towards townhouse and apartment living and more private rental
(ABS, 2016). Strata titles have increased and some researchers and advocates have called for
understanding the large numbers of ‘mum and dad’investors as business owners, and in the
business of housing provision (Hulse, Martin, James, & Stone, 2018). Overall, increased rental
tenure, declining aﬀordability and an increase in housing precarity and homelessness are all part
of the new housing terrain (ABS, 2016; Hulse, Morris, & Pawson, 2018).
While rental is increasing as a tenure type in the housing landscape, rental housing is still
considered transitional or temporary –a step on the path toward home ownership. Signiﬁcant
demographic trends have been noted with people under 35 much less likely to own homes than
in previous decades, and low income residents living in areas with greatly increased transporta-
tion costs and poor access to areas of high employment, meaning that some residents who do
own homes are likely to be servicing unaﬀordable mortgages (Raynor, Dosen, & Otter, 2017).
Homelessness and housing insecurity has burgeoned, and across housing types an increasing
number of people live under housing stress (Raynor et al., 2017, pp. 11–15). Many advocates,
researchers and policy actors call for renewed attention to public housing, given that the state
has been in active retreat from public housing for decades. This trend is intensifying through
a current program in Melbourne of ‘public housing renewal’(Kelly & Porter, 2019). Public
housing is being transferred to social enterprises or not-for-proﬁt organisations and providers,
and there is consensus across policy and housing advocacy groups that public housing is in
woefully inadequate and declining supply, and utterly unable to meet the scale of housing crisis
(Tenants Union, 2015).
Housing for the most disadvantaged in Melbourne has to be sourced in the cracks and
margins –in cars, caravan parks, house-less camps, in overcrowded, or subdivided apartments,
or on couches (Moore, 2017). At the same time, the crisis housing sector has become so
disillusioned with the state of short-term emergency shelter options, they have recently told
the Victorian Government that they will refuse to send people experiencing homelessness to
shelters because the shelters are worse than being homeless (North and West Homeless
Emerging PropTech in Melbourne
In Melbourne, companies such as CoreLogic have tapped a lucrative business opportunity in
analysing records, valuations, sales and transfers on a database that boasts “4 billion property
decision points”. They market themselves as “the largest provider of property information,
analytics and property-related risk management services in Australia and New Zealand”
(CoreLogic, 2019). This shifting landscape is not only about large private corporations, as social
enterprises are also increasingly part of the mix. These often have the ostensibly more laudable
aims of matching social services and utilising digital platforms for the digital public good. The
most important of these in the housing domain is probably Ask Izzy, a not-for-proﬁt social
PLANNING THEORY & PRACTICE 9
enterprise powered by the giant Info-Exchange, and supported by: transnational tech giant
Google; real estate giant REA group; and media giant News Corp. Ask Izzy is marketed as an
open data platform that oﬀers a range of tools to connect those seeking social services,
including housing and healthcare, to providers of various kinds. These are not just government
and social service providers but range from homeless shelters to private hotels. When we
conducted our search for this paper, the search returned properties belonging to the Ibis
hotel group. They also claim to utilise Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data and Australian
Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) data to provide “insights into the supply and demand of
services across Australia such as housing, food, health and more”(Ask Izzy, 2019).
This newly data rich environment is further catalysing a range of new real estate related
products and services that utilise information in new ways for commercial purposes. These are
generally operated by what have lately come to be known as ‘platform’companies. In
Melbourne there is great diversity in the PropTech space, from hopeful startups, whose online
presence may look impressive, but are in fact small and risky, to large scale coordinated
operations with huge investors taking up serious market share and expanding into extensive
areas of real estate, property, and housing. The biggest players in Melbourne are the interna-
tional giants REA group and Domain.com who have both invested heavily in numerous new
PropTech products. Like other platform entities, they have various partnerships with other
products, such as the relationship between Flatemates.com.au and the REA group.
There are also a range of ways that such Apps and tech link or connect into other sectors,
especially ﬁnance and banking. Experimental startups, like Land LayBy Australia, facilitate the
sale of future land options in Kenya from Australia, and are developing a privately owned,
blockchain land registration system (in Kenya), that they plan to use to secure these options.
(Land LayBy, 2019). There are also a range of small, new fractionalised investment platforms
●BrickX who allow investors to buy any number of shares (bricks) in any number of proper-
ties that the platform manages;
●DomaCom which enables investors to pool money to buy property, or to invest in a range
of properties. This App utilises both ‘crowdfunding’and peer to peer (p2p) techniques, and
now targets elderly home owners to provide ‘equity release’through selling oﬀfractions of
●CoVesta which was designed as a platform tool to enable multiple buyers to invest in
a property that is rented out and sold after 5 years, but in its current iteration sells its
platform tool as a product for those looking to arrange investments for their own clients;
●Estate Baron which oﬀers fractionalised co-investment opportunities and (with other
inﬂuential real estate and developer interests) is building a blockchain (an enabled, dis-
tributed registry) where fractionalised shares in land and property interests, or other
securities, can be registered. Called KonKrete, it is expected to come online soon
Other PropTech applications are closely associated with ﬁntech and real estate sales. For
example, the price prediction software REALas, owned by the ANZ bank, claims to have
designed “the smartest property price prediction service in Australia”(REALas, 2019). There are
many other applications and platforms that provide other ﬁnancial services related to housing,
such as insurance, loans and applications.
PropTech is not just conﬁned to the various ways that property can be bought and sold. It is
increasingly used in the range of services, and products associated with both long-term and short-
term rental tenancies. At a recent conference on digital disruptions and housing policy, the chief
economist for the REA group Nerida Cosbee shared a list of at least 50 platforms and businesses that
she saw as disrupting the residential rental sector in the coming twelve months, calling them “rent-
tech”or “rent-focused”PropTech in a “universe of prop tech businesses”(Cosbee, 2018). The most
obvious of these are the big platforms that have disrupted hotels, such as Airbnb, or Booking.com,
but there are others that cross over more with other traditional rental and real estate sectors. Rent.
com.au, for example, is a private company listed and founded in 2016 with major shareholders –
a mix of private individuals and investment ﬁrms such as HSBC. It aspires to be “a one stop shop for
the rental industry”, and claims that growing numbers are choosing renting as a “lifestyle and
investment”choice (Rent.com.au, 2019). Rent.com.au products expand well beyond older matching
services and include: RentCheck; RentBond; RentConnect; RenterResume; RentPay; and RentQuote.
It also markets insurance products and is aﬃliated with commercial leasing platform Lease.com.au.
Another PropTech platform, Equiem, who have oﬃces in Melbourne, London and New York, focuses
on landlord experience, claiming that they “exist to help landlords unlock new value in their assets”
More facilitation focussed products have exploded in recent years. Services and products
related to rental tenures have become lucrative opportunities for identifying new markets,
especially in a context like Melbourne where rental share of the housing market is growing.
The PropTech platforms and applications moving into rental tenure are diverse. Bricks
+Agent, for example, is “a cloud based marketplace for homeowners and trade profes-
sionals to list, discover and connect with one another to complete property maintenance
jobs”(Bricks+Agent, 2019). It also coordinates house inspections. Rex Software, is a cloud
based real estate customer relationship management (CRM) system that provides software
to manage and analyse diverse aspects of the real estate business, focused on interactions
with various types of clients. It claims, for example, to be the “single point of truth for
every client”and it “stores a rich tapestry of relationships individuals have with other
properties or contacts, and a comprehensive stream of every interaction they’ve had with
any other user in your agency”(Rex Software, 2019). LeaseInfo, a leasing data provider,
released Accurait last year, a cloud-based software that uses artiﬁcial intelligence and
machine learning methods for “saving time in a document-intensive commercial lease
management environment”(Tan, 2018). Finally, Activepipe, whose main business is to
automate and curate messaging and communication between real estate agents and clients
(both landlord and tenant), works by analysing data by Ai algorithm. Melbourne-based but
active Australia wide, in the last 12 months it has secured three Australian business awards
and successfully completed a $5.9 million funding drive.
Impacts and Trends
There is often an assumption that the digitisation of land and housing information, and the
emergence of PropTech, are inherently neutral, or even inherently good. The belief that more
data, more information, and more eﬃcient use of it, will intrinsically beneﬁt society, especially
PLANNING THEORY & PRACTICE 11
through enhancing technical knowledge and making older processes quicker, smoother, and
easier seems an unshakeable faith. In our analysis of the technological disruptions in Melbourne,
this is often focused on the range of potential eﬃciencies digital disruptions might create –for
example enabling better matching between consumers and housing, or speeding up and
reducing the cost of transactions (eg: Pettit, Crommelin, Sharam, & Hulse, 2018; Sharam,
Byford, Karabay, McNelis, & Burke, 2018).
Consequently, much of the debate about the ethicalaspectsofdigitisationisfocusedonquestions
of privacy, transparency, openness and ownership of what is ultimately considered neutral and
individual data. This maintains a conception of the data as somehow apolitical, and does not engage
with the ways such data is being shaped in the interests of those who control it, or the ways that certain
demographics may be positioned diﬀerently to others in regard to how they are represented or “seen”
in the data (Crawford, Gray, & Miltner, 2014). We argue that these digital disruptions cannot be viewed
as simply neutral technologies that replace existinganalogueprocesses,butareinsteadfundamentally
social and political processes entwined with existing and emerging power relations (Kitchin 2014,
p. 19–20; Dalton et al., 2016;Shaw&Graham,2017;Taylor&Richter,2015). As Crawford and colleagues
note, “data sets are not, and can never be, neutral and theory-free repositories of information waiting to
give up their secrets”(2014,p.8).Payingattentiontoquestionssuchaswho beneﬁts? and who loses? –
as the technologies are taken up across city neighbourhoods –as well as to which experiences and
perspectives on housing are diminished, erased or made invisible? is urgent and important.
As we have shown in relation to Melbourne, various PropTech products are enabling the
movement of private rental tenancy management to online Apps where applications, bonds,
and matching services occur online often achieved through Ai augmented decision-making. At
the same time, a growing number of platforms foster linkages between social and public
housing, homelessness services, and private real estate companies, creating stores of informa-
tion that potentially complicate traditional divides between public and private. While many may
seem like exciting opportunities to enable greater access to housing services, we must also
remember how information about housing, and housing users, is being leveraged and capita-
lised in new ways. As the CEO of real estate software giant Altus Group stated:
This is a data game . . . The world of real estate is driven by demographics and generational changes,
the risk in assets, type of investors, and lower yields . . . it has become a technology game (Tan, 2017).
PropTech and the big data about individual houses and households is not only an asset in and
of itself, it helps create new kinds of ﬁnancial assets. The actors with interests in these
technologies often collate and store large amounts of information about housing, and resident
needs including use, tenancies types and histories, tenancy applications and rejections, transac-
tions and preferences. As such they produce new and diﬀerent types of data. And, as in many
other kinds of sharing applications, users occupy a position not only as consumers, but also
producers of data assets and other kinds of value (Fuchs, 2017). We are only just beginning to
understand these uses and their impacts on housing. Some recent research has shown how
PropTech has enabled the extraction of new kinds of income ﬂows and ﬁnancial value for large
scale investors in rental housing in the USA who purchased geographically dispersed property
portfolios after the ‘global ﬁnancial crisis’(Fields, 2019). As such, the capacity for PropTech to
link housing into volatile and remote ﬁnancial markets is in need of inquiry, especially in the
context of the global ﬁnancialisation of housing (Aalbers, 2016).
The capacity of PropTech to match property owners with much bigger and more speciﬁc
markets has also catalysed other signiﬁcant transformations. One of these has been a diﬀusion
among real estate actors of short-term tenancies, where previously regulatory compliance, admin-
istrative, and matching costs forced a more consolidated, and centralised set of actors. The most
well-known PropTech platform in this space is Airbnb who are well known for ‘disrupting’the
hotel business, as well as for battling local regulators both through their hosts, and in court, and
stubbornly resisting responsibility for ensuring hosts comply with local laws (Martineau, 2019).
Airbnb has been widely studied in the Australian context (see: Gurran, 2018). But many other
platforms engage in similar, or more housing focussed aspects of short term tenure. Flatmates.
com for example calls itself “Australia’s biggest share accommodation website”and crosses the
line between traditional real-estate services and sharing economy innovations. It allows people to
list their spare rooms, ﬁnd accommodation themselves, or team up with other people to rent
a place or start a share house. The Melbourne based company has steadily grown from humble
beginnings to the point of claiming in 2016 to have 60% of market share, and 2.8 million visits in
a month, also the year it joined Australia’s biggest provider of online real estate services, REA
group. While ﬂagging compliance with local laws and regulations on its website, Flatmates.com,
like Airbnb (where it can), ultimately leaves this to the responsibility of users (Flatmates.com 2019).
While having obvious advantages for some and potentially making short term tenancies more
accessible, this proliferation of new arrangements may nonetheless increase the scale of precarious
and insecure housing stock as at least some owners wait for lucrative short term tenancies rather
than rent to longer term tenants (see Gurran, 2018; Gurran & Phibbs, 2017). It may also potentially
foster the capacity to discriminate and sort potential tenants which, as these forms of housing access
become more ubiquitous, becomes more pressing to address. Facebook for example is currently
being sued by the US government’s Housing and Urban Development agency (HUD) for allowing
advertising for housemates and tenants to restrict the reach of their housing advertisements based
on race, religion or national origin (see Fields this issue).
Beyond these forms of overt discrimination, Virginia Eubanks has shown how inequality can be
automated. Her analysis in the US reveals that the automation of housing decisions, including the
operation of homeless and social service programs, “proﬁle, police, and punish the poor”(Eubanks,
2018). Henman (2018) has found similar issues with algorithms behind government services in
Australia, stating that certain populations may be increasingly “segmented, fragmented, or con-
trolled”(p. 71). More generally algorithms and search engines, such as those increasingly built into
PropTech and other aspects of the digitisation of housinginformation, have been shown repeatedly
to have the capacity to learn and reproduce racism, and other forms of discrimination (Noble 2018).
Discrimination and bias in the housing sector, particularly in rental markets, has of course
always been a signiﬁcant problem. Rather than accuse new technologies of starting it, we must
ask how they might reproduce and reorganise it. Moreover, just as data is not inherently neutral
neither is it inherently regressive. Many aspects of housing data are of genuine use to housing
advocates and able to serve as a social good, as demonstrated by movements such as the Anti-
Eviction Mapping Project (2019) who even use tech to map the displacement of residents by
Airbnb; or the Indigenous Data Sovereignty (IDS) movement in Australia that critically inter-
rogates questions of consent and collective capacity to choose the way data is used and
disseminated (Kukutai & Taylor, 2016). However, neutral or positive eﬀects are not a foregone
conclusion, which suggests that it is advocacy across the sector, rather than merely the regula-
tion of particular technologies or privacy requirements, where signiﬁcant eﬀort is needed.
The rapid pace of these changes, and the sheer scope of digital innovations and transformations,
mean that housing professionals and experts alike areoften at risk of being ‘left behind’, especially in
PLANNING THEORY & PRACTICE 13
regard to bigger questions concerning the ethical and social dimensions of such transformations.
A number of issues are immediately clear. First, is that there needs to be a shift towards diﬀerentiat-
ing housing from real estate. Digital disruptions in housing demonstrate clear trends toward the
intensiﬁcation of commodiﬁcation of housing, precisely at a time when the limits of that commo-
diﬁcation have been laid bare. Second, a policy and legal framework is necessary that conceptualises
housing and its associated data, not as product but as home. Some small inroads have certainly
been made toward this in Victoria, on the back of signiﬁcant civil society action, such as recent
changes to the Residential Tenancies Act (Vic) but there is much more work to do. Connections need
to be made between the lived experiences of housing that are witnessed by these groups, and the
structures of access and tenure being fostered in these platforms. Third, the governance solutions,
and interventions necessary in this shifting digital landscape, must transcend questions of individual
privacy, speciﬁc domains or uses. This will involve creating new accountabilities and responsibilities
for providers of the diverse range of commercial products and services around housing. All are
questions in need of further research and practice engagement.
We acknowledge the Woiwurrung and Boonwurrung speaking peoples of the Kulin Nation on whose
unceded lands this essay was written. This essay is part of a larger study of digital disruption in the
housing sector in Melbourne. The authors would like to acknowledge project collaborators Rebecca
Leshinsky and Paul Battersby.
The research was funded by RMIT University’s Urban Futures program.
Notes on contributor
Ani Landau-Ward is a PhD scholar in the Centre for Urban Research at RMIT University. Her current
research is focussed on histories and techno-politics of land administration in global development.
She teaches in the Bachelor of Arts: International Studies, RMIT, and has published in the ﬁelds of
public administration, urban geography, and global studies. Email: Ani.email@example.com
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Digital Housing and Renters: Disrupting the Australian Rental
Bond System and Tenant Advocacy
Dallas Rogers , Jathan Sadowski and Sophia Maalsen
University of Sydney, Australia
Increasingly more of the things we do with, and in, houses are being mediated and changed by
digital technology. A burgeoning body of work has started to explore these technological
transformations and the issues arising in various parts of the housing sector. The issues explored
in this work present many challenges for tenant advocates in Australia. With these concerns in
mind, in late 2018 we gathered together the key tenant advocate organisations from every state
and territory in Australia for a one-day workshop on digital housing.
The aim of the workshop was two-fold; First, in the short-term the aim was to broaden and
sharpen the focus of our own research by reality checking our academic analysis –some of
which we present below –with frontline housing practitioners and tenant advocates. A second
longer-term aim is to work with tenant advocates to develop responses to three of the more
pressing ways that technology is changing landlord/tenant relations. These are: the way renters
live in homes; the way properties are rented and managed; and the way real estate is traded and
exchanged. We brieﬂy outline each below.
We conclude this essay with one illustrative case of how tech companies are seeking to insert
themselves into the rental housing system by asking the question: how is the rental bond system
likely to be augmented by tech companies and digital platforms, and what will be the ﬂow-on eﬀect
for formal tenant advocacy in Australia? This was an issue that emerged as a major topic of
discussion in the workshop, yet has been little discussed in the academic literature. This case is
important for housing advocacy because it shows that the technology is not the issue per se, but