In August the Chicago chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (CDSA) launched the interactive database Find My Landlord. The website features a map of rental properties across the city. The owners, along with their properties, can be found via the search function. All data is available for download.
The dark map is covered in an array of red and peach and purple and black dots. The larger the dot, the larger the building. In the bottom right corner of the page sits a key, which indicates how many properties a landlord owns, organized by color.
While the website’s technical functions seem straightforward, the process behind it was far from simple. The databases’ creators, while seasoned in web development, undertook a long and arduous process to make publicly available data actually accessible and digestible.
“That information is technically publicly available,” said Ivy Abid, a member of CDSA and a high school computer science teacher. “But it’s not collected and quantified in a way that we can analyze it. You can do an individual lookup of an address, but you can’t see a trend.” Abid was responsible for verifying the data now featured on the site. “So it was really important to create a source for that. And people have tried to do it before, but it’s really hard because developers and landlords take all these steps to obscure ownership and obscure their identity.”
In March, as the coronavirus pandemic thrust millions of Americans into economic uncertainty, CDSA began to focus more efforts around tenant organizing and joined the citywide coalition Chicago Tenants Movement. While all the data behind Find My Landlord is public, the most concise database made with the information so far is a private one used by real estate agents, realinfo.net. CDSA bought a subscription to the website and used it to provide data for tenants. Abid wanted to take on the painstaking task of making it a public tool. There’s a reason this has never been done before.
Only two people, Abid and Theo Noomah, compiled the data. First Abid and Noomah had to retrieve data from the Cook County Assessor’s website, match the properties with the landlords, and then verify and fact-check all the information by cross-referencing it through a lookup tool on the Illinois Secretary of State’s website, the Department of Buildings, and the Cook County recorder of deeds. If that sounds confusing and tedious, it’s because it is. Matching landlords with the properties required a team of volunteer researchers to fact-check the data.
“The matching is the tricky part because you’ll have an owner like Pangea where it’s in their best interest to create a separate limited liability corporation for every single building they own. So that if a particular tenant in a particular building sues, it doesn’t bring down their entire corporation,” said Abid. “That makes it really difficult to do matching. Or to figure out who an owner is.”
So instead of looking up the address of the property owned by the landlord—often hidden under different names—Abid and Noomah looked up the taxpayer address. All of the properties owned by a single landlord had the same taxpayer address, which was then linked to the landlord.
Lucien Liz-Lepiorz, a member of CDSA who is a designer and web developer, built the front and back ends of the website. On the bottom right of the page is a link to “Improve our Data.” Visitors to the website can then use that function to e-mail corrections to Abid and Liz-Lepiorz. Abid said multiple people have already contacted them and that they’re still figuring out how to streamline the process.
Abid and Liz-Lepiorz also made sure that tenants who visited were able to connect themselves to organizing resources. Above the search bar is a line that reads “Community stops eviction” with a link to sign up, sponsored by the Autonomous Tenants Union. They have also helped train 30 volunteers with the Chicago Tenants Movement which has a hotline open Wednesday through Sunday, 10 AM to 2 PM and 5 PM to 9 PM.
When tenants decide to organize against a landlord, they usually begin in their immediate surroundings, the building and the community. Sometimes, however, the building only represents a fraction of what the landlord actually owns. “What we’ve seen especially during the pandemic is a lot of people in different buildings with the same owner are coming together and forming landlord-wide tenant unions,” said Abid.
Even before the conception of Find My Landlord, a group of renters made use of the data. In April, as a result of the economic instability made worse by the pandemic, tenants of the property company A. Saccone & Sons came together in Logan Square to form the Saccone Renters Union. Through the Lift The Ban Coalition, CDSA was able to access and share the raw data set from realinfo.net with the Saccone Renters Union, which in turn improved Abid’s data set. Once the union members had access to the data, they used the same process of matching the landlord to property, all while navigating the various aliases of property owners.
Sean Duffy, one of the tenant organizers and a member of CDSA, joined the union soon after its formation. At that time, the renters identified properties owned by A. Saccone & Sons by the signs that hung outside of the building. They had no idea how many buildings were actually owned by the company.
Still, the issue of landlords shrouding themselves in anonymity persisted. Searching for the name A. Saccone & Sons on realinfo.net returned inconclusive results. “The names a building is owned under will vary because usually landlords including A. Saccone & Sons, they don’t own it as A. Saccone & Sons. They’ll own it as 2848 North California LLC,” said Duffy. While A. Saccone & Sons was not listed as the owner of any properties, the company utilizes the same tax address for all of its properties.
“We found 110, a little over that, properties where the tax address is A. Saccone & Sons’s address,” said Duffy. The union has members from 12 of those properties, and has now grown to over 50 members.
“If you’re a tenant and your landlord isn’t just, you know, some guy who lives in your building, isn’t just some family that owns like two or three properties, but is a real large landlord—whether or not you have a good relationship with them, whether or not they’ve always treated you nicely—you should be organizing fellow tenants,” said Duffy.
To Duffy, Abid, and Liz-Lepiorz, union is power. Find My Landlord provides tenants with the tools to build solidarity and take collective action. Abid said the data also enables renters to see patterns in where landlords are buying properties, and if they are actively gentrifying neighborhoods and displacing residents. Liz-Lepiorz said that the website is a lot like the Citizens Police Data Project. “You can look up police officers, see their misconduct complaints, and it’s a very tactical use,” said Liz-Lepiorz. “You want to find a cop and you want to find out what the record is? Same with this website. You want to find a building, see who owns it. But there’s a secondary effect where people who aren’t out to find something end up discovering, you know, what the reality of the city is.
“You end up seeing, ‘wow, all these buildings that are around me are owned by people that own hundreds more buildings.’ And so by seeing all this inequity in terms of ownership and land property, even though I may pay my rent and that’s how I interact with my landlord, by default, I’m affected by their predatory behavior towards other renters.” v