Urban Housing And The Ethics Of Technology

Urban Housing And The Ethics Of Technology

I recently wrote about the ProPublica and New York Times expose on housing discrimination whereby Facebook advertisers were excluding people from seeing housing ads based on their “ethnic affinity.” Now both landlords and lenders are pressuring the Department of Housing and Urban Development to make it easier for businesses to discriminate against potential tenants using the same automated tools for which Facebook was legally sanctioned. Where a case from earlier this year in Connecticut is testing the limits of racial discrimination in housing, we are only now beginning to understand how technology can have incredibly negative impacts for individuals of certain ethnicities and economic means.

One primary factor in housing law established through a Supreme Court case in 2015, is called the “disparate impact” standard, which states that if a policy disproportionately affects one community over another then this may be illegal. Still there are policies enacted around public housing that are patently discriminatory such as the recent scandal of Detroit’s facial recognition software being employed around the city’s housing estates. While such systems are being touted by landlords and housing commissions as means of security, privacy groups are rightfully worried about the way this technology is being used to invade privacy and potentially serve to feed criminal justice databases under the guise of “security.”

Still many cities are opting for high security options oblivious to the way the biodata is being used and abused internationally. Certainly facial biometrics is one of the most contested areas of this era’s growth of the security market which seems to have no end in sight. Technology has been seamlessly implemented in domestic architecture such as smart homes. It has also served to keep the peace within a residence or neighborhood where full-on guitar playing for hours a day might create a hostile environment such that companies like Guitar Sumo have recommended ways that ease the acoustic burden for neighbors. Still technology directly affecting how public housing is allotted is clearly under threat of manipulation by forces that wish to discriminate against certain potential inhabitants and such a daunting reality presents us with a huge social dilemma which pits profitability against indigence. 

Indeed, if Facebook has had to donate $1 billion to the housing crisis in San Francisco, one of the wealthiest cities on the planet, we need to think twice about the larger implications of technology in social housing. After all, while Facebook might appear to be acting “generously” in the face of a longstanding housing crisis, we are sidestepping the issue entirely if we pretend that big tech did not largely create this crisis in the Bay area and if we allow its remedies to reside in the hands of the private sector.

One similar housing crisis in scale occurred in London after the Second World War where vast tracts of the cities were deemed unlivable having been bombed during the war. The partnership of Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, formed when Geoffry Powell won the competition to build the Golden Lane Estate in 1952. In this part of central London, the emphasis was placed on providing housing for professionals, especially single people and couples. At the time, this estate was viewed as an important model of social integration where the first tenants were overwhelmingly caretakers, doctors, nurses, clergymen, clerks, office cleaners, police officers and secretaries. Influenced by Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation (also known as Cité Radieuse) in Marseilles, this housing proven has proven to be an icon of social housing today whose effects have been felt in the private sector, especially where technology and social housing values have been positively used to help people in need of housing.

Christine Menedis, Esq., co-Founder and CEO of Lucky Shepherd, works on software architecture and development providing services for the real estate sector. Menedis tells me, “Our Lucky Shepherd is a family of companies which stems from two simple, yet powerful, notions: That technology and real estate, when thoughtfully combined, can foster joy and greater human interactions. In addition, a deeper understanding of generational archetypes and those who occupy certain cultural roles enhances life experiences.” Such fusions of tech and housing have been felt internationally with the Indian government similarly marrying new tech and housing in order to house 22 million people by 2022.

Where technology has proven to be exploitable to the ends of greedy landlords seeking profit over humanity, we are seeing how new tech in housing is being rethought to be inclusive while local housing groups and social rights advocates are also implementing measures to provide a more participative playing field where the needs of housing are met more efficiently and fairly.  

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